MARIO: Frustration of Indy Continues

Times Staff Writer

"This place just grinds me. I mean it grinds me a lot. More than any other place. I've just never had it easy here. Not even when I won." --MARIO ANDRETTI

Mario Andretti was relaxing late on a sunny afternoon with his wife Dee Ann, his twin brother Aldo and a few friends under a huge red and white tent behind Gasoline Alley while his crew was putting a new turbocharged engine into his British-built Lola for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Qualifying was over, a disappointing qualifying session for the defending national champion, but it was time to think ahead to the race, to the 200 times he must make it around the rectangular oval that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway--and to reflect on the too many times he has failed.

Andretti won the 1969 Indianapolis 500. That was the one after which car owner Andy Granatelli greeted him in Victory Lane with an Italian smooch that made all the photographers ecstatic.

So, having won, Andretti can't be linked with Sam Snead, who never won a U.S. Open; Ernie Banks, who never played in a World Series; Stirling Moss, who never won a Formula One championship, or Paul Newman, one of Andretti's car owners, who has never won an Oscar. But 1969 was a long time ago and since then Andretti, 45, has had 14 frustrating failures in trying to win again.

Look at it this way. Since he started racing Indy cars in 1964, Andretti has driven in 252 races and has won 43 of them. That's about one win every six races. He won the world Formula One championship in 1978, the International Race of Champions in 1979 and last year he won his fourth national driving championship and was named American driver of the year for the third time.

At Indianapolis, he is 1 for 19.

Worse than that, in 14 races since he won, Andretti has finished only once in the top five.

"I just don't have an answer for it. I just don't. I want this race so bad I can taste it, but I'm beginning to wonder what I have to do. I'm open to suggestions."

Which disappointment was the most frustrating? Having his victory taken away in 1981 and given to Bobby Unser five months after the race? Or being knocked off the track by Kevin Cogan before he reached the starting line in 1982? How about the times he lasted only four laps in 1973 and two laps--only five miles--in 1974 before burning a piston? Or the year he sat on the pole with a qualifying record and failed to lead a single lap? Or perhaps it was last year, when he led for 29 laps before tangling with Josele Garza while the caution light was on.

"Every year. Count 'em all. One's no worse than the other. They're all so frustrating. I hate to think about it. Maybe the worst is what happened this year. I don't believe in omens. But I'm beginning to wonder."

Four times early in the first week of May, Andretti's engines blew during practice. It seemed that he would not be ready for qualifying, but once his crew solved the problem, his was easily the fastest car. Late in the afternoon the day before qualifying, he set an unofficial track record of 215.600 m.p.h. The next morning, less than three hours before he was to qualify, Andretti lapped the track at 214.234.

Then the shocker. He could manage only 211.576 during the four laps that counted, a speed he had warmed up at earlier in the day.

Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton, in cars powered by turbocharged Buick V-6s, had run 212.583 and 212.354 before it was Andretti's turn to qualify. He knew on his first lap, when he ran only 211, that it wasn't to be his day. Later, Bobby Rahal qualified at 211.818 and Andretti was moved back to the second row, on the inside.

"The more I'm here, the more I learn to expect trouble. It's never easy. I had such high expectations for the pole. I knew I was at the mercy of the draw, but I thought my position was damn good. It was pretty early in the day and the sky was nice and cloudy and it looked like a great day for qualifying.

"Then, in about 15 minutes, conditions changed dramatically, more dramatically than I ever remember here, except when it rains. Those clouds just disappeared and the sun came out and the track got so hot and slippery. You could almost see the rubber bubbling on the track. There was so much rubber in the groove, I'll bet you could have scraped it off with a putty knife, it was so thick.

"A lot of rubber is great when it's cool. It helps keep the tires glued down. When it's hot, it's terrible. It's like driving in oil.

"Looking back at it, maybe I should have aborted the run. I thought about it. I knew I could run 214 easy under decent conditions. Carl (car owner Carl Haas) and I talked it over and we almost called it off, but what if it had rained later in the day and we'd quit on a 211 and never had another chance. We'd have really been a big joke then, sitting on the sidelines. We'd never be able to forget it, so I plugged along. I knew after the first lap we never had a chance to catch Pancho.

It was so close, so close. One little cloud decides to go hide and it takes our hopes with it. But that's all in the past now. It's time to get on to the next act."

That next act will begin with the first turn of the first lap Sunday and thinking about it already concerns Andretti. He doesn't come right out and say it, but he sees a parallel to 1982, when he was on the inside of the front row and a relatively inexperienced driver, Cogan, was in the middle of the front row.

Cogan's car broke a CV joint--a part of the suspension--and as the field accelerated for the start, Cogan turned to the right and slammed into A. J. Foyt. Andretti speeded up to take advantage of the moment, but as he did, Cogan rebounded from Foyt and came back across the track in front of Andretti. The collision knocked them both out of the race before it started.

Sunday, Andretti again will be on the inside of the second row. Brayton, a young driver with no experience up front, will be in the middle of the front row between two proven drivers, Carter and Rahal. In three tries at Indy, Brayton has never started better than 26th. In seven other 500 milers at Michigan and Pocono, he has been as far up as the second row only once.

"I don't remember ever racing with Scott. I don't think he's ever led a race, so there's no way of knowing if he can handle it where he is. He seems like a nice young man who's got a good head on him. I just hope he uses it. That Buick he's got can take off, but I hope he doesn't get the idea he wants to win it on the first turn. I know every driver who's ever raced has said he knows that, but when the flag drops at Indy there's more adrenaline pumping through a guy than he's ever felt and you do things you wouldn't normally do . You don't even know why.

"I know it comes down to the fact that Brayton's no dummy, or he wouldn't be here. But here's a guy who's never been a factor in a race before and now he's got 100 more horsepower than he ever had before, and here he is. In the front row at Indy. It's something to think about. "

When Cogan turned in front of him in '82, Andretti exploded, claiming that Roger Penske, Cogan's car owner, shouldn't have entrusted such fast equipment to one so inexperienced as Cogan.

On ABC-TV, Andretti said: "You don't send a child to do a man's work."

To reporters, he said: "I'll tell you what happened. Cogan was looking for a little bit of trouble. He probably had visions of racing into the first turn. He did exactly what he was not supposed to do."

Cogan and Mario's son, Michael, are teammates this season. The incident of three years ago has become just another frustration of Indianapolis to Andretti. He and Cogan have become friends, the way a parent becomes friends with one of his son's buddies.

"Kevin and I get along fine. He's a nice kid. I've gotten to know him pretty well since he and Michael are driving for the same team. Michael likes him a lot. As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing has been forgotten. I do think the accident took the momentum out of his career, though. It's taken a little while for him to get back to where he was. "

Part of Andretti's frustration that day stemmed from what had happened a year earlier. He had started 32nd in 1981 because he was racing at Monte Carlo and could not qualify his car. Wally Dallenbach put it in the field, but Andretti had to start in the back row. He worked his way up, finishing a close second to Bobby Unser. The next morning, Unser was penalized a lap for passing illegally, and Andretti was declared the winner. Nearly five months later, a United States Auto Club panel reversed the decision by a 2-1 vote and named Unser the winner. Instead of losing the lap, Unser was fined $40,000.

"That ended all credibility for USAC as far as I was concerned. The rule book was explicit that the penalty for passing under the yellow caution flag, which they admitted Bobby did, was the loss of one lap. If they had ruled that Bobby didn't break the rule, I could have accepted it, but when they ruled he did cheat, and then they changed the rule--after the fact--it was too much to stomach. It was bad enough, when I heard they had declared me the winner, that I didn't get to drive down Victory Lane and hear the crowd cheering, and get to drink the milk and all that. That's part of winning, and Bobby got that when it should have been mine. Then they took the win away from me, too."

Last season was Andretti's most successful. Driving a new Cosworth-powered Lola for the Haas-Newman team, he won six races, started on the pole eight times and set a one-lap record here of 209.678. It was broken later in the day by Tom Sneva, but Andretti was a force to be reckoned with in the race. He led 29 laps and was running with the lead pack when Roberto Guerrero spun and brought out a caution flag on lap 154.

Andretti headed for the pits, but before he got there, he ran into the rear end of Garza's car and bent up the Lola's nose cone.

"Garza just changed lanes and pulled in front of me. I don't know what he had in mind, or even if he knew where he was going. Suddenly he was right there and I couldn't stop. And on a yellow, at that. Another race day ended. You wonder why this place grinds me so?"

As he said earlier, even his win in 1969 was not easy.

Andretti had won USAC championships in 1965 and 1966, and had sat on the pole at Indianapolis in 1966 and 1967. He had finished third in his first 500 and was named rookie of the year in what was generally considered the finest rookie field in history. It included future Indy winners Al Unser and Gordon Johncock, plus Joe Leonard, George Snider, Jerry Grant and Masten Gregory.

He had a new four-wheel-drive Lotus designed by Colin Chapman and, along with A. J. Foyt, was the favorite for the pole and the race.

Rain washed out the first weekend of qualifying and Andretti was testing the following Wednesday when the car suddenly started sliding toward the wall in Turn 4. A hub had sheared off and the right rear wheel had fallen off. The car slammed into the wall backwards and fire erupted from the ruptured fuel tank. It was still sliding when Andretti leaped out, his hands covering his face.

"Fear of burns is something that haunts all race drivers. I was lucky I wasn't stunned on the impact and was able to get out. I could feel the heat through my uniform and it was unbearable around my face. I knew I was singed, maybe worse. "

The next day, with the burn across his upper lip making him appear to have a grown a mustache, Andretti was back at the track. The Lotus was beyond repair. Instead of taking another Lotus, he choose his Clint Brawner-prepared Hawk, the car he had won with a month earlier in Hanford. Three days later, he qualified it at 169.851 and started between Foyt and Bobby Unser in the front row. He wound up winning by more than two miles over Dan Gurney. But as he says, things are never easy.

"I led the first five laps and then I dropped back to let things settle down when I felt water spraying me in the cockpit. I thought I'd had it, but it turned out a bottle of Gatorade had tipped over and some had spilled out and given me a Gatorade shower.

"That wasn't all. Late in the race, when Foyt and most of the other guys had dropped out, I was cruising along in front when I came up behind Mike Mosley. I wasn't concentrating and I got caught in his draft and before I knew it, I was sideways and drifting toward the wall. I knew the feeling. I'd had the same feeling when I crashed the Lotus, but somehow I finally got it under control.

"I'll say this, it sure got my concentration back in a hurry. Spectators remember crashes, but drivers remember near misses. Sometimes they aren't even apparent to spectators, but the driver knows. I'll always remember how close I came that day with Mosley. But that's Indy. You can't let up for a second or this place will bite you."

Andretti may be starting in the second row this year, but he is the favorite. He is the defending PPG/CART Indy Car World Series champion, he won the 1985 season opener in the Long Beach Grand Prix, and despite the disappointment of qualifying, he has dominated the month here. He knows it.

"There are a lot of pressures you feel here that you don't feel elsewhere. Sometimes, I think it makes you try too hard. I know what's needed, and I know what I have to do to get it. I can't allow my emotions to overrun anything. I don't want any real highs or any real lows. The whole team, from Carl (Haas) and Paul (Newman) on down, and including me, I think, has a winning attitude. We want to conduct things as smoothly as possible.

"In 20 years, it's never been smooth, but who knows, maybe next Sunday. I don't think about it being 20 years much, except when I look at the film clips from the '60s. It makes me feel like I'm part of ancient history, running those front-engine roadsters. I never drove a roadster at Indy, but I drove in some before I got here.

"My first Indy ride was in a Brabham that Clint (Brawner) put together with a Ford engine. Looking back, I was part of a transition that was pretty dramatic. Racing really changed right when I started, but I still don't feel like an old-timer when I'm around the race track. "Maybe it's because my kids are racing, too. When I look at them, I feel I'm on the same plane with them, the same wave length, so to speak. I feel that keeping involved with what's happening helps keep me in tune with the times."

Sunday, some time a little before 11 a.m., Indy time, the Haas-Newman crew will push Andretti's bright red car to the starting grid. Don Henderson, Mario's agent and man-in-waiting, will be walking alongside the car, holding a silver helmet with ANDRETTI on it in solid red letters. The driver, looking puffy in his layered driver's suit, will be standing nearby, looking as if he were in a trance. Dark glasses will hide the hard glint in his eyes, what he calls his race day look.

"At a time like that, just before the race when I'm suited up for action, I don't want any small talk, any chit - chat. I'm preoccupied with what has to be done and I block out everything that's around me. People may not understand when I don't respond to a smile, or a hello, but I'm so full of apprehension about the next few minutes that I don't even see them sometimes. Those last five minutes are like an eternity and I want to be alone with my thoughts. That's when the concentration has to start, and it had better not end before the race is over. Or it'll be over before it's over."

Just before crawling into the narrow, built-to-fit cockpit, Andretti will exchange his dark glasses with Henderson for his helmet. Haas, nervously fingering a long cigar, will help strap him into his seat, and Newman, looking even skinnier than usual alongside the pudgy Haas and Andretti, will give the thumbs-up sign.

A bystander will ask Newman, a former national amateur driving champion whose interest in the sport escalated to his present role as co-owner of Andretti's car, what his involvement is with the Indy car. His answer may startle some motion picture associates.

"I enjoy people in racing. For the most part, I enjoy them more than the people in Hollywood because they don't take themselves so seriously. I especially enjoy being around Mario and Carl.

"Mario is a great race driver, the greatest, and just watching him does something for me. He's a different man when he gets in a car. His eyes, when he comes into the pits, are like John Dillinger's. The expression is just as deadly.

"Carl is my business associate, but he is also a good friend. We all talk a lot together about what's going on with the team. That's about it."

What it really means to Newman was revealed by the actor himself during last fall's CART banquet in Las Vegas when he was called upon to accept the championship owner's trophy.

"It seems I've been chasing an Oscar for 25 years," he told the audience. "I've been chasing a racing championship for eight or nine years and, until now, I've never won either. Today, Mario gave me my first Oscar."

ANDRETTI's INDY PERFORMANCE

Laps Laps Year Start Led Status Completed Winnings Finish 1965 4 0 Running 200 $ 42,551.00 3 1966 1 16 Ignition 27 25,120.90 18 1967 1 0 Lost Wheel 58 21,047.98 30 1968 0 2 Burned Piston 2 9,959.66 33 1969 2 116 Running 200 206,727.06 1 1970 8 0 Running 199 28,202.49 6 1971 9 0 Accident 11 13,245.24 30 1972 5 0 Out of Fuel 194 24,821.89 8 1973 6 0 Burned Piston 4 14,563.80 30 1974 5 0 Burned Piston 2 15,587.41 31 1975 27 0 Accident 49 15,880.39 28 1976 19 0 Running 101 28,331.36 8 1977 6 0 Brkn Header 47 17,467.58 26 1978 33 0 Running 185 23,251.71 12 1980 2 10 Engine 71 30,736.00 20 1981 32 12 Running 200 128,974.00 2 1982 4 0 Accident 0 40,525.00 31 1983 11 0 Accident 79 42,907.00 23 1984 6 29 Brkn Nosecone 153 72,323.00 17

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