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INDIANAPOLIS 500

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Racing runs in the family, but Michael Andretti is happy this race is his last at the Brickyard

May 22, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — After his experience with blustery winds buffeting his car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway during time trials, Michael Andretti is feeling better about his decision to retire Sunday, immediately after the Indianapolis 500.

Then too, as a rookie majority team owner of Andretti Green Racing, he has two veteran drivers, Tony Kanaan and Robby Gordon, in the front row, and rookie Dan Wheldon in the second.

That he, himself, is well back in the 13th starting position doesn't seem to bother Andretti, even though, as the driver who has led more laps in the 500 than any other without winning, this will be his final shot.

"Sure, I want to win the 500 -- it would be the culmination of everything I have done in racing -- but I am comfortable with my decision," Andretti said. "Those four laps [May 11] just made me more convinced that I should step away from the cockpit."

With winds gusting at more than 30 mph as he was qualifying, Andretti said it was the worst feeling he has had in 14 years here.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "It was the most eventful four laps I've ever had around this place."

That's saying a lot, since he has completed 2,193 laps here, 398 of them -- nearly two complete races -- in the lead, during 13 races.

"It's days like that that make me glad I'm retiring," he said.

Curiously, the person most disturbed by Michael's pending retirement is his father, Mario, the 1969 Indy 500 winner and 1978 Formula One champion.

"When I first heard from Michael that he was going to stop racing, I was upset," Mario said. "I felt cheated. Watching Michael race has always been a thrill for me, sort of a vicarious one. I felt like I was riding with him and now that's going to be gone.

"But I can't say I am surprised. Michael has never had the passion for racing that I have. He has always looked more toward the business side, something I hated. I think he will be a great team owner because that is the way he thinks. Back when we first started racing together, he enjoyed more talking with the accountants than he did about racing. We just had totally different ways of looking at things."

Mario's passion for racing, at 63, might have been stretched beyond its limit on April 23 when, in a reacquaintance drive, he took the No. 11 Dallara-Honda normally driven by Kanaan around the speedway. At the time, Mario was planning to qualify the car for Kanaan, who had broken his wrist nine days earlier during a race in Japan. The elder Andretti was up to speed, above 200 mph, on his final lap when Kenny Brack spun out and hit the wall. Andretti, following close behind, hit a piece of debris from Brack's accident that launched his car into an end-over-end flight. The car landed on its wheels and Andretti walked away unhurt.

"I would have had no concern about getting back in the car the next day," he said. "No problem."

He added that he would have qualified the car, had Kanaan's wrist not healed in time, but the crash made an impression on him and he described his remarkable experience to speedway representative Dick Mittman:

"It was probably the most helpless feeling I ever had in my life. While you're spinning and hitting, you almost feel like you can still steer, still do something with the brakes, get off the brakes. You're kept busy doing something.

"When you're up in the air, that's it. That's the truest form of being a passenger. And that is not good, because obviously I knew it was going to have to land somewhere, somehow. And the fact I didn't know what way, I thought that could be a huge headache."

After Kanaan said he was healed enough to qualify, Mario said of his practice drive, "For myself, it totally replenished my spirit."

Kanaan, only half-joking, said he did his own qualifying because, "If Mario had put the car on the pole, and I'm sure he could have, he would have talked Michael into driving in the 500 and I would be sitting on the sidelines."

The injury to Kanaan and another to Dario Franchitti, the carry-over driver from last year's Team Green in CART, gave Michael Andretti an insight into how difficult it is to run a multimillion-dollar racing team.

"Here I was, getting myself ready for my final race at Indy and trying to run a team for the first time, and two of my drivers get hurt," he said. "I was fortunate to get Robby [Gordon] from NASCAR to drive for Dario and when Tony came back, it made my job easier. But don't think Dad wasn't ready to go. At least in qualifying."

Franchitti was hurt in a motorcycle accident in Scotland, near his home in Edinburgh. When Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree bought Team Green last December, Andretti brought Franchitti with him, picked up Kanaan from Mo Nunn's team and added Wheldon, from England, as a test driver. Wheldon is scheduled to be Andretti's replacement in the IRL after the 500.

There had been talk along pit row that ARG might add a fifth car, but Savoree, a longtime advisor to Barry Green, the team's original owner, decided that four would be enough. Former IRL driver Bryan Herta has been signed as a possible substitute for Gordon in case there is a rain delay in the 500 and Gordon has to leave for Charlotte and the Coca-Cola 600 that night.

Gordon is attempting a 500-600 doubleheader on race day, but his priority will be the Winston Cup race.

Michael's selection of Gordon did not sit well with everyone in the family.

Cousin John Andretti, like Gordon a Winston Cup driver, would like to have had the ride.

"I have a lot of experience at Indy, I want to do Indy, I have a clearance [from Cup team owner Kyle Petty]," John said. "I would love to have driven for Michael."

So why didn't Michael choose cousin John?

"You'll have to ask Michael," John said. "It's not my place to talk about things like that. I only talk about done deals."

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