It Rains on a Parade of Andrettis at Indy : Motor racing: Mario, sons Michael and Jeff and nephew John could be the race’s first four-car family. Qualifying is postponed to today.
Mario Andretti is celebrating his Silver Anniversary as an Indianapolis 500 driver, and he would like nothing better than to have his family become the first to have four drivers in the race.
Mario, son Michael and nephew John have been in the past two 500s, equaling a family record set by the Whittington brothers, Don, Bill and Dale, in 1982. This year, Mario’s second son, Jeff, is making his first attempt to join the family in the race.
Heavy rain Saturday wiped out what was to have been the first day of qualifying for the 74th Indianapolis 500, but it was a welcome sight to the Andretti clan. Prospects are for more rain today, and if that occurs and the four-lap time trials are delayed until next weekend, it would be even better for them.
“It’s been a tough week, trying to get our cars sorted out, so a delay would help us,” said Mario Andretti, who won the 500 in 1969 and has been frustrated since in trying to get No. 2. “Little Al (Unser) and the Penskes showed us what can be done Friday, but we do need more time to figure out how they’re going so fast and we’re not.”
Unser ran 228.502 m.p.h. in a Lola-Chevy in the late afternoon Friday, the fastest lap ever at Indy. It was well ahead of Rick Mears’ official record of 224.254 and his unofficial 226.231, both run last year.
Two Penske-Chevrolets, driven by defending 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi and Mears, also were faster than 226 m.p.h.
The fastest Andretti speeds, both in Haas-Newman Lola-Chevys, are 225.655 m.p.h. by Mario and 223.453 by Michael. John, in a March Porsche, did 220.913.
“Seeing Little Al’s 228 shows me that it can be done, but he got a perfect tow from Emmo (Fittipaldi) and caught a good one,” Mario said. “It was a (public relations) lap, not a true indication of what to expect when qualifying starts. When you’re out there all alone, the speeds tend to slow down, maybe two or three miles an hour.
“When a car’s ahead of you, as long as you can see it, you get a tow, just like the draft in NASCAR. Even if it’s a long ways down the track, it punches a hole in the air that has to help. When you’re running alone, you can feel the difference, and it shows on the clock, too.”
Hopes of having four Andrettis in the 500 took a setback Friday when Jeff hit oil dropped by Tero Palmroth’s Lola Cosworth and slammed into the wall in the middle of the fourth turn.
“I was following Tero and he was black flagged for leaking oil, so I backed off just to be safe,” Jeff said. “Then the back of the car came around with no warning.”
Jeff, 26, was hospitalized briefly at Hanna Medical Center for a bruised left knee, but was released to drive.
“Jeff’s OK, but it looks like we’ll have to get him another car so he can be ready next week,” Mario said. “We’re trying to get one from Carl Haas that Michael and I drove last year.”
It won’t be quite the same. Instead of a Chevy engine, which Mario and Michael have, the new car will have a slower Cosworth.
Keith Leighton, co-owner of the Jeff’s car, said he thought the crew could get the original car repaired by the middle of the week.
“I think we can pick up right where we left off,” Jeff said. “We won’t lose any momentum. Hopefully, Mother Nature will rule in our favor and rain out this first weekend of qualifying.”
Jeff Andretti is unique in one respect--he had never sat in an Indy car before driving in rookie orientation last month.
“Jeff’s the truest rookie out here,” his brother Michael said. “All of the other guys have at least driven in a race or two, but Jeff came here last month and took to the place.
“He has always been strongest on the ovals, especially the fast ovals, so Indianapolis was a natural for him. He is one of the smoothest drivers I have ever seen, and that’s what it takes here. I think we’re going to see a strong rookie run from him.”
Jeff Andretti has a powerful legacy to follow. His father was rookie of the year in 1965 and his brother co-rookie of the year (with Roberto Guerrero) in 1985.
The youngest Andretti’s racing background has been in karts, in which he won 21 of 43 events in 1981-82; in Formula Fords, as Sports Car Club of America rookie of the year in 1984 when he won six of 13 races; in Super Vees, in which he was co-rookie of the year in 1985; and in the American Racing Series in 1986-87-88.
His biggest moment in racing to date came in 1986 when he won his first ARS race at Pocono, the same weekend that Mario won an Indy car race in which Michael had started on the pole.
“It was the biggest thrill I ever had in racing,” Mario Andretti said of the weekend. “It was something you could never program, having all of us on the podium at the same time.”
Michael, 27, sees distinctive differences in the beginnings of his career, now in its eighth Indy car season, and Jeff’s.
“Jeff has had a tough road because he found it hard to get sponsorships, and you can’t run good equipment without sponsorship,” he said. “That’s the toughest part of this business, lining up sponsors. When I started out, I was fortunate to have good equipment and caught the attention of the right people.
“It all comes down to having a good race car under you. When I came here for my rookie year, I felt I had a legitimate contender to win the race, and that feeling did a lot toward pushing me along.
“I had already driven some fast laps at Indy before I ever took rookie orientation, so it wasn’t new to me the way it was to Jeff.”
Despite his obvious disappointment at not being able to match the Unser and Penske team speeds, Mario Andretti says that the inclination to coach Jeff has not been a distraction to his own effort.
“There are certain things I can tell him or Michael can tell him,” Mario said, “but ultimately he has to do it on his own. We talked to him about his line (around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile rectangular oval), and he listened and he picked up five miles an hour in a short time.”
Jeff Andretti’s fastest lap has been 209.001 m.p.h., run Tuesday.
“What I like about him is that he is well aware of what he’s doing, and he’s not in over his head,” Mario Andretti said. “He went through rookie orientation very impressively. Basically, he’s on his own. When we have a break in practice, we go over and see what’s going on with his car, but that’s about all.”
Nor does Mario see much significance in the fact that this is his Silver Anniversary race.
“No way, in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that I’d be coming here with my two sons 25 years after my rookie year,” he said, “but as far as celebrating is concerned, we’ll celebrate if we win.
“If we don’t, we’ll wait for 26.”