Andretti's scary flip at Indy gives him pause, or maybe not

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

April 27, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

Mario Andretti has been at this place before.

It's the place where most people look at the world-renowned driver and ask the question: "Is he crazy or just foolish?"

He was interrogated for months about his decision in 2000 to race at the 24-Hours of LeMans. He was only 60 years old then.

Now, he is 63. Last week, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he tested one of the Indy Racing League cars owned by his son, Michael, who is planning to race his last Indianapolis 500 this May at age 40.

Mario, who "retired" from Indy Car racing nine years ago, hit a piece of debris and took one of the most incredible rides of his career. The car somersaulted through the air and, remarkably, landed on its four wheels.

One of the most versatile drivers in history, Mario was unhurt in the crash. If needed, he will qualify the car for the Indy 500 next month for Tony Kanaan, who is recovering from a broken arm.

These activities by the 1978 World Formula One champion should not surprise anyone.

At LeMans, the man thought he could win the race -- and might have, if not for mechanical woes. Even so, there was a point when he jumped in the car during a driver's change and set off without his seat belt on.

He was flying -- almost literally, as he pressed for more power -- and while he bounced over hills and around curves in the French countryside, he thought he could buckle a multiple-point seat belt.

He couldn't. But while he was slipped and slid in his seat, he still drove at speeds approaching 280 mph.

At LeMans, what he hated most was having to defend himself, having to defend his desire to race and his decision to race.

Since last week's lucky landing, he's had to do it again.

"The questions are still there," he said, a laugh in his voice on the phone from Canada, where he was making an appearance Friday. "I always have to come up with a compelling reason."

But why should he? Sure, we've all seen what can happen when a friend gives another retired friend a chance to drive a race car again. No one has to look further than Winston Cup stock car driver Neil Bonnett's death at Daytona in 1994 in his friend Richard Childress' car to see what the price can be.

The IRL car Mario Andretti was driving Wednesday could have landed on his head instead of on its wheels. But he knows what can happen. He raced cars when drivers died every week.

And, as he said one day sitting in the sun at LeMans, "It's my life."

So it is. On the phone, he was talking about the passion "that has never totally left" him.

"Oh, I know I can't do it forever," he said. "But when an opportunity comes, you assess the moment. ... Michael said, `Dad, if you feel up to it, we can try. We can do a test.' "

It was supposed to have been a private test, but, of course, it wasn't, and when his car took flight, it was big news.

"I'm up there, looking at sky, and I'm thinking, `This could be the worst crash of my life,' " he said. "Afterward, I was asked, `Will you go back in the car?' and I said, `Of course, I'll go back. I'm in one piece, and lightning doesn't strike twice.'

"But then I go home, and I think about it. I did everything right all day, for 82 laps, and then I get caught in someone else's accident. I could have been seriously hurt. For what? I know I don't have a future as a driver. I'm 63, you know. Do I need to take these chances? The answer is obvious, and I'd really think again if another opportunity came. I'd really be careful and assess the moment."

But he also said, "When I got over 220, I started really getting into it. I was so totally happy."

The test session made Mario the oldest man to drive an Indy Car at the famed speedway. He wasn't going for any speed records, just taking it easy -- and his best lap was 225.4 mph.

Everyone wants him safe -- even he is beginning to think about that. But racing is his passion, and few have had such a relentless passion.

"I came away with a renewed and replenished spirit," he said. "The cockpit just does something to me -- and I'm milking it."

Hagerstown's fluid card

Hagerstown Speedway promoter Frank Plessinger has announced more changes to the original schedule at his speedway. The late model and small block modified show scheduled for Aug.31, the Sunday before Labor Day, has been dropped.

"We didn't realize that this date was Big Diamond's Coal-Cracker race and did not want to interfere with their most prestigious race," said Plessinger. "We also forgot that Labor Day Sunday is Bedford Speedway's year-ending, big, late-model race, and therefore, we have canceled the show. We know how important year-ending events are for each track, and we all have to work together."

On Saturday night, late model, late model sportsman and pure stock drivers will be participating in the Valvoline Cup, a national driver's points program introduced last year offering recognition and awards to drivers in more than 30 racing classes across the country.

Drivers can call toll-free 1-877-302-0290, e-mail customercare@valvolinecup.com or visit www.valvolinecup.com. Race time is 7 p.m. Gates open at 5 p.m.

Nuts and bolts

Retired Formula One and CART champ Nigel Mansell suffered cuts and bruises when he confronted a number of young men on the grounds of his cliff-top mansion on the Channel Island of Jersey. Five men in their teens and early 20s have been arrested on suspicion of the assault on Mansell, 49, and three more are being sought.

The Winston Cup and Busch Series come to Richmond International Raceway on Friday and Saturday nights.

Add Las Vegas to the tracks wanting a second Cup race. "There clearly is only one speedway that can offer everything -- a destination city; more than 125,000 hotel rooms; great weather; excellent atmosphere and great racing," said the track's GM, Chris Powell. "That's why we sold every seat [140,000] for our March race."

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