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Indy Racing League

Heading over, then out

Michael Andretti's switch from CART is a break from the past and a key to his future as a car owner.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

Michael Andretti knows acceleration. He knows momentum. He knows when he's heading in the right direction. Right now, he says, it's a left turn into the Indy Racing League's IndyCar series -- followed almost immediately by an exit ramp into the new Andretti Green Racing boardroom.

No more winding country roads and narrow downtown streets. No more tight turns. No more right turns. Championship Auto Racing Teams, once the pre-eminent force in open-wheel racing in the United States, is in Andretti's rear-view mirror. Just ahead, strictly left turns on ovals.

He has forsaken CART for the IRL "because that's where we feel open-wheel racing is going. That is where our sponsors wanted to be. That is where Honda (his engine maker) is. In other words, many factors. . . .

"I am definitely going to miss road racing. I'm hoping that somewhere in the future there will be road racing in the Indy Racing League. But for right now we have the ovals, and we are going to make the best of it."

And, as a driver, the last of it. He bought Team Green from Barry Green last year and has been running the renamed Andretti Green Racing with partners Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, Barry's brother.

(He will drive in the first four races this season in the IndyCar series (a new name for what was IRL, though IRL is still the sanctioning body), including the Indy 500. Then he'll step aside and become a full-time team owner. "When you're a driver, all you really have to worry about is driving," Andretti said. "Now, with so many things to occupy your time, you are concerned with a lot of different things. . . . My future in racing is ownership, so that is where my real commitment is going to be. I want to make this team one of the best, if not the best, and that is my goal."

There's also the matter of age. Michael is 40. His father, Mario, and several other CART greats drove into their 50s, but he won't.

"You can do it, but you are not going to be competitive," Michael said. "There are so many young kids out there that, when they get to be 21, they have been racing for so long that they not only have the bravado and all that, but they also have the experience and have been well-trained. It's just much different than it was 10, 15 years ago."

Nevertheless, he said, "there's still a little piece of unfinished business I want to take care on the racetrack" before he slices his owner-driver title in half. "I still want to win the Indianapolis 500. It's the one thing that I haven't done in my career, and it's the one thing that I really want to accomplish. . . .

"They say it's just another race, and it is -- but it isn't. It's a very difficult race to win."

Andretti knows that all too well. This will be his 14th Indy 500. His best finish: second behind Rick Mears in 1991, the year Andretti was CART champion. In 2001 he was third; last year he was seventh. His father won the 1969 Indy 500, his only victory in 29 starts there. Michael has won a CART-record 42 races and has led 382 laps at Indy, more than any other non-winner. That's 47 laps behind Mears, a four-time 500 champion.

Michael Andretti was one of the IRL's strongest critics when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George created it in 1996 as a cut-rate alternative to the accelerating costs in CART. Andretti and many other big-name drivers stayed with CART, which meant being shut out of the Indianapolis 500.

The next year the IRL dropped its controversial rule guaranteeing 25 of the 33 Indy 500 starting positions to regulars of its series. In 2000 Chip Ganassi, a CART car owner, entered cars in the Indy 500. One of his drivers, 1999 CART champion Juan Montoya, won it.

The CART-to-IRL flow continued. Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy 500 winner, came to the IRL in 2000. Roger Penske, one of the sport's most dominant car owners who stayed with CART, entered the 2001 Indy 500. His drivers, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, finished 1-2. When Penske switched to the IRL, Castroneves won again in 2002.

CART's top two engine manufacturers, Honda and Toyota, jumped to IndyCar for this year. Andretti, affiliated with Honda, made the move and brought along CART drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan as teammates.

Andretti will run a four-car team at Indy, including rookie Dan Wheldon, who will taking Andretti's place as a driver after Indy.

"I'm a very lucky man," Andretti said. "Over the past 20 years, I've been able to pursue my dreams and succeed at my profession. I've been supported, encouraged and surrounded by people in the racing industry who continue to show me that anything is possible in this sport. I am very happy about this decision.

"Believe me when I tell you that I will be just as proud to accept first-place trophies as the team owner of Andretti Green Racing as I have been to accept them as a driver."

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