Elder Andretti stands by CART as son leaves

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

September 22, 2002|By SANDRA MCKEE

When Michael Andretti said this week he is leaving CART and taking his recently purchased open wheel teams to the rival Indy Racing League, it was no small decision.

Andretti, who will be 40 next month, grew up in CART. He is its 1991 champion and its all-time winning driver, with 42 victories.

It was also no easy decision for his dad, Mario Andretti, to accept.

Mario won the series' 1984 championship, a career total 19 races and has been a longtime, vocal supporter of CART, which held its first race in 1979. And, only recently, he joined the CART board of directors.

At home in Nazareth, Pa., Mario sighed over the phone line.

"Obviously, I am disappointed by it," he said of his son's decision to join the IRL, which races only on oval tracks. "My preferences are well-documented. Leaving the politics out of it, it is the road racing that has always been huge to me."

Mario said he would never have come back from European-based Formula One to Indy cars if the CART series had been primarily on ovals.

"To me, the ability to drive road courses demonstrates the skills of the drivers and creates the most skillful champions in the sport. But Michael is the author of his own life. I'm sure the decision was not easy. All his meaningful records are in CART. He can't just throw that away. But he was forced into the switch because that's where the opportunities are now."

And it is that one sentence that sums up the situation. The opportunities are no longer in the high-tech, primarily road racing CART series, but in the IRL. It is for that reason Mario has agreed, after being asked three times by CART president Chris Pook and car owners Carl Haas and Pat Patrick, to join the board and help solve the problems hampering the series.

Mario is not a man to hold his tongue for long. He acknowledges the IRL is putting on "exciting shows" but questions the technical value.

"I'd say at the majority of tracks, the drivers never lift their foot from the gas pedal," he said. "How much skill does it take? It's a show - perhaps. Wrestling is interesting to some people. What can I say?"

But he is equally disgusted that CART's previous leaders have allowed the series he loves to fall into very hard times.

"CART has made a lot of mistakes," Mario said. "There were so many owners on the board a couple years ago, they made stupid, terrible mistakes, many of them due to [their] greed. I'm not naming names. I don't want to get into that. But they were not looking at the big picture, and the mistakes are coming back to bite them."

The biggest one, Mario said, was not having a leader who knew how to deal with the manufacturers. He said CART's inability to gather information, analyze it and make sound decisions in a timely manner created uncertainty and cost the sanctioning body the companies that produced its cars and engines.

"I'll never defend CART for the mistakes it made," Mario said. "But I still love this product, and when they asked me the last time to come on board, I reassessed. I still didn't need to do it, but I thought I'd feel worse not doing it. So I'm throwing in my two cents."

Pook's arrival as president and CEO last December was two years too late to stave off the defections of major companies and several big teams. But Mario said Pook is in time to rebuild CART.

At 62, Mario is still an optimist. He sees new opportunities for teams in the American Le Mans Series, the Toyota Atlantic Series and other open wheel enterprises to step up to CART.

"I've always believed there are positives behind a negative," Andretti said. "Are these happy times? No. But at least CART still has a car designed for both oval and road courses and it still has a vision. It's treading water right now, because it has no choice. But there are some interesting things going on behind the scenes, and I think it will take off from here."

As for the Andrettis, they are still planning to share Thanksgiving dinner, just as they always have.

"You can't let anything that's happened interfere with family," said Mario. "As Michael said, we all have to live with change."

Nuts and bolts

The IHRA's Car Quest Nationals will be at Budd's Creek Speedway on Friday to next Sunday.

Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, Winston Cup rookie Jimmie Johnson and Tennoji multiple X-Games champion Travis Pastrana of Annapolis will represent the United States in the Michelin Race of Champions Nations' Cup Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Gran Canaria (off the coast of Spain).

Each participating nation enters a team of three, who will compete in world rally cars on a parallel track that is 30 percent pavement and 70 percent dirt.

The U.S. team will do battle against some of the best drivers in the world including the drivers from F-1, World Rally Cars and motor bikes.

Pastrana said the race is all about having fun, but added, "with so many top racers from around the globe, the competition is sure to be intense."

Cristiano da Matta has a 58-point lead in the CART championship race. The team is owned by Haas and Paul Newman, the actor, whose team last won a CART title in 1993 with Nigel Mansell.

"We're in a very good position," said Haas, noting da Matta last season won two of the four races remaining on this season's schedule. "Championships are hard to win and it has been a long time since we've won one. Right now, this one isn't guaranteed, but it is ours to lose."

Nathan Durboraw, driving for Bobby Ballantine, won the ITSI Late Model feature (his third of the season, 67th of his career) and the Hagerstown Speedway championship last weekend. It was Durboraw's seventh title, breaking the tie with Denny Bonebrake, who has six titles.

Dave Rice Jr. of St. Thomas, Pa., has earned his first late model sportsman title. In pure stock competition, Hans Stamberg of Barnsville also won his first track championship.

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