IRL: Indy 500: Mario, Michael Andretti press conference

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 23, 2003 -- An interview with 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti and his son, Michael Andretti, a few moments before Mario's return to the cockpit of an Indy-style car April 23 at the Indianapolis Motor ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 23, 2003 -- An interview with 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti and his son, Michael Andretti, a few moments before Mario's return to the cockpit of an Indy-style car April 23 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mario Andretti, 63, drove the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone normally driven by IRL IndyCar Series standout Tony Kanaan, who is recovering from a broken arm suffered in the Indy Japan 300 on April 13 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan.

Michael Andretti, 40, co-owns the car, fielded by Andretti Green Racing. Michael will make the final start of his illustrious career May 25 in the 87th Indianapolis 500.

MARIO ANDRETTI

Q: How did this come about?

Mario: Well, it was just idle talk between Mike and I. It was almost an April Fools' column that Paul Rinehardt did that got us talking. Then events were happening with their drivers. He always knows I'm open for a challenge, so he said: 'Would you like to give it a try? I might have to qualify the car for Tony.' And I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a try.' So that's where we are.

Q: Your feelings today about going back on the track at Indy?

Mario: Well, the feelings are always the same, you know, a lot of anticipation. You look at it like a rookie; you don't take anything for granted. I can technically say I lived on this track for my adult life, but I've always had the utmost respect for it. And it brings some anxiety, because again I'm taking it very seriously, and I want to be productive if I can at all for the team and for myself. I have no illusions of restarting a career or anything like that. It's just that I feel I have the experience here that I probably can handle the situation here better than anywhere else at this stage in my life, and that's where I am. I have full confidence in the cars and the team. As you can probably imagine, how could I feel more confident having Michael's team and the Green boys that I think are as good as they come? All these factors play. And for me it could be another uplift of satisfaction. You know, we're all trying to soothe an ego somewhere. I'm not hiding that. But I'm always up for a challenge, too. I'm not in the pasture yet totally, so this will give me a bit of an uplift. It will bring me up to speed on a lot of things. I do a lot of talking to Firestone dealers around the country. I talk about experiences now. I should be able to talk about current experience with their technology, their latest racing tires and things like that. So all of this really works for me. If it works with me, it works with the people I work with. I just spoke with Al Speyer (Firestone racing director) this morning. He said: 'This is fantastic, because again it puts you to the present tense where you're talking again. We all respect your experience of the past and so forth.' That still plays. But it's just another notch that puts me closer to being informed. I always prided myself in staying informed in the sport, because whenever I was active I always looked at people around me and even drivers who had retired, 'Oh, shoot, they're out of it, they don't know what the hell's going on.' Well, I didn't want to be in that category. T hat's why I stay close to Mike, close to racing and watch everything. I watch NASCAR, I watch IRL, CART. I attend the CART races, so I think I was as informed as I could be. And that is good, because after all the sport has been my life, and I think it's going to continue to be.

Q: What about your reflexes?

Mario: I went to get my physical, and believe it or not, I didn't hit the barn door when I went to the doctor. I did the normal test because I have no illusion. The body does deteriorate. Fortunately, like my eyesight is exactly the same as when I left here in 1994. And all those things play. I pay a lot of attention to that. After all, it's not that I was out of the car since '94. I did Le Mans in 2000, and they have a very rigorous test, as well. Physically, I don't think it's a problem in the world.

Q: What if you put this car on the pole?

Mario: Well, I guess we'll deal with that. There's no use to go out there and speculate. You know the usual things we say; we deal with these things one day at a time.

Q: What will you try to accomplish today?

Mario: Today I will try to see exactly how I feel. Just what Dick alluded to, your reflexes, your everything. It's all up to a test. In a business like this, you earn your stripes every day, take nothing for granted, go out there and be honest with yourself. We have a lot of things on the plate to look at and bounce off of, you know, whether all the awareness I need to have is still there, the feedback and the person, just the way I feel, my car through the corners, the G forces and all of that. It's all to be tested today and evaluated. And hopefully, like responsible adults, we'll say, you know what, maybe that was a good experience, kind of let's leave it alone, or you're up for the task and come back here in May and fill in the gap and see how it goes. I'm sure that Tony (Kanaan) -- and I'm only doing this to fill in Tony's gap. He'll be chomping at the bit. He won't leave his readiness to go one hour what is the limit, so if he can go in the car in the middle of the week, so be it. We'll see how he feels. Or if he thinks, you know what, for insurance I might qualify the car. Then depending on how things go on that first weekend, he may leave it and start last or qualify the second weekend himself and position himself better, which obviously he'd have to qualify another car. It's an insurance for the team that the car is in the show. That's very important for everything, the sponsors and everything. And that's what Michael was looking at, not to set the world on fire but to have an insurance. He has responsibility to all the sponsors, everyone involved, to have four cars in the field. And that's the objective here.

Q: You've had the same experience of people qualifying for you?

Mario: Yeah, Mike Hiss and Wally Dallenbach. I'm probably one of the very few people who have gone through that experience, because for force majeur, I guess. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to make things happen, and that's what we're doing.

Q: Nervous?

Mario: You're always nervous. Of course. If I wasn't nervous, I'd be a fool. But that's the way I've always felt throughout my life. I remember, I was just in midgets, ARDC midgets, and you usually get that bit of tension and the proverbial butterflies. And then I used to say to myself, 'I wonder when that's going to disappear.' Well, it never did. And it never should. Because that means you're out there, you're taking things for granted, you're not focusing properly. And when you're focusing properly, that means you're anxious. You've got that anxiety but a bit of tension. As soon as you're out there, all of this is supposed to disappear. And it does. I mean, I've been through that. So again, I'm very cautiously optimistic, and I'm just anxious to get on with it. (Laughing) A.J. (Foyt) says for the rookie test he wants to be out there judging me. And I say, probably A.J. would be in a car about two days after me.

Q: Did you ever think something like this would happen?

Mario: No, no, it wasn't planned.

MICHAEL ANDRETTI

Q: In interviews you said you wanted to get your dad involved, but did you expect him to become involved like this?

Michael: I knew we had to try to do it some way, and what better way can you do it? It's funny how the circumstances fell. It's really cool. Again, dad's going to be a part of a big moment in my life. It's my last race here at Indianapolis. He's going to be a part of it, so it's really cool.

Q: You start out as a car owner and suddenly you're void of two of your drivers?

Michael: Boy, I'll tell you. Last week was a tough week: Oh, God, is this what I needed, is this what I should be doing? It's tough when you see a guy like Tony, who's a friend, get hurt. And then find out, man, Dario (Franchitti), is not going to be able to run. It sure is a big hit for our team, but I guess it's a character builder for all of us. I guess when we get through this I feel we're going to be real characters.

Q: At least you had somebody to turn to in your own household.

Michael: It was funny how it all just came down. Again, it all happened around dinner, actually at my house. We were having dinner, my sister, my dad's there, my wife and kids, and we started talking about a replacement for Tony, and my sister said, 'Why don't you get dad to do it?' And we just started talking, and finally I said, 'Yeah, dad, why not, do you want to do it?' Dad was like, 'Noooooooo.' Then we talked about it more and more, and then he said he'll think about it. The next day he said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' What have you got to lose? Let's just test you. If you feel comfortable in it and you can run the speeds, what the heck?

Q: How do you expect your dad to do today?

Michael: My prediction is the third run he'll be flat all the way around.

Q: How special is it to have your dad here for your final 500?

Michael: It's special to have him here for my last 500, but now it's even more special that he's going to be a part of it again. It's like I won my championship (in 1991), he was there on the podium with me, teammate. Thinks like that are really special and stay with you the rest of your life. I'm sure 20 years from now we'll be talking about this day.

Q: What about being you dad's boss?

Michael: Yeah, that's another thing. That's another first for the Andretti's. I don't think it's ever been done where a father's driven for his son, so that's another new one for us.

Q: Did he drive a hard bargain?

Michael: Don't say anything, he's been cheap so far.

Q: Knowing your dad and his competitiveness, he might try to put it on the pole?

Michael: Well, that, and we told Tony he better hide his arm. He doesn't want to keep it too exposed in front of dad.

Q: (Mario) might whack it?

Michael: Exactly.

Q: If he does decide to run, what do you expect out of him?

Michael: I expect him to do as quick as that car can do. I don't think there's anybody any quicker around this place. I don't think he's lost that side of it. There's something about this place, once you have that feeling and experience, it stays with you like riding a bicycle. Physically, I think he can still do it. He said his eyesight is still perfect, stuff like that, so I'm sure he's going to be able to do it.

Q: Something like this wouldn't be done anywhere else?

Michael: No. It's like you have two events in the month of May here, and that is qualifying and the race. So we're basically structuring this for the first event, which is qualifying, because Tony definitely will make the race. There's a good possibility he is going to qualify, as well. So this is more of a backup situation in which you wouldn't have that if it was a regular two-day event, a three-day event.

Q: Will you dad put pressure on you to let him stay in?

Michael: Like I said, Tony's going to have to hide his arm.

-ims-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Wally Dallenbach Sr. , Michael Andretti , Tony Kanaan , Mario Andretti