It's been nearly eight months since Michael Andretti climbed out of his ...
It's been nearly eight months since Michael Andretti climbed out of his #7 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda IndyCar Series racer to take on the fulltime role as team co-owner of Andretti Green Racing.
After running the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the man who has won 42 CART Champ Car events and led more laps (426) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Indy 500 than any non-winner, Andretti hung up his hat and gloves and went to his new job, overseeing the operation of his [then] three-car team.
Over this off-season, that role changed significantly as Andretti Green Racing stepped up to take on a fourth car, something the team did at Indy last year, with Michael, regular drivers Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon, along with Robby Gordon, who was substituting for the injured Dario Franchitti.
This year Franchitti returns, as do Kanaan and Wheldon. They'll be joined by Bryan Herta, who served immensely well as Franchitti's replacement over much of the year, acing one victory and three consecutive podium finishes in his 11 starts.
The four-car squad is "definitely a challenge for us, but after running four cars at Indy last year we have experience. The Indy Racing League's new testing rules give our four-car team an advantage. It'll certainly be a challenge to our organization but I feel that we have the best people in the business and our management team is second to none," Andretti remarked.
While he is "under no illusion" that this will be an easy job, "we're really glad to have Bryan back with us. He fits well in the organization and he did such a great job last year. We did a lot of thinking about this and I think we can pull it off. We've got a huge advantage [with four cars] under these new rules," Andretti said.
Over and over Michael's been asked if he has regrets, getting out of the race car at what could be considered a young age of 41, particularly when his 63-year-old father still has the urge to drive. "I think I've got racing out of my system," he explained. "This will be my first year strictly as a team owner and I'm not in the same shape I was last year when I was driving. I enjoy this role," he said. "I have no desire to get back in a car and believe I made the right decision to get out of the car."
He's been asked if another try at Indianapolis is on the docket but he thinks it's not in the cards. "I would have to start working out now to be in shape for that race and I'm happy with the situation the way it is right now," he noted. "I'm going to try to help the team with my experience at the Speedway. I'm looking forward to enjoying the month of May for once. It's a different kind of pressure than putting your butt on the line."
Andretti and the two other principals in Andretti Green Racing, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree had to make a "big decision on the driver situation. Bryan did such a great job for us last year that he deserves this. He's the big reason why Tony was able to compete for the championship up to the last race," Andretti revealed.
He's glad to have these particular four drivers in his lineup and noted the camaraderie between all of them. "Dario's return means a lot to me and to the team. I know he's out there champing at the bit to get in the car and I really think he'll be a force to be reckoned with this season. We are counting on Dario's great set-up abilities to help us out this year. He and Tony get along so well and we just can't wait to get him back."
The Andretti Green Racing team announced today that it has inked ArcaEx (Archipelago Exchange) as a major sponsor on the #27 Dallara/Honda for Franchitti. It is an open, all-electronic stock exchange. Archipelago was part of the sponsorship group for Franchitti - and later Herta during the 2003 season.
Driver chemistry in a team of this size is extremely important and the fact that Herta, Kanaan and 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year Dan Wheldon worked in concert willingly and well over their tough first summer in the highly competitive IndyCar Series is a boon to AGR. "Last year teams like ours needed to get experience with the League.
"I like the new rules" implemented to slow the cars and to lessen the cost to team owners such as himself. "It was crazy last year with all of the testing and it just doesn't mean a whole lot. You pretty much throw money away doing all that testing," Andretti admitted. "The best teams always come out on top and I think the best teams will figure out the different aerodynamic changes the IRL has made. I'm glad they made those changes."
With the implementation of three-liter engines at the Brickyard in May, "we'll be focusing on drag reduction. It's all going to be about how much downforce you run and the team that figures it out first gets things done," Michael noted. "We are 100% committed to the Dallara chassis for 2004," he said. "We don't feel the chassis is a big advantage one way or the other so we didn't make a change to Panoz G Force after this season. We'd have to learn so much about it and we have enough to learn right now."
With all of these changes to the aerodynamic and engine packages, "It's almost a totally new package for 2004. You just can't sit back. You have to go out and explore the new car and figure what set-up is needed for different tracks. I think all these changes will be good for the racing, but there's so much we won't know until we get to Homestead for the first test" that takes place January 28-29. "I think everybody's going to be in the same boat, searching a little bit."
Michael Andretti has always been a proponent for slowing cars down but believes rules-makers can't arbitrarily go in and effect changes. "I think we're going in the right direction because you have to be careful how you do it. That's the challenge, to do it right. I just like the way Brian Barnhart and the IRL have reacted and that they are just trying to do the right thing.
"Now, that's not to say that there might not be some massaging of the rules, trying to make them better yet, but at least they are trying and they are trying to do things to make cars safer. I applaud them for what they are trying to do," he said.
Among the changes to this year's cars are the adoption of road course sidepods that could ease a transition to some road circuits for the Indy Racing League. "I'd love to see road courses sooner than later but what happens with CART has a lot to do with it. I think we need one series and it'll be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks." Andretti doesn't think road courses should be the "main thing" for the IndyCar Series but "three or four to start with would be good."
He believes venues in both Canada and Mexico would be appropriate because "they've got such great fans there. We are ready to go and we know the importance of doing this. Something has to happen." Putting the current Indy Racing League chassis on road courses would require a lot of hard work, he acknowledges. "I think our [current] cars would be a lot like the CART cars in the middle '90s, when they were a lot of fun to drive. I think these cars would be like that."
Andretti's part-season with McLaren in Formula One and his failure to win the Indianapolis 500 are, of course, his two biggest disappointments. "Indy especially because I had so many opportunities there. I guess is just wasn't meant to happen, but maybe I could get a win as an owner and that would be huge," Andretti revealed.
The Michael Andretti era in racing has ended, albeit in a different manner than this truly successful driver might have wanted it to, with another DNF at Indy in May of 2003, but "I have no regrets and I'm very happy with the way things went in my career," he said. This second-generation Italian- American pilot is poised to become one of the most successful team owners in open wheel history and that's just the way he wants it.