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4 views of the fantastic finish

The Indy Racing League's all-time wins leader and two-time champion, trying to attain the piece missing from his resume.

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 25, 2007


INDIANAPOLIS - The Indy Racing League's all-time wins leader and two-time champion, trying to attain the piece missing from his resume. The rookie with the legendary last name and legacy of disappointment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The rookie's father, a semi-retired superstar seeking his first Indy win in 15 tries. Sam Hornish. Marco Andretti. Michael Andretti. Last May they battled to one of the greatest finishes in the Indy 500's 90-year history. And looking on, helpless to change the result, Mario Andretti. Inside is that finish, as each of them saw it.

 

The winner

Sam Hornish feared an Indianapolis 500 victory was about to elude him again.

"I thought I was in good position ... until I tried to pass (Marco Andretti) the first time on Lap 198 (of 200) and I thought, 'I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this or not, ' " Hornish recalled. "So it was not an easy position to be in, but I was definitely glad I was there, rather than the roles be reversed."

Up to that point, it looked like a fairy-tale ending for the Andretti family, with Marco, at age 19, about to accomplish what his father never could and his legendary grandfather managed just once.

Then Hornish, a veteran of his own six frustrating Indy starts, rewrote the ending.

Barely 100 yards from the finish, Hornish tucked his red-and-white Honda-powered car low and with an astonishing burst of speed whipped past Andretti. Though he was pulling away as he crossed the fabled yard of bricks, the finish was the second-closest in Indianapolis 500 history, 0.0635 seconds.

"They're going to replay that for a long time; that's what everybody tells me, anyhow, " Hornish said. "It didn't allow me time to be nervous. I think if I ever had a half-lap lead coming down to the last of the 500, I think I wouldn't be able to see for the tears in my eyes. So that was like, 'Okay, we're not going to win, we're not going to win ... we won. Okay, we won. We can be happy.' "

Almost

Imprinted somewhere on Marco Andretti's DNA is the code for thriving under the pressure that comes with his last name.

His grandfather is maybe the greatest driver of all time, a winner of the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s, a Formula One champion, but 1-for-29 in the grandest American race. Marco's father, Michael, 0-for-14 in the 500, had come out of retirement at 43 to try again. He took the lead by not pitting under caution with seven laps left, but Marco took it away soon after.

Staring into the glare recently next to his Andretti Green Racing transporter, Marco's feelings remained deep when recalling that day.

"Bummed, " he said, frowning. "My mentality is the same now as it was right after the race. And I was bummed. I couldn't believe it happened. I couldn't believe we lost it. That hasn't changed."

Once again

Michael Andretti could be forgiven the thoughts inside his helmet. This fickle race had confounded him so many times. He had fallen out of it five times while leading, finished second (to four-time winner Rick Mears), third twice, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, led more laps (430) than any nonwinner. He retired in 2003 with no wins here.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to hold (Marco) off because I knew I had old tires and they all had brand new rubber. I had a choice, you know, try to hold off Marco for one more lap and block him and make him lose his momentum, or let him go by without losing momentum and then try to help him out, " Andretti said. "That's what I chose to do, and it almost worked. I just didn't do a good enough job. I did everything I could. I took Hornish down to the grass. Maybe I could have put him in the grass, but I wasn't going to do that."

As he watched his son's blue race car dart for the finish line, he could see Hornish's machine pull left and speed toward it. He didn't think Hornish could possibly have enough speed.

"I don't know where he got that speed. He ran his quickest of the race on the last lap with tires with 40 laps on them. It's mind-boggling where that came from, " he said.

He didn't think he had enough racetrack left.

"I thought we won, " Andretti said. "A hundred yards."

On pit road, as Hornish was swarmed by photographers, a team owner peered into an employee's eyes and saw something he liked. A father saw a familiar hurt he had seen in his father, and in pictures of himself.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I was happy he was disappointed. That showed he's a real competitor, " Michael Andretti said of Marco. "Why he was disappointed was he's been around this for a long time and he's seen the heartache that I've had and if you're that close to it, you want to take advantage of it. You say he has a lot of years left, but hey, I had a lot of years left, too, and I never won it. I think he saw it as a lost opportunity."

Helpless bystander

Mario Andretti was "a basket case."

"In 40 years in the business as a driver, I don't think I ever was as nervous as I was right then at that moment, " he admits.

Standing in his grandson's pit stall, scanning his team radio but resisting the urge to interject, his eyes flitted from the video monitor to the three cars that mattered as they shrieked past every 40 or so seconds. He had played this scenario in his head the 10 times he raced against his son here, and he was playing it again as Michael raced his grandson.

"My wish list was, if I could have just blurted it out, it hopefully would have been Michael first and Marco second, " he said. "Well, four laps to go, that's the way they're lined up. We have a shootout."

Mario would have been happy with one member of his family finishing fifth because Penske's car had been so superior leading up to the race. Michael "couldn't even begin to defend it, " he said, when Hornish passed for second with less than three laps left. And though Marco expanded his cushion in Turn 3, Mario knew Hornish was coiled to strike on the last lap. Marco's telemetry revealed his car was "flat-flat on the accelerator" the entire last lap, but it didn't matter.

Resigned to what was going to happen, Mario found solace in what didn't: his grandson causing a 220-mph maelstrom in the final milliseconds on the day open-wheel racing commands the nation's attention.

"You can make your car wide. You can do certain things at certain times, but I think if Marco had done that I think it would have created a crash, " Mario said. "There's no way Hornish was going to back off at that point and if Marco had done that, he would have been the square blame for creating mayhem. It would have created a stigma on him the rest of his life. To be honest, I was so proud of his judgment at that point.

"He showed maturity in an instant and I like that. On top of everything else, he's not a fool."

But Indianapolis had taunted the Andrettis again.

"At least we can say we were competitive, and we sure as hell showed that we were capable of winning it, " Mario said. "If it's fate that didn't play our way, well, maybe that's something we can't control."