INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 23, 2003 -- Mario Andretti's hair is the color of slate. But nothing else has changed with the Man from Nazareth since he drove in his last Indianapolis 500 in 1994. His eyes are sharp, his throttle foot heavy and...
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 23, 2003 -- Mario Andretti's hair is the color of slate. But nothing else has changed with the Man from Nazareth since he drove in his last Indianapolis 500 in 1994. His eyes are sharp, his throttle foot heavy and his desire just as intense.
That's why he has added another unbelievable chapter to his book of legends.
Andretti "unretired" April 23 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At age 63.
At the request of his son, Michael.
Michael Andretti became an Indy Racing League IndyCar Series team owner this year and has announced that the 87th annual Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on May 25 will be his last as a driver. He wanted his father be a part of his farewell but never dreamed he would call on him as a substitute driver.
Not until two of Michael's drivers -- Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti -- suffered injuries earlier this month, Kanaan a broken arm in a race crash in Japan and Franchitti a back fracture in a motorcycle accident in his native Scotland. Suddenly, Michael needed someone to qualify Kanaan's car, as Kanaan will be healed in time to drive in the race.
"It's funny how it all came down," Michael said. "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. My sister said, 'Why don't you get dad to do it?'
At first, Mario said, "Nooooooooo." Then he said he'd listen. The next day he said, "Yeah, I'll do it."
On Wednesday morning, Mario joked that it was almost like an April Fools' joke proposed in a sportswriter's column in an Allentown, Pa., newspaper. Then it got serious.
"Mike always knows I'm open for a challenge, so he said, 'Would you like to give it a try?' Mario said. "And I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a try.'"
So there were Mario and Michael standing outside the Andretti Green Racing garage at the Speedway, waiting for the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone normally driven by Kanaan to be bought to the pits. A.J. Foyt, Andretti's fiercest rival and an IRL team owner, rode by and informed all around that he wanted to go out in the turn and check out this rookie.
"A.J. would be in a car about two days after me," Mario quipped.
But the light-heartedness disappeared when Mario began talking about the situation facing him. He said he was absolutely serious about the prospect of qualifying Kanaan's car for the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
"The feelings are always the same, you know, a lot of anticipation," he said. "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 not illusions of restarting a career, or anything like that."
Andretti's career at the Speedway takes a lot print to relate. He was Rookie of the Year in 1965, won the race in 1969 in the Andy Granatelli STP-sponsored Brawner Hawk after crashing his primary car in practice and then spent another quarter-century chasing that elusive checkered flag. He led 556 laps, one more than Foyt, but fate always seemed to deal an aces-and-eights mechanical hand as victory was in his clutch.
Now the opportunity is there for him to go where no man his age has gone before. Foyt is the oldest starter in Indianapolis 500, at age 57 in 1992.
"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," Mario said.
"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 (Kim) 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."
Mario also thinks this participation will help him in his speaking engagements to Firestone dealers around the country. It will update him on not only the company's tires, but the IRL chassis and Honda engine.
He took the normal physical exam required of all drivers before they can drive on the track. His eyesight was the same as when he left in 1994. He keeps himself in shape. His last major race was the Le Mans 24 Hours in June 2000, and he drove in the Porsche Supercup race during the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in September 2000.
Still, Mario insisted he wasn't going out to set the world on fire. He wanted to check out his reflexes, see if he was comfortable and see if he still could flat-foot it around the famed 2 ½-mile oval.
"In a business like this, you earn your stripes every day," he said.
There is no certainty that Mario will qualify the car. A lot depends on how quickly Kanaan, who led 23 laps in the Indianapolis 500 last year before crashing, recovers from his broken left arm. If Andretti qualifies the car and then Kanaan steps into the cockpit for the race, the car would be moved to the rear of the field because of the driver change. The car also could be withdrawn, as Michael Andretti did with his car last May, and Kanaan could qualify on Bump Day of the second weekend to get a possible higher starting position.
"It's an insurance for the team that the car is in the show," Mario said.
Mario took the car out for the first time before the lunch break for his initial shakedown laps. Was he nervous?
"You're always nervous," he said. "Of course. If I wasn't nervous, I'd be a fool. But that's the way I've always felt throughout my life."
The senior Andretti remembers when he was young and driving ARDC midgets, feeling the tension and butterflies in his stomach before a race and wondering if they would disappear as his racing career moved along.
"Well," it never did," he said. "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 your 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."
Michael Andretti thinks his father's involvement will make his final race even more special. He said it was like 1991, when his father joined him on the podium as a teammate after Michael won the CART title.
"Things like that are really special and stay with you the rest of your life," he said. "I'm sure 20 years from now we'll be talking about this day."
Also, they'll be talking about how the father drove for his son, another Indy 500 first.
"That's another new one for us," Michael said, adding about the negotiations, "Don't say anything; he's been cheap so far."
Finally, considering Mario's competitive nature and strength of his car, would he go for the pole and ask to stay in the race?
"Well, I guess we'll deal with that," Mario said, avoiding the question. "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."
And Michael's thoughts on the subject?
"We told Tony he better hide his (broken) arm. He doesn't want to keep it too exposed in front of dad."
Because dad might whack it?