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FATHER, SON ARE DRIVEN : Andrettis Have Shared a Lot, but They’re Rivals, Not a Team

Times Staff Writer

If Al Unser and his son, Al Jr., could battle it out for the Indy car driving championship last year, why can’t Mario Andretti and his son, Michael, do it in 1986?

Mario, 46, and Michael, 23, think that is a definite possibility.

“Sure I’d like to emulate the Unsers, there’s nothing I would like better,” Mario said, his deep-set eyes sparkling at the thought.

“I was riding with Al last year, feeling everything he was feeling, envying him every inch of the way. I would love to have Michael chasing me for the championship. That would be just great, but like Al and little Al, whatever Michael gets, if it comes from me, he’ll have to earn it.”

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Michael has yet to win in two Indy car seasons, but his performance last Sunday in dominating the Phoenix 200 before his engine failed late in the race, indicated that he is on the verge.

“We would have won it if the engine had held together,” Michael said. “It was the best car by far. I think I could have cruised. Realistically, with the new team we have and the way the car is running, we have a chance to go for the title. That’s certainly our goal. If Dad’s up there, too, that would be just that much better.”

Father and son made Indy car history at Phoenix when they sat in the front row together, Mario with a world-record 165.776 m.p.h. for a one-mile closed course and Michael a tick slower at 165.251, also under the previous record. The pole was Mario’s 54th, breaking him out of a tie with A.J. Foyt for the most Indy car pole positions.

“I knew how much the record meant to Dad, so I backed off,” Michael said jokingly.

In one of those strange contradictions of motor racing, Mario did not run well on race day, plugging along and finishing seventh, while Michael, who led 76 of the 163 laps his car held together, was credited with 15th. When he slowed to a stop, he and his close friend and last year’s Kraco teammate, Kevin Cogan, were two laps ahead of the field. Cogan continued on to score his first Indy car win in his first ride for veteran car owner Pat Patrick.

“It was a big disappointment, but I haven’t lost any confidence,” Michael said. “In fact, I feel more confident than ever now. I’m happy for Kevin. He’s paid his dues.”

One of the dues was Cogan’s front-row crash that took him and Mario Andretti out of the 1982 Indianapolis 500 before it started. The accident, caused when a suspension piece broke in Cogan’s car, seemed to put Cogan’s career on hold for a few years.

Today, the Andrettis will be at Long Beach, practicing and attempting to qualify for Sunday’s $700,000 Toyota Grand Prix, a 158-mile street race along the waterfront in front of the Queen Mary.

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Mario has won the only two previous Indy cars races on the 11-turn course and also won a 1977 Formula One race there. Michael was a winner in 1983 in a Super Vee race.

This time around, Mario is driving a Lola, Michael a March.

The difference caused some anxiety when the two got together in Nazareth, Pa., where Mario has lived since his family emigrated from Italy in 1955 and where Michael built a new home this year for him and his bride, the former Sandra Spinozzi.

The blunt-nosed Lola and the needle-nosed March are similar, since both were built in England and both are powered by Cosworth engines.

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But the Andrettis are competitors as well as family. “It gets pretty touchy, sometimes, talking racing with Michael,” his father said. “I’m not totally comfortable in that situation. I don’t want his team to keep anything from him for fear of his telling me, so we pretty much skirt the issue. I never ask him about the car’s setups, or anything like that.”

Michael pretty much echoes his father’s feelings.

“We don’t say too much about racing,” he said. “When we do, it’s mostly about the tracks, about things that aren’t involved with the cars. That’s about it.”

Both Andrettis are coming off a disappointing 1985 season, but both have high expectations this season, since wholesale changes were made in their teams.

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On Mario’s team, owned by Chicago businessman Carl Haas and actor-race driver Paul Newman, Bob Sprow replaced Darrell Soppe as crew chief, and Mo Nunn replaced Tony Cicale as team engineer.

“I’m happy with the changes we’ve made this season,” Mario said. “Mo Nunn and Bob Sprow bring a lot of experience to the team, and Ray Wardell (team manager) joined us in the middle of last year and fits in well.

“Sprow was with Penske when I drove for them and I knew Mo in Europe when I was racing Formula One. I think he is one of the most knowledgeable guys in racing, especially in the technical aspects. Most of all, the atmosphere is better than I have ever seen it.”

The team will lose its multimillion-dollar sponsorship from Beatrice Cos. after this season, but Mario sees no loss in support so far.

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“Beatrice has promised to deliver all it said it would this year,” he said. “Next year I’m sure we will find someone to support us. If we don’t, we can always put Paul’s salad dressing on the sides of our car.

The changes in Michael’s team are even more drastic. First, car owner Maurice Kraines decided to drop his two-driver format and go with Michael Andretti alone.

“Having only one car to prepare eliminates so many problems,” Michael said. “A two-car team takes four times the effort of a one-car team.”

Kraines then hired Barry Green as chief mechanic and team manager, and Adrian Newey as engineer.

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Green came from the Forsythe team, where in 1983 he guided rookie driver Teo Fabi to the pole at Indianapolis and rookie-of-the-year laurels. Newey, who was with Bobby Rahal last year, is credited with designing the March cars that Michael and most other Indy car teams use.

“I’m very pleased at the way my new March runs, but I’m more pleased at the team Maury has put together,” Michael said. “We have one of the best, if not the best, organizations in racing. I have great confidence in winning, especially after the Lean Machine ran at Phoenix. Of course, you never know in this game. In two weeks, things could be entirely different.”

The season turned around just that quickly for Mario last year.

After winning the CART Indy car championship in 1984, Andretti picked up where he left off by winning three of the first four races and finishing second in the other--to Danny Sullivan in the Indianapolis 500.

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“Life was so much fun for a while,” Mario said. “Then, I don’t know what happened. Everything happened. Everything that could happen that was bad, that’s what happened.”

The first thing, and perhaps the one that led to many of his later problems, he caused himself when he dumped his motorcycle on a Pennsylvania road the week before a race at the New Jersey Meadowlands.

“It was my stupid mistake,” he said. “I just lost it and I banged up my ribs pretty bad. I never had to endure such pain. It hurt the whole season, every time I breathed, or moved my arms, or did anything. I drove with them taped up, but it hurt like hell. Especially when I slowed down. Then I had time to anticipate the pain. I don’t know what was worse, thinking about it or feeling it.”

After winning at Long Beach, Milwaukee and Portland, and running second at Indy, the elder Andretti finished only 2 of the remaining 11 races and finished in the top five only once. It wasn’t that he wasn’t competitive, it was always that something happened.

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At Cleveland, for instance, he was well in front with only four laps remaining when a fire broke out in his car. He finished 14th.

“When I saw the smoke and the fire coming into the cockpit, I was so depressed and my ribs hurt so much I could have stayed right in it and burned,” he said.

Michigan was two weeks later, and Mario led at the start and was still running strong when he crashed into a wall nine laps from the end and broke his right shoulder and cracked a hip joint. It caused him to miss the next race, at Elkhart Lake, Wis. Amazingly, it was the first race he had missed in 22 years.

“It was bad enough to be in the hospital and miss a race for the first time in my career, but then I hear that Beatrice has let James Dutt go and I know that means trouble for our sponsorship,” he said.

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“I know when big organizations make changes like dumping the chairman of the board, and he’s the guy who loves racing, it means changes will be felt all down the line, but that’s their prerogative so you can’t do anything about it. But it didn’t make lying there any more pleasant.

“Then my dog, Bosco, died of heart failure. He was only 4, but I took it hard. It was like losing a son. I was still feeling bad and hurting from the rib and the shoulder when it was time to race at Pocono. We had a lot of folks up to our place by the lake, so we hired a couple of helicopters to take us to the race track.

“I took off with Paul (Newman) and some others and we were hovering around when the other chopper, with Michael and Kevin (Cogan) and their girlfriends took off. I could see the way it was taking off, it was going right into some wires.

“It was the most traumatic experience of my life, to be up there watching, knowing what was going to happen and not be able to do a damn thing about it. I knew it would crash, I knew there could be a fire and I knew they could all be electrocuted. I was terrified.”

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The chopper dropped about 30 feet to the ground, snapping the wires so quickly that it cut off the power, and fortunately no one was injured seriously. Michael suffered back spasms from the crash and was taken to a hospital, where he was checked and released. He immediately hopped into another helicopter for the ride to Pocono, 76 miles distant.

“There were only about eight minutes before the race when he arrived,” Mario continued. “He barely had time to put his helmet on and get his radio hooked up when it was time to start the engines. When the race started, he drove like a man possessed and took the lead. He drove like hell until the car quit.

“Having something like that happen right before your eyes, and having him come out of it without harm, balanced out the other problems I had.”

Mario’s misadventures continued into the preparations for this season when he flipped his Lola upside down during tire tests at Laguna Seca shortly before Christmas.

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“I got complacent, and I got caught,” he said. “I had run a couple of laps without any problems and I relaxed. You can’t do that, ever. I thought it was going to be a little thing, like going over a curb, but then I was upside down. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt, and the car was last year’s model.”

Michael, after finishing fifth in his first Indy 500 in 1984 and sharing rookie-of-the-year honors with Roberto Guerrero, never seemed to get in gear in 1985 except at Road America, where he was second to Jacques Villeneuve. He finished only 6 of 15 starts.

“I look at 1985 as a character builder,” Michael said. “We were struggling, but this is a whole new deal this year. I came close last week and now I’d like to win at Long Beach in front of all of the (Compton-based) Kraco people who have put an awful lot into the team. I won there in a Super Vee a couple of years ago, but everyone will be starting even Friday because there’s really no way to practice for Long Beach.”

Long Beach will be Michael’s 35th Indy car race, Mario’s 266th, but they have never raced as teammates. Would they like to?

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The two looked at each other for a second, then said almost in unison, “No way.”


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