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For Mario, It's 'Arrivederci' Today to Indy Car Racing : Andretti: The 54-year-old driver will compete in the 407th and final event of his career.

October 09, 1994|MIKE HARRIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MONTEREY, Calif. — Mario Andretti never asked for any special favors. The competitive dynamo who won races in each of four decades always gave no quarter and asked none, even when racing against his own sons.

"Sure, I knew they were out there," Andretti said. "But, when we were on the track, they were just another car I had to beat. And it was a thrill if I beat them."

Of course, if the 54-year-old Andretti could ask some of the younger drivers, including sons Michael and Jeff, for a favor now, he knows what it would be.

"I'd ask them to trade me 10 years," said the diminutive racer with the lined, handsome face.

Andretti will complete his season-long "Arrivederci, Mario" Tour today in the Bank of America 300 at Laguna Seca Raceway, where he will race in his 407th and last Indy-car event.

Andretti, who moved to the United States from Italy as a 15-year-old, made his way into the sport on the dirt tracks of the Northeast and Midwest with an obvious flair for speed and excitement. He quickly graduated to the big leagues.

He was a winner in his first love, Formula One, earning 12 victories and the 1978 World Championship while splitting his time between Europe and America.

On the Indy-car circuit, the masterful driver won four championships and 52 races--second only to A.J. Foyt's 67. Those wins include the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps the most versatile driver of all time, Andretti also won the 1967 Daytona 500 and a number of sport car endurance events and has been named Driver of the Year in three different decades.

"Starting about 10 years ago, the question began popping up: 'When are you retiring?"' Andretti said. "Many of my contemporaries were retiring and it was a natural question.

"But I wasn't ready. When I reached 50, I kept thinking, 'I don't feel any different.' But I've got to be realistic. Before 50, I thought in five-year increments. After that, it became year-to-year, and time gets us all, eventually."

Andretti won at Phoenix early in 1993, ending a five-year winless streak, but he wasn't fooled.

"I think I could probably be effective for another year or so, but I don't want to get to the point where I'm not quick enough to justify being involved," he said. "So, I knew it was time."

Most of his family will be on hand for his last Indy-car race, including eldest son Michael, who will be racing against him this one last time.

"It's not going to be the same without him out there," said Michael, who won a championship as his father's teammate in 1991. "But he has made his peace with the situation. I'm happy for him."

The elder Andretti is scheduled to lead his competitors around the winding 2.215-mile road course on the parade lap and, after the checkered flag falls on his final Indy-car run, he is scheduled to ride around the track in a pace car painted "Mario Andretti red" for a final salute to his fans.

There have been three top-five finishes, including a third-place in the season-opener, this year. But there also have been too many times he did not finish to suit the still-motivated Andretti.

"Satisfaction comes from being a factor, being competitive," he said. "That's what I want: satisfaction.

"I just hope we can have a good day," Andretti said of Sunday's race. "For sure, it would be great to make the podium (with a top-three finish). Believe me, I would love to be running at the finish. I want to be on the track for the checkered flag."

Actually, this may not be his last ride.

"I've said this will be my last time in an Indy-car, but I still feel like I have some unfinished business elsewhere," he said with a grin. "I've never won LeMans, and I'd really like to have that in my resume before I'm through. I've been talking with some people about a factory ride next year, maybe for a couple of sports car endurance races."

Beyond that, his future is somewhat uncertain, although Andretti admits owning an Indy-car team could be somewhere on the horizon.

"But that takes time to do, and I haven't wanted any distractions this year. It's been very important for me this year to stay focused on the job at hand, which is driving the car. We'll probably take next year to organize whatever it is we'll be doing after that."

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