Andretti Autosport seems to be back on track

One of the most famous names in IndyCar racing — Andretti — is back to its winning ways after a lengthy absence.

The team of Andretti Autosport returned to Victory Lane when Ryan Hunter-Reay, a driver the team so far has hired for only a few races this season, won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.

Andretti Autosport emerged this year from the former Andretti Green Racing team after a reorganization in which co-owner and former driver Michael Andretti — son of the legendary Mario Andretti — assumed full control of the racing team.

Its other drivers are Michael’s son, Marco Andretti; 13-time winner Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick, the most popular driver in the Izod IndyCar Series.

Despite being one of the prominent, multicar teams in the sport, Andretti Green had won only two races since 2007: A victory for Kanaan at Richmond, Va., in June 2008, and Patrick’s historic win in Japan three months earlier when she became the first woman to win a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel series race.

But with Hunter-Reay’s win, “we are on the right track,” Kanaan said after finishing fifth in the Long Beach race. Marco Andretti finished 14th and Patrick was 16th.

The team had shown signs of renewed vigor even before it arrived in Long Beach. Hunter-Reay finished second in the season opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil, behind winner Will Power of Penske Racing.

And in the race before Long Beach in Birmingham, Ala., Marco Andretti led 58 of the 90 laps before finishing fifth behind winner Helio Castroneves.

“Last week we dominated the race, almost won, this week we dominated and won,” Michael Andretti said Sunday in the post-race news conference in Long Beach.

Hunter-Reay “works well with the other three drivers; they’re all getting along really well and he’s pushing them real hard, and it’s so fun to watch it all happen as an owner … and seeing it on the results,” Andretti said.

But as with most teams, Andretti is struggling to attract sponsorship financing in the tough economy, specifically to give Hunter-Reay a race car for the full season.

“I’m just hoping that we can get the rest of the support we need to get him through the series because we just can’t let his car stop running,” Andretti said. But he added that if Hunter-Reay “keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s making it easier for us.”

Exerting Force

At age 60, the irrepressible John Force keeps adding to his legend.

Already the holder of a remarkable 14 NHRA funny-car championships, Force has rebounded from a winless 2009 to win three races already this year in his 33rd season. The latest: Sunday’s Spring Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when he beat two-time champion and former teammate Tony Pedregon in the finals.

And one of the best aspects of a Force victory is hearing what the always emotional and effusive driver/team owner has to say afterward.

“What I work for right now is to be able to compete and show my kids that I can still do it,” said Force, who has three daughters who also are drag racers in the National Hot Rod Assn. Force said that when he was winning all his titles, “every time I won, the trophies were taller than them.”

“I told my guys we keep our focus,” he continued. “We test tomorrow. No party tonight, not even a team dinner. If you want a shot at [another title], that is how it was in the old days.”

Then Force turned his attention to Pedregon, a Torrance native who made news with Force last September when they got into a shouting match on television after a race in Indianapolis.

Referring to the 45-year-old Pedregon as “a young kid,” Force noted that Pedregon has been “struggling with no budget” but that he told Force on Sunday that “ ‘I may not have parts, but I’ll give you a race.’ ”

“I said, ‘That is why I love you, Tony,’ ” Force said. “He will get right. God bless that kid.”