Indy's powerful lure hooks an Andretti after six years

ON MOTOR SPORTS

April 01, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The joy was there to be heard in Michael Andretti's voice. The veteran CART driver is coming back to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League went their separate ways in 1995.

"I'm tickled to death to be back at Indy," Andretti said.

Say what you will about the Indianapolis 500 and its perceived loss of prestige since the split - it is still a Siren. All by itself, the race is putting an end to the boycott that has kept CART teams and drivers away from Indianapolis.

At the end of the 1999 season, Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner, couldn't stand it any longer. After leaving Team Penske, he decided to leave CART, too, and joined the Rick Galles Team in the IRL so he could race at Indy.

Last year, car owner Chip Ganassi came back. He had raced Indy himself in the 1980s and tasted victory there as part owner of the Pat Patrick Racing team that won the 1989 race with Emerson Fittipaldi. He knew history and reputations are made at Indianapolis and couldn't resist its pull.

So Ganassi, whose CART teams had won four straight titles (1996-1999), became the first to officially cross the boycott line. He entered Juan Montoya, won the race and admitted afterward that winning at Indy brought his team more recognition than his four CART titles.

Indy tugs at the psyche and at egos. It forces car owners and drivers to test themselves, not so much against the competitor in the next garage or pit but against the track itself - and against those who raced there in other eras.

If it weren't so, Andretti could have stayed away. Certainly, the Indianapolis 500 has brought him and his family more disappointment over the years than it has brought joy. Andretti's dad, Mario, won the 500 in 1969 but lost it many more times while having the best car. Heck, Mario even lost it once in a courtroom months after the race was over.

And Michael? Michael has competed in 11 Indy 500s and led more laps (382) than anyone else who hasn't won. Three times, including the last 500 he ran in 1995, he dropped out while leading.

In 1995, he hit a wall. A few years before that, in 1992, he led 160 laps but didn't win because his engine let go with 10 laps to go. And the year before that, he did everything right and still lost because Rick Mears, the eventual winner with a late-race pass, was able to make up a lap when Andretti's car suffered a flat tire.

Bad luck at Indy just seems to run in the family. Mario once led 170 laps only to see his engine die seven laps from the end.

"At Indy, it has to be your day," Michael said. "Maybe my five-year reprieve shed some of the bad luck, and I can start new here. You think about some of the bad days at Indy, but you have to move on."

But move on to where?

Tug. Tug. Tug.

He's come back to Indy, because he's never won the Indianapolis 500, not that winning it would have mattered. Remember Al Jr. already had won it twice when he came back.

Indy simply gnaws at them.

"I was starting to think I'd never get back here," said Andretti, 38. "I can't tell you how empty I felt every May, knowing the cars were running at Indy and knowing I wasn't going to be there."

But then Montoya raced at Indy. Andretti, watching on TV, was struck more than ever by his desire to be there. He told his new car owner, Barry Green, that it was a priority, and Green worked hard to put together a deal.

Andretti will drive a Motorola/Archipelago-sponsored car prepared by Panther Racing, the IRL team whose driver, Sam Hornish Jr., won the IRL season opener.

Agreement between CART and the IRL has never been reached despite years of negotiating. But this May, the Indianapolis 500 will look like the Indianapolis 500.

The names everyone associates with Indy - Unser, Andretti, Penske, Ganassi - will be there. Oh, every big team won't be, but the doors are now wide-open.

Penske, who has 10 Indy 500 victories, is coming back with two cars for CART champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. Though Montoya has moved on to Formula I, Ganassi's cars will return with Nicolas Minassian and Bruno Junqueira.

An Unser will be there.

An Andretti will be there.

Indy simply won't let them go.

If you're an open-wheel race fan, you are very happy.

Ratings soar

Winston Cup ratings on Fox have been up, up, up. From the first broadcast this season, the stock car series has beaten every sport it has met head-to-head. Just ask Fox.

Sports TV columnists, however, advised caution. Wait, they said, until the NCAA basketball tournament and see what happens.

OK, this is what happened.

Two weeks ago, the race from Darlington, S.C., pulled in a 6.1 rating and a 15 share nationally, beating the NCAA tournament, which drew a 4.9 rating. (A rating measures the percentage of all television households watching a particular program. A share measures the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to a particular program.)

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