IRL: Mario: Back home again

IRL: Mario: Back home again

INDIANAPOLIS, April 23, 2003 - There he stood on a perfect, warm, sunny spring day, an icon of American open wheel racing. The Driver of the Century. Mario Andretti is here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, helping son Michael and Andretti Green...

INDIANAPOLIS, April 23, 2003 - There he stood on a perfect, warm, sunny spring day, an icon of American open wheel racing. The Driver of the Century. Mario Andretti is here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, helping son Michael and Andretti Green Racing, who managed to lose the services of two drivers within the space of two weeks due to injury.

Mario Andretti.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Leading to the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, this is not a best-case scenario for any team, much less AGR, who are lead crew for Honda Performance Development's entry in the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. Who could Michael, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree call?

Tony Kanaan may not be able to qualify his #11 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda on the first weekend of qualifying so, as an insurance policy, dear ol' Dad got the call to come out and test, to see if he still has the right stuff to put Kanaan's car in the field.

"We couldn't come up with a downside to this," Michael said. "If this day works out well, we'll take it further and Dad will stand by if needed. Open wheel racing needs to do what it can to get the word out and it's good for us and for Dad. The last one and a half weeks have been tough for all of us with both Tony and Dario's accidents.

"Tony should be okay for qualifying but Dario's out and this definitely hurts us as a strong team. There are three or four guys we're looking at for Dario but I don't know where this Tony Stewart stuff started. I don't think I've ever even said hello to the guy," Michael admitted.

Tony Kanaan, at the Speedway for the elder Andretti's test noted, "Mario is my racing hero. Obviously, if he does that (qualifies for Kanaan), I'll have to start from the rear," he said. "I never thought about it until Michael did. I'm 100% sure I'll be back for 'bump' day," which would be four weeks after his crash at Twin Ring Motegi.

"The bone really needs eight weeks to heal fully and, with the plate inserted, I can't twist my arm until it bonds to the bone." Little by little, Tony is getting his mobility back, but there are enough questions to force AGR to look for a driver who could provide insurance that the #11 car makes the field for the May 25th race.

"This all started as small talk," Mario admitted. "My daughter Barbie brokered this thing. It was her bright idea and it's gotten a life of its own," he said, standing in the garage area wearing Michael's Team 7-Eleven green driving suit. Yes, it fits the 63-year-old icon.

"For me, dealing with the challenge of doing this to help Michael, it gives me an opportunity to test myself at this stage of my life." Andretti has praise for the conditions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway he conquered in 1969: "The track is the smoothest I have ever driven it and, while things change all the time, they're not too dramatic in racing."

So it's tougher to gauge ride heights and spring settings. "All my information is out the window here, so I have to readjust myself to the differences. The cars are only slightly different and they still ask for much of the same things," Mario said.

Mario Andretti.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
What about Mario Andretti's stance on open wheel racing? What about his position on the Board of Directors at CART? "I have a different philosophy on where I feel open wheel racing should be, but this is no conflict of interest for me. The way I feel is unwavered. Indy changed my life in many ways and I know the value of this race," Mario declared.

"I'm here strictly as insurance for Tony. Michael, as a car owner, has responsibility for four cars and a lot of people, and something had to be done. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has made things fantastically easy for me. They've been so accommodating."

Mario didn't get into the #11 car until late in the morning and turned just a few laps to get a feel for the seating position and the different parameters of a 2003 IndyCar Series Dallara/Honda. This afternoon, he'll see about working up to speed during the private test that has 12 drivers taking part today.

In the paddock, the other teams wanted to know if Mario would, in fact, drive in the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Some said they'd look forward to that challenge and, someone joked, the A.J. Foyt Racing crew was busy sawing one of their chassis to get team owner Super Tex out on the circuit, as well. But that, my friends, was just a joke.

As for Andretti, we'll just have to wait and see if he'll be needed during the first week of qualification runs. Owner Kim Green put the feelings of his entire Andretti Green Racing team up front: "Best case scenario is we don't need Mario, but it's good to have him available if we do."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Tony Kanaan , Mario Andretti , Kim Green , A.J. Foyt