LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Michael Andretti is a hard man to nai down. After all, it's pretty difficult catching up to someone who is rocketing down a straightaway at 220 mph.
However, race fans seeking his autograph better take note: Make a concerted effort to get it sometime this year.
You may not get the opportunity next year.
The 28-year-old son of racing legend Mario Andretti plans to take a course once charted by his father, embarking on a career in Formula One racing, perhaps as early as the 1992 season.
"To do Formula One and to shoot for the world championship remains the highest honor you can achieve in motor racing," Michael said. "I think most drivers would love to have the opportunity to do that."
Andretti already has started the ball -- er, car -- rolling. Over the winter, he signed a testing contract with McLaren International and had a brief, rain-interrupted foray with the British team at Portugal's Estoril circuit on Feb. 4-7. He was able to log only about 25 laps during the session, driving last year's Honda-powered V-10 chassis. Fewer than 15 of those laps were at speed.
"I was trying to learn the car and the track [at the same time], so I don't have a real good feel for what it [the car] can do," he said. "But my first impression was that it was not a drastic change from what we're doing now [in Indy cars].
"But there are differences. You can just feel that the car's much lighter. It brakes a bit better because there's a 400-pound weight difference [between an Indy Car and a Formula One]. The power felt similar to an Indy Car, but the ride was different because of the aerodynamic differences and handling characteristics.
"But, in the end, it was just another race car that you have to try to develop a feel and try to find the limits."
Andretti emphasizes that he has only entered "exploratory negotiations" with McLaren for next year.
"I might not end up with them," he said, "but there are only three or four [Grand Prix] teams I would consider driving for. It wouldn't make sense giving up a top-flight Indy Car ride for a mediocre one in Formula One."
Only 15 American drivers have ever competed on the Formula One circuit since its inception in 1950, and only five -- Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Peter Revson -- have ever won a race. And only two have ever worn the mantle of world driving champion, Hill in 1961 and Andretti in 1978.
The last American to contest the world championship was Eddie Cheever in 1989 and the last victory by a U.S. driver was Michael's father at Holland in 1978, the same year he won six races and the championship for John Player/Team Lotus.
"Patriotism is really in now, you know, with the Gulf War and everything," Andretti said. "I'm proud to be an American. It'd be very nice carrying the American flag because, the way it looks, I'd be the only American over there [in Formula One].
"That's very special. It's sort of like being in the Olympics . . . driving for your country."
The relative lack of success by American drivers at the Formula One level can, in part, be attributed to two factors -- demographics and lifestyle. The roots of U.S. racing are on oval tracks, both on the dirt and on asphalt, while road racing was born in Europe in long-distance events on country roads at the turn of the century. Over the years, American drivers racing on the continent have been severely hampered by alienation from their European counterparts and by trying to adjust to living conditions in Europe that are vastly different from that of the United States with regard to food, culture and a host of other factors. Also, financial support from American-based companies in Formula One is only a recent phenomenon. Put all that together and it's easy to pinpoint the barriers that have confronted U.S. drivers with Formula One aspirations.
But Michael is better prepared than most drivers to deal with the transition to Formula One. During summer vacations as a teen-ager, he traveled extensively on the Grand Prix circuit when his father was racing for Lotus from 1976 to 1979 and is fully aware of the obstacles he faces.
"I'm going in with my eyes wide open," he said. "I remember sitting in on team meetings with my dad and [Lotus team owner] Colin Chapman. I don't think there are going to be any real surprises. I know what to expect. There won't be that intimidation factor [from the Europeans] that some drivers might experience.
"It's like when I got into Indy Cars. I knew A.J. [Foyt]. I knew [Johnny] Rutherford. I knew [Gordon] Johncock. I knew all those guys, so there wasn't that real intimidation that a rookie would usually feel."