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Andretti Has Some Unfinished Business in Return to Indy 500

March 30, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Michael Andretti has led more laps in the Indianapolis 500 than any driver who has never won the race. He has been in front for 382 laps in 11 races, but never for the last one.

Now 38, and having not raced there since 1995, the son of 1969 winner Mario Andretti will get another chance May 27 to fill the most noticeable void in his racing resume.

Once CART's most outspoken critic of Tony George's Indy Racing League and the way George left CART with little choice but to boycott the 500 a few years back, the younger Andretti admits to a change in attitude as he prepares to drive an Oldsmobile-powered Dallara IRL car at Indianapolis.

"I probably said some things that were wrong, but I was emotional when I felt I wasn't going to get back to Indy," he said. "Last year, when I became a free agent after being let go by Newman-Haas, I started to investigate both sides. I talked with the president of Northern Lights [the IRL's series sponsor] and started to understand what the IRL was all about. I liked the direction they were going, doing a lot of things right.

"Most important, I realized the IRL is not trying to compete with us. It is the oval series of America and we are more an international series that runs all different types of tracks. Now I believe there will always be two series."

Andretti's car will be jointly prepared by Team Green, his CART team owned by Barry Green, and Panther Racing, the John Barnes-owned IRL team that will provide two cars and crew support. He tested the car earlier this week at the Homestead track in Miami and plans a two-day test at Indianapolis on Easter Sunday and Monday.

Logistically, running the 500 and keeping his CART commitments will squeeze Andretti. He will miss the first two days of practice at Indy, May 5-6, to race at Nazareth, Pa.

"There will be nice weather at Nazareth so we can get to Indy to start practicing Monday, and it will be nice weather at Indy so we can qualify Saturday and work on our race setup Sunday before we leave for Japan [where CART has a race May 19 at Motegi]. I have some commitments for Honda there early in the week and our race is Saturday. We'll be back at Indy on Wednesday in time for carburetion day and the race on Sunday."

Andretti specified nice weather, because last year the Nazareth race was postponed by snow and in 1995, his last year at the Speedway, it rained on qualifying day.

Although he has missed racing at Indy every May, it was especially difficult last year, when he watched Juan Montoya, a fellow CART driver, run away with the race after Chip Ganassi had crossed over and entered his Target team in the 500.

"It was really depressing, for two reasons, not being there last year," Andretti said. "First off, we thought we had a shot at going but Ford said no. Then, watching Juan run out front, I felt if I had been there, I could have kept him honest."

Ford, which furnished engines for the Newman-Haas CART team then, refused to allow its drivers to race in the 500, fearing headlines reading, "Andretti wins 500, with an Olds."

"At the time, I had no idea I would be let go by Carl Haas and I believed he was going to stick with Ford [Haas has since switched to Toyota] so I figured I was out of luck," Andretti said. "I believe things happen for a reason. I believe that's why Carl picked up my option, why Barry [Green] called me and why Motorola and Archipelago got together with sponsorship. I told Barry when we were negotiating that I wanted a chance to get back to Indy and he really worked to make it happen."

In the meantime, there's the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach next weekend, a race Michael won in 1986, the first of his 40 CART wins.

"We cannot let our Indy program interfere with our CART program," Green said. "We cannot spread ourselves too thin, so we will depend on John Barnes' crew to help us with our Indy testing and at the track. We are very comfortable leaning on Panther Racing and want to thank John for making this all possible."

Barnes' Panther Racing driver, Sam Hornish Jr., won the opening IRL race at Phoenix two weeks ago.

"As for Long Beach, we feel quite confident after doing so well last year," Green said, alluding to Paul Tracy's victory in a Team Green car.


California Speedway is planning to build a quarter-mile drag strip to be used by the National Hot Rod Assn. for its street-legal drag racing program. A proposal has been submitted to San Bernardino County officials, seeking a revision in the conditional-use permit originally granted the Speedway in 1997.

The proposed strip would be on the south side of the property, next to the steel mill.

A similar proposal, for an eighth-mile strip, is being studied for Irwindale Speedway. The Irwindale city planning commission is expected to act on the proposal at its meeting next Thursday.


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