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Long Beach Grand Prix : Fueling a Feud : Andretti Is Furious Over Racing Tactics That Knock Him Out Near Finish

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Mario Andretti was waiting by the side of the road with a flat tire when his son Michael came by after finishing second to Al Unser Jr. in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Sunday.

“Hi, Pop,” Michael said, “need a lift?"--or words to that effect.

Michael, unaware of what had happened minutes earlier, didn’t realize he was driving innocently into a raging dispute between his parent and a boyhood peer. The junior Unser had flat-out knocked the elder Andretti right out of the lead, the race and--who knows?--perhaps his fifth victory in the last 13 Long Beach events.

Mario hopped onto the left side pod--an Indy car’s equivalent of a running board--and rode the rest of the way around on what racers call a “cooling-off” lap.

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But when they arrived in Victory Lane and pulled up behind Unser, Pop was anything but cool.

He stepped off and charged toward Unser, saying, “Thanks very much. You did it again.”

Unser, taken aback, said nothing but followed the fuming Andretti away with his eyes. ABC reporter Jack Arute said, “Hey, do we have a problem here?”

Before Andretti arrived, Unser already had told Arute, “I’ve got mixed emotions about (the win). It’s my fault ‘cause I did the hittin’ but, God dang it, they all stopped in front of me. I couldn’t help it.”

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It was inevitable that through two generations, racing’s first two families would have their differences.

Unser knocked Andretti out of the lead, the race and--who knows?--perhaps his fifth victory in the last 13 Long Beach events.

“The thing that bothers me the most is that he’s done this twice,” Andretti said. “It’s a very poor quality of driving, and he’s not like that.

“That’s why I’m really disappointed. I can forgive a mistake once, but I’ll have a tough time swallowing it this time. I’m really, really disappointed in Al Unser today.”

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After their final pit stops, Andretti led for five laps, but Unser was gaining quickly.

“Al’s got new tires,” Andretti’s team co-owner, Paul Newman, noted astutely.

When they completed Lap 83, only a car length separated their Lola-Chevies, and when they reached Turn 3 Unser started playing bumper tag.

Who was wrong?

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The best evidence against Unser was his own on-board television camera. It showed the two cars coming up on Tom Sneva’s slower, red car, then contact, then Unser’s left front spoiler flying across the front of his car as Andretti spun out of sight.

A minute after the Victory Lane confrontation, Andretti sat on his pit wall, smoldering.

“The kid made a mistake,” he said. “He hit me. That’s how he tries to get into the lead, by knocking guys out of the way. If he can’t see any better than that, he’d better get glasses.

“He’s been making a habit of that, and that’s too bad. He punted me out of the lead in Miami (late last year), and he did the same thing to (Emerson) Fittipaldi at the Meadowlands (last July), so he’s got three beautiful ones going for him.

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“He hit me in the right rear and spun me and cut the tire . . . blew the tire, and that’s it.”

A small man with a large video camera on his shoulder asked, “Is that racing or is that aggressive driving?”

“That’s stupid driving,” Andretti replied.

While Unser went off to the victory stand and then the winner’s news conference, Andretti went to Michael’s transporter in the outdoor garage area to take a shower and change.

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Afterward, he had cooled down a little, but not much.

Told that Unser had expressed some regret over the incident, Andretti said: “He should feel bad, because I have to keep from running over a backmarker (Sneva), and he should probably pay attention, too. We’re both really going for it, but it’s a matter of containing your emotions.”

Andretti has known Unser well since Mario and Al Unser Sr. were teammates on Parnelli Jones’ “Johnny Lightning” team in the early 1970s. “Little Al” and Michael played together as children along the racing trail.

It wasn’t as if a stranger did him in. For that, Andretti’s anger may have had an edge of personal pain. To Andretti, Unser, who will be 27 Wednesday, will always be “the kid.”

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“My feelings toward him right now are very, very upset,” Andretti said. “I find it very, very hard to accept no matter what apologies come across, because we’ve been in a situation like this before.

“I respected him when he was up front. He should do the same thing. I think his apologies are running thin at the moment.

“It’s done now, but he keeps on doing it--if not to me . . . it’s not something you can accept readily.

“These are crucial mistakes. He’s knocking me out of leads of races. Whether I would have finished first or second, we’ll never know. But it’s points (for) the (season) championship . . . a lot of things at stake, and he has some responsibility, too.

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“To me, it’s a pretty grave mistake. I can’t accept his apology this time, I’m afraid.”

Andretti, 49, has been driving long enough to know which drivers he can trust and which ones are erratic.

“That’s right,” Andretti said. “I thought I could trust him. But, obviously, I see that I can’t. It’s pretty sorry.”

Andretti, whose own racing youth was marked with some questionable moves, also recognizes the thin line between aggressive and reckless driving.

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“He crossed that line more than once,” Andretti said of Unser. “At that point, he’s gotta do a little soul-searching of his own.”

Unser said: “Tom (Sneva) slowed down quite abruptly” an instant before the incident, then Andretti “stopped abruptly going into the corner,” causing them to collide.

Andretti: “I slowed down, of course. We were coming up on lapped traffic. (With) people in front of me, we were in a very tight situation. I’m not gonna run over these people. I prepared for it. So should he.”

Unser: “I blame myself for not reading what was going on.”

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Andretti: “That’s why we’re professionals. That’s why we have brakes. That’s why we have eyes.”


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