IRL: Ciao Michael Andretti

IRL: Ciao Michael Andretti
May 25, 2003, 5:32 AM

INDIANAPOLIS - A fierce competitor is retiring this Sunday. But not really. Michael Andretti will suit up for the final time as he tries to win his 14th start in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. This man - who has led more laps than any driver ...

INDIANAPOLIS - A fierce competitor is retiring this Sunday. But not really. Michael Andretti will suit up for the final time as he tries to win his 14th start in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. This man - who has led more laps than any driver without winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, 389 - has one more chance to put his mug on the Borg Warner trophy. One more try.

Michael Andretti.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
"Focus, focus, focus" is what Michael has been doing all month long. Focusing on the race this Sunday. Not on qualifying. "I've never been a great qualifier." Not on practice speeds. "We've been running in race trim since we got here." Not on anything else but winning this race. And, actually, Michael Andretti is trying very hard not to think about Sunday. "I'm trying to treat it like just any other race."

This hasn't been a normal month of May for Andretti and his Andretti Green Racing team. "But it's been the most fun I've ever had the month of May," despite the distractions of having two injured drivers, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. Despite the distractions of having to choose two substitute drivers for Franchitti, Robby Gordon at Indy and Bryan Herta through, at least, the first part of June.

Another distraction? Seeing his father perform aerobatic maneuvers on the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval as 63-year-old Mario helped set up Kanaan's #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda prior to the opening of practice May 4th. Dealing with the press infusion that followed Mario's flying stunt and heaving a sigh of relief that all his legendary father suffered in the incident was a cut chin. Yes, those are distractions.

"There's a different atmosphere this month. It feels good. But I'm not thinking about the fact that it's 48 hours until my last race. I'm still very, very focused on it being just another race I try to win. I can't think about it any other way." Will his emotions get the better of him when 500 miles are complete? "When I see that checkered flag, it'll probably all come out."

Michael, Mario and Marco Andretti.
Photo by Anne Proffit.
It's hard not to compare Mario and Michael Andretti. "I think, when we were both in the car, we gave it everything we had. And we're both very aggressive; we both went for the win."

 The motivation, though, has been different. "Dad and I, we have different motivations in racing. Dad was motivated for the win, the accolades, loved it, the passion. But I was more motivated by the fear of losing. And I think that had a lot to do with the way I was brought up. Focus was on me from day one to not fail. So I think that's what motivated me. I didn't want to fail. I was scared to death of failing." 

Michael Andretti the best record of any current major American open wheel driver, with 42 victories to date. "I probably didn't enjoy my wins as much as Dad did. My mental state was driving me there. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy racing. I loved it. I had the passion for it."

While his father retired at the age of 54, Michael Andretti is still a relatively young 40 years old. "Dad and I are two totally different people. I have other interests besides driving. Dad's total interest in life was driving the race car while I always liked things outside the car, enjoyed the business side of it and things like that, and he hated it. That's the difference.

Michael Andretti and Tony Kanaan.
Photo by McQueeney.
"I really wanted to look beyond my driving years and knew I wanted to stay in the sport once I retired. Because I like the business side, I started pursuing team ownership about five years ago. Maybe I had another year or two of competition in me but, having bought this team, I can't give my driving the 100% focus I need to be competitive race in and race out. I chose to retire. I wanted to do it here at Indianapolis because I wanted one last good shot at winning."

During the years between 1996 and 2000, Andretti did not compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "They really could have been my five best years to win [with Newman/Haas Racing) and it's a shame. I feel I am one of the victims caught in the middle of the political struggles. It is tough, but then again, that's life. And if you can't control it, then that's just the way it is."

Having placed Andretti Green Racing into a first season of Indy Racing League competition, Michael is pleased with the results thus far. "I really enjoy the people here. They are very fair to competitors."

Recognizing, as a team owner, that it is a "very long road ahead, I like the positive direction of the Indy Racing League's business plan. They are getting support of good teams and good drivers. Sponsors are coming over and supporting it. Manufacturers are putting huge marketing dollars into the IndyCar Series. And you have a great rules package, stable for a long period of time. So it has a lot of things going for it.

"As we continue to put on a good show the series will come around. Do I think there will eventually be one top-notch American open wheel series? Yes, probably." The departure of talent from the open wheel ranks doesn't bother Andretti. "Guys will always want the purity of open wheel competition, but they've also got to look at the other side. I can't count the number of times I've been asked to drive in NASCAR and there's no telling if I'll end up owning a NASCAR team. We'll look at it all. The options are open."

Tony Kanaan and Michael Andretti.
Photo by McQueeney.
For the immediate future, Michael Andretti will focus on his IndyCar Series team, Andretti Green Racing. He'll continue to live in Nazareth, PA. "I can talk by phone with Kevin [Savoree] and Kim [Green]. They run the day- to-day operation of the team. I'm not needed here everyday. I come in a couple of times a month and that's just fine."

Michael also has the job of coaching son Marco, who is coming up through the Skip Barber tanks after several years in karts. At 16, Marco will have a few years before he reaches the upper echelons of open wheel racing. "It'll probably be sooner rather than later. He's winning races now and if all goes according to plan, in four or five years he'll be here, hopefully racing for us."

Another important aspect of Michael Andretti's team ownership is getting father Mario on board the operation. "We're getting closer and closer to having him be part of our team. At first I think he felt like an outsider, but after spending time with the team (this month), I think he's getting closer.

"Our team is not about politics, it's about racing. We think this is the right place to be and I think now Dad is starting to understand it. He's starting to get to that point where he sees our strengths and all the fun we have here. He's had to be convinced. I want him as part of our team and someday that could happen." One gets the feeling that sooner would be far better than later.

Michael is "very motivated to put my focus on the team. So many drivers, athletes exit their sport without a back-up plan in place and after three or four months they have nothing to do. I think I can satisfy my competitive urges with our team. We're giving it everything we have. I want a winner. I want a guy who just wants to go out and win. I like that aggression. A guy like Tony [Kanaan], for instance. He just stands on it. The second lap he's just flat. That's what I want in a driver.

"I think I'm a good boss because I want to hire the best and let them do their job. I know what it takes to have a good team and I think we've improved a ton since the start of the year. I want to meddle with the drivers because I think I can help them a lot. In fact, I look forward to that!"

How does he know he can stay out the cockpit? "I just know I can. When I make decisions, I stick to it. I'm really, really looking forward to my new job."

Michael Andretti.
Photo by McQueeney.
Once Monday comes, Michael Andretti can think of his legacy in open wheel racing and how he'd like to be remembered by his countless fans, and by his competitors. "If they recall me as a guy who could win any race no matter what starting position I had, no matter what kind of racetrack it was or whatever. I just want to remembered, 'don't count him out.'"

And if history recalls Michael Andretti as the winner of his final start, the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, all the better.

Next article
IRL: Cheever Racing wins Indy Pit Stop Challenge

Previous article

IRL: Cheever Racing wins Indy Pit Stop Challenge

Next article

IRL: Indy 500 unofficial race results

IRL: Indy 500 unofficial race results
Load comments