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Cool, easy change for Andretti

Michael Andretti's success as a driver has been matched by his aptitude for ownership.

By BRANT JAMES
Published March 29, 2005


HOMESTEAD - There's a certain peace about Michael Andretti, even here in the middle of the most uproarious of places, Victory Lane.

One of his drivers, Dan Wheldon, unleashes from the dais at Homestead-Miami Speedway a hail of champagne and Jim Beam that speckles on his dark sunglasses. Members of Andretti's team, headphones around necks, fire suits unzipped after a 300-mile battle, extend their hands through a mash of bodies to congratulate the boss.

Andretti is in a good place, literally and figuratively, at the Indy Racing League opener. The 42-year-old's transition from star driver - not easy considering his father, Mario, is one of racing's brightest of all - to an owner of a championship team and a sprawling business portfolio has made him one of the most powerful figures in racing.

And now Andretti adds to his resume another role. Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the first event staged by Andretti Green Promotions, a new promotional wing of his race team.

Then there's the attitude.

"He's kind of hip. ... He is," Wheldon insisted. "He's got the shades and the hair thing going. He must be going through that mid-life crisis stuff because he's very cool."

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Andretti has always tried to project a certain cool, calm facade, but there were conflicting forces within him when he decided as a child that he wanted to race. Following a father into his vocation of fame can be a recipe for unfulfilled hopes at best, humiliating failure at worst.

"There was a lot of pressure for sure, but it helped in the end I guess, to deal with pressure once I got older," Michael Andretti said. "When I started out, man, it felt like all eyes were on me and everybody was waiting for me to fail. What it did was form the way I went about things. ... For me it was about not failing. And I think it had a lot to do (with) growing up "the son of.' ... "

Andretti certainly did not fail. His racing resume is one of the most impressive ever by an American: 42 CART (now Champ Car) wins, a 1991 title and five points runnerup finishes, 15 seasons with at least one win (eight in 1991), Champ Car's all-time laps led leader.

But he understood early that he was unlikely to eclipse his father. For some that would be a letdown; for Michael Andretti it was a way to maintain perspective. The iconic definition of a race car driver, Mario Andretti won four USAC/CART championships (1965-66, '69, '84), is the only driver to win the Daytona 500 (1967) Indy 500 (1969) and a Formula One world title (1978) and retired in 1994 as CART's leader in poles (67) and starts (407). He is second in wins (52).

"When I went into this, I knew you could never fill Dad's footsteps, so I just went into it trying to do my own thing and whatever happens is going to be good enough," Michael Andretti said. "I couldn't make it that, if I didn't win the Indy 500 and Formula One championship and Daytona 500, that I was going to be a failure. I wasn't going to set myself up for that."

Whereas his father was an extrovert, Michael was quiet - intense, for sure - but more of a smolderer. Behind the wheel, said Michael's cousin John, father and son were kindred spirits, "unique in their own way, but when you get them on a racetrack, they're totally different people. They're just unbelievably aggressive and talented people."

"I think Michael was always his own man. No question about it," Mario Andretti said. "He was doing his own things, and he always realized it was always the outside force that was going to interfere if you let it. It can be very disruptive. The one thing we always said, like I said to Michael and (younger son) Jeff and (grandson) Marco, "satisfy yourself."'

But it was difficult for Michael to be himself with a last name that conjured so many preconceived notions, especially during a four-year period in the early 1990s when four Andrettis - including Jeff and John - raced in CART.

"There was one point where I think there were too many Andrettis in one category," Mario Andretti said. " ... I think he was caught in a situation where he wasn't getting what he deserved, in my opinion, and he had to change tack."

Before spending a truncated season with McLaren in 1993, Michael raced with Mario for four seasons starting in 1989 at Newman/Haas Racing, where Michael impressed team co-owner Carl Haas with his individuality.

"I never really saw Michael struggling (with being Mario's son)," he said. "I didn't think there was ever too much wrong. His relationship with Mario was very good. At one point, Mario was getting closer to retirement and Michael started getting more attention."

As much as Mario Andretti tried to help, he sometimes heightened Michael's anxiety.

"Dad would do things where he was trying to take pressure off of me but he was making it worse for me, like getting involved with things," Michael Andretti said. "When I go to a race, you don't even know I'm there, where Dad would stick his nose right in the middle of everything and just get me all frazzled. And it was only because he was trying to help."

Michael Andretti has applied those lessons to his race team. He puts pieces in place and "allows us to be drivers, not robots," Wheldon said.

Few who knew him as a driver had an inkling Michael Andretti would aspire to ownership. Mario never had, and Michael did not seem to have the personality for it. But since retiring after the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and buying a controling share in his team from Barry Green, Andretti has gone against convention in becoming a powerhouse owner.

He left CART for the IRL in 2003, built an unusually large four-car team, and won a first championship last season with driver Tony Kanaan. Wheldon was second, with teammates Dario Franchitti sixth and Bryan Herta ninth as Andretti Green Racing won eight of 16 races.

"I never saw it," Haas said of Andretti's ownership potential. "But you certainly have to be impressed with what he's done. He's done very well for himself."

For Mario Andretti, whose business ventures include a winery and car dealerships, watching his son become an entrepreneur beyond the cockpit is as rewarding watching what he did in it.

"I'm proud of him," he said. "Anytime you have your own kid, your own blood that is successful in any endeavor, there is a lot of pride."

* * *

John Andretti has a certain Michael story he loves to tell. On the surface it's a funny yarn about his show-off cousin splitting his shorts trying - and failing - to do a wheelie on his little sister's minibike when they were teenagers, about Michael fulfilling, as he puts it, the "Andretti motto: he who gets hurt last, wins." Hidden below is a parable about the determination to make one's own way, and having the patience to enjoy the ride, even when it splits your shorts.

"If you sat and talked to Michael, I think the thing that would surprise you most is you don't get the same kind of thing you get on a racetrack," he said. "You'd be surprised; he's a real Jekyll and Hyde personality in the sense of he is so calm and easy to be around and then you get him on the racetrack, and if that inch of pavement is his, he's taking it."