Michael Andretti Seeks Title He Barely Lost Last Season : He Wants to Be Second to None

Times Staff Writer

Since he is the youngest driver in the PPG/CART Indy car series, one might think that Michael Andretti would be pleased to have come within eight points of the championship last season.

Disappointed is more like it, though.

“It was good in a way because we got our first win, but looking back, it’s hard to forget the three races where we dropped out when we were leading,” said the 24-year-old son of four-time Indy car champion Mario Andretti. “If we had finished any one of those races, we could have won the championship. That’s frustrating.”

Michael scored his first victory in last year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and will defend that championship Sunday in the opening race of the $15.5-million championship series.


Young Andretti also won at Milwaukee and in the second of two races at Phoenix in a season that had all the earmarks of a championship campaign. Andretti led the most laps, 699 to only 436 for Bobby Rahal, who won the championship, and set qualifying records at three tracks where he won the pole.

At the end, though, were those eight frustrating points.

“We had our peaks and valleys,” he said. “We should have won the championship. I was leading when the motor blew at the first Phoenix race and the Meadowlands, and I ran out of gas on the last lap at Portland.”

The Portland race was on Father’s Day and when Michael’s car ran dry, that enabled Mario to catch him in the closest finish in Indy car history--0.07 seconds.

“That’s part of racing, though, and it happens to everyone,” Michael philosophized. “I have a lot more confidence in myself now, and also in the team, than I had at this time last year. It’s a good feeling and I’m looking forward to Long Beach and 1987 with a confident attitude.”

Unlike the champion, Rahal, or chief challengers Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Mario Andretti, Kevin Cogan and Emerson Fittipaldi, who have switched either chassis or engines between seasons, Michael Andretti and the Kraco team have decided to stand pat with their Cosworth-powered March.

Rahal, who won the Indianapolis 500 on his way to the championship, discarded his March for a new Lola. Mears and Sullivan will be in totally new cars--Penske P-16s with Ilmor Chevrolet engines. Mario is also switching to Chevy power for his Lola, as are Cogan and Fittipaldi for their Marches.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how these changes work,” Michael said. “The Lola and the March appear to be pretty even. I would think maybe Rahal hurt himself because the team doesn’t know the car that well. They have things to learn about the Lola, where it would have been more comfortable to stay with the March. That was our thinking.”

As for the engine changes, young Andretti is not quite so certain that Kraco car owner Maurice Kraines and crew chief Barry Green made the right choice.

“I’m sure the Cosworth engine isn’t going to be as fast as the Chevy, but our hope is that it will be more reliable,” he said. “Dad has been going 10 m.p.h. faster than me on the straightaways (in testing), so it will be difficult to beat him in qualifying. In the race, the Chevy engines have to be leaned down for better fuel mileage. Hopefully that will even us out.

“We had a shot at getting the Chevy engine, but Kraines thought it would win races, but not the championship . . . and the championship is what we’re after. I personally would rather have had the Chevy, but I can’t argue with his reasoning. The Chevy engine hasn’t gone 500 miles yet, even in a test.”

At this time last year, Michael was looking forward to the season because the team had Adrian Newey, who had designed the March, as its engineer.

He said after winning at Long Beach: “Without Barry (Green) and Adrian (Newey), I wouldn’t be running up front. Adrian is the one that makes the car so fast. He really makes a difference.”

Now Newey has gone, though, off to join the team owned by Oscar winner Paul Newman and Carl Haas--the one that has Michael’s dad as the driver.

“Things have been going real well for us without Adrian,” Michael said. “We have two engineers in his place. Peter Gibbons, who was with Pat Patrick’s team last year, is our mechanical engineer, and we also have Tino Belli as our aerodynamics engineer. They complement each other very well, and of course, Barry Green is back.”

If it means anything, the team Newey left a year ago--Rahal’s Truesports--went on to win the championship without him.

Even though the last Indy car race was Nov. 9, Michael has kept busy. He has driven a Buick Hawk in an IMSA street race at Miami, an Alfa Romeo in a World touring car championship event at Monza, Italy, and a Camaro Z-28 in the International Race of Champions.

“It was quite an experience driving in Italy,” he said. “The European writers and fans know a lot more about racing than they do over here. In Europe, racing is more like baseball or football here. Everyone knows about the drivers and crews the way we do all the players on a baseball team.

“They also put the drivers up on a pedestal, like we do Pete Rose or Magic Johnson or Reggie Jackson. It’s a nice atmosphere to be in.”

Michael, who was called in to replace Jacques Lafitte as a co-driver with Alessandro Nannani at Monza, qualified the Alfa Romeo 11th and was running ninth when he turned it over to Nannani. Ten laps later, the turbocharger broke.

“It was a lot of fun while it lasted,” Andretti said.

At Miami, Andretti qualified second in Phil Conte’s Buick behind the Nissan of Geoff Brabham and Elliott Forbes-Robinson, the race winners.

“At least I beat all the Porsches and the Corvette,” he said. “The Nissan just had too much horsepower. Our rear tires were starting to fade when I got out and Jim Crawford took over. Crawford crashed about halfway through the race, so I never got back in.”

As if Michael needed more incentive to win, he got it two weeks ago when his wife, Sandy, gave birth to their first son, Marco, at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., the same hospital where Michael was born.

Marco is the first grandchild for Mario and Dee Ann, Michael’s mother.

“Dad keeps saying not to call him grandfather just yet, but he’s pretty excited about it,” Michael said. “He’s over at our house (in Nazareth, Pa.) just about every day, checking on the baby. He says we should call him uncle for a while until he gets used to being a grandfather.

“I think he’s going to be the one to beat this year, grandfather or not. He has Adrian (Newey) over there, and Tyler Alexander has come back from Formula One to run the team, and I know dad likes that combination of the Lola and the Chevy engine.”

If history runs true to form, one Andretti or the other will win Sunday’s 95-lap race. In the three years the Indy cars have raced through the streets of Long Beach, Mario won in 1984 and 1985, and Michael in 1986.

And in the years before the Indy cars came to the beach, the Andrettis did quite well, too. Mario won the Formula One race in 1977 and Michael won a Super Vee race in 1983.