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BILL DWYRE

Mario Andretti isn't finished with the Indianapolis 500

An elder statesman of auto racing has a role Sunday in a race that provided him with a victory and plenty of memories.

May 23, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Motor racing legend Mario Andretti, right, and his grandson Marco Andretti wait out a rain delay during an Indianapolis 500 practice session on Wednesday.
Motor racing legend Mario Andretti, right, and his grandson Marco Andretti… (Mark J. Rebilas / U.S. Presswire )

If Mario Andretti were one of those entitled, sulking athletes who frequent the sports pages these days, he'd be nowhere near the ceremonies celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

But when the ladies and gentlemen start their engines Sunday, at a place that will be all decked out to party like anything that has survived and flourished for a century, Grandpa Mario will be almost as goose-bumpy as he was in Victory Lane in 1969.

"I love coming back," he says. "It's coming home. I bet I spent the second-most time of my life right here at Indy, next to time just being at home."

It would be understandable if Andretti were less than enamored of the venerable Brickyard. In the days when his accelerator foot was among the heaviest in auto racing, Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not treat him well.

He made 29 starts, eight from the front row. He led in 11 of those 29 races and also has led the third-most laps in history, 556.

In 1985, Danny Sullivan spun dramatically in front of him near the end of the race and Andretti took the lead. But Sullivan, in a savvy bit of driving, avoided the wall and came back to pass Andretti and win.

In 1981, Andretti was second, but was moved to first when officials said winner Bobby Unser had passed under the caution flag. Four months later, the officials changed their mind and gave the title back to Unser.

Even in 1969, when he won, it was a near nightmare.

The cars with which he and his teammates were setting track records in practice started to fall apart. Andretti had to get into a spare Ford they hadn't planned to race, qualified it in the middle of the first row and won with it.

That car is now in the Smithsonian, and Andretti says he went to see it one time.

"I asked the curator if I could just borrow it for a little spin," he says. "But he said no. He smelled a rat."

Andretti was 29 when he won at Indy. He was in the middle of a career that easily puts him in the conversation about the greatest drivers of all time. His resume needs an entire bookshelf. Most significant, he is the only driver to have won an Indy 500, a Daytona 500 (1967) and a Formula One title (1978). Since Andretti's run on the prestigious European circuit in '78, no United States driver has even won a Formula One race, much less a points title.

Now, at 71, Andretti is among racing's best and most respected elder statesmen, as well as being a part of his son Michael's Indy racing team, Andretti Autosport, whose drivers include Danica Patrick and Mario's grandson, Marco. Andretti is clear that Marco's dad, Michael, runs the team and that he is mostly an advisor.

The elder Andretti also makes it clear how much more difficult it is to watch than drive, especially when the person you are watching most closely is your grandson.

"I'm the proverbial nervous Nellie in the pits," Andretti says. "I feel the element of danger much more now. When Michael was driving, I was still in the cars with him a lot. Now, I watch and get nervous. I never realized how tough this could be. I have a special appreciation for what my wife [Dee Ann] went through all those years. You watch from the sidelines and you are totally helpless. My wife was never dramatic, but I can see that she was suffering, like I do now."

Do not, however, take from that any imagery of a doddering old man. Not even close.

As part of the promotion for Indy's 100th anniversary, Andretti has been taking people, many of them celebrities, on the rides of their lives in a two-seater Indy car. The car is the one seen in the television commercial, where he takes a screaming young man on a spin.

"I've done quite a few rides like that recently," he says. "I get it up to 180, 190 miles an hour and they get a good thrill. They sit right behind me and there is a little red button, a panic button, if they get too scared. It lights up on my dashboard. I had a lady out awhile back and I see the light go on, but I figured she was all right, and so I kept on going.

"When we got back in, we saw that she had passed out. But she came around pretty soon."

Then there is the actual role he will play in Sunday's race.

He will go out in front of the pace car, driven by A.J. Foyt, on the lap before the green light goes on. The format is for Andretti to do a hot lap, a full 180 to 190 mph, and catch the field just about the time it is getting the green. Then he is to duck into the pits.

"You never know," he says. "I might just stay out for a couple of laps."

The interview is on the phone, but the twinkle in his eye is unmistakable.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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