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Look Out, Here Comes the New Generation : Sons of Famous Drivers Finish 1-2-3 in the Grand Prix of Long Beach

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Al Unser Jr. didn’t even wait to be asked the obvious question.

“I want to say that the changing of the guard has happened,” he said after finishing less than a half-second behind winner Michael Andretti in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Sunday.

With Geoff Brabham, 34, placing third, the theme could have been from “My Three Sons”: all offspring of world and/or Indianapolis driving champions, a new generation trying to claim racing success in its own right.

Unser, especially, about to turn 24 next Saturday, is brash, young and fast. He has won three CART Indy-car races in five years and lost the 1985 title to his father by a single point last season, as if to concede a last hurrah.

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“Here we come,” he announced after Sunday’s race.

The only guy he couldn’t catch was Andretti, 23, who led him on a ferocious chase through the last 23 laps, darting through the 11 turns and 2 tunnels of the shoreline course like two kids playing tag.

“I felt if I sneezed he was gonna be right by me,” Andretti said. “We did have enough to hold him off, but I don’t know how long I could have done it.”

The younger Andretti and Unser grew up together, palling around the pits and places along the racing trail while their fathers fought it out on the track--just a couple of racing brats who had no idea what the future held.

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“Who’d ever have thought we’d be here together?” Andretti said, acknowledging Unser at the post-race press conference.

Unser said: “The first time we raced was on snowmobiles. Michael outran me then, too. We were 7 or 8 years old.

“Later, when dad and Mario were on the same team with Viceroy, I visited Michael at his home and we got into a lot of trouble together.”

“He was getting me into trouble,” Andretti said.

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Now they respect each other as rivals. Even in the tight turns of Long Beach, running at speeds up to 170 m.p.h. between unforgiving concrete walls, they are comfortable with their lives in each other’s hands.

“I know I can trust Little Al,” Andretti said. “We’ve raced together a long time and know if we go into a corner together, we’re going to come out together.”

Both came up to CART through the usual training grounds--Formula Ford and Super Vee for Andretti, Super Vee and Can-Am for Unser--as racing fans monitored their progress. Andretti figured their heritage wasn’t a total plus.

“I’d say we had advantages and disadvantages,” Andretti said. “We’d been exposed to that type of life, but it did create pressure for us to do well when we were just starting out. People were watching us like hawks, and if we made a mistake they would have been all over us. But we crashed that barrier once we got into Indy cars.”

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Considering that their fathers are racing well into their 40s--although Al Sr. did not compete Sunday--theirs is a rivalry that could go on for another quarter-century.

“I don’t know, Michael’s going to be something to contend with for years to come, and I’m going to be in it for a long time,” Unders said. “I love racing.”

But Andretti wasn’t so sure they have heard the last of the elder generation. His first CART win in four years on the circuit kept the Long Beach event in the family for the third consecutive year, but he didn’t think it represented a transition.

“I still feel the guard hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s gonna be tough to keep doing this. I think things just went our way. There’s gonna be days when things go dad’s way, and he’ll be back up there again.”

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Early in Sunday’s race, the younger Andretti, starting two rows back, tucked his nose under his father’s rear wing, then passed him, and then they were in front of everybody else until Mario dropped back.

“I could see he was having problems,” Michael said. “What I really enjoyed was when we were running one-two. That was a neat feeling.”

Brabham, whose father Jack retired from Formula One racing to run a ranch in Australia, told reporters: “It’s nice to be up here, but some old guys out there can still run hard. We’ll just have to go to the next race and see.”

The next race is the Indianapolis 500 on May 25.

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“I think we’re gonna be a force to contend with for the rest of the season,” Andretti said.

And probably a lot longer than that.


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