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Add an asterisk; Andretti won't care

He'll value career even if he never wins Indy.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


INDIANAPOLIS -- The goldfish wanted out.

As it bumped head-on against the crystal bowl, rested on the marble bottom for a moment and then resumed its attempt, Michael Andretti watched closely.

The 38-year-old with the famous last name and career statistics to back it up probably can relate. Every time Andretti comes to the Indianapolis 500, he does so with the purpose of breaking free.

"I think a lot of people, if I don't win it, will put an asterisk next to my name: didn't win the Indianapolis 500," Andretti said. "People are trying to compare me to (Dan) Marino where he had a great career but he never won the Super Bowl.

"That's fine if people want to do that. Fine. But I can't say that everything else that I did didn't mean anything because I think I was able to do a lot of other things in this sport, and I'm proud of that."

He couldn't say that in 1992 or 1995 or the nine other times he left the Brickyard without the Borg-Warner Trophy in hand and milk on his upper lip.

"I'm five years older," said Andretti, a 40-time winner and one-time champion in CART. "I'm five years more experienced, hopefully a little more patient and a little smarter. ... We'll see."

He last competed in the Indianapolis 500 in 1995, the final year before CART and IRL split and the boycott by CART teams began. Watching the race was hard, but watching CART team owner Chip Ganassi win with Juan Montoya last year -- and doing it handily -- proved harder.

Though he once despised the IRL as much as anybody, Andretti joined Team Green this season with the promise of an Indy return. No more waiting around for the series to resolve their differences.

Now one of six CART drivers in Sunday's race, Andretti will start 21st in a Dallara-Oldsmobile prepared by Panther Racing, which fields the car of IRL points leader Sam Hornish Jr. He will be pitted by his CART crew.

"All the people that are here from CART are here for ourselves," Andretti said. "I think this is all positive stuff that's happening right now. I think it's all starting to erode away a little bit. I see two or three years down the road almost all the CART teams being back here, and then it will be CART against the IRL here. I think that will be really healthy for open-wheel racing."

Andretti always has been an Indianapolis 500 front-runner. He holds the distinction of leading the most laps (382) of any non-winning driver at the speedway.

"I don't like to look at it that way," he said. "Everybody's asked me about the (Andretti) curse and this and that. For whatever reason, the place has been tough for us. ... If it's meant to happen, it's going to happen. If the guy upstairs wants it to happen, it's going to happen."

In 1992, Andretti passed his father, Mario, for the lead on the first lap and dominated the race by leading 160 laps. He wound up 13th after a $2 belt broke and fuel pressure problems knocked him out 11 laps from the finish.

"It was the worst career day of my life," Andretti said. "It was a day that could have been one of the greatest days of my life and career that turned out to be one of the worst."

Three years later, Andretti qualified fourth and led 45 laps, sometimes extending the gap between first and second to 20 seconds. A slight slip-up ended his day after he hit the Turn 4 wall.

"You don't have to be the best car," Andretti said. "You don't have to be the fastest car. You have to be the car and team that everything just goes your way. I've been beaten that way many times."

Other drivers empathize.

"I would hate to think that you had a great career and you didn't win the Indy 500 and you spent the rest of your life thinking that your career wasn't complete," said Jimmy Vasser, who competes against Andretti in CART. "I think that question needs to be answered by the individual. It has to come from within Michael."

Andretti is with a proven Indianapolis 500 winner, team owner Barry Green. Green won in 1995 with rookie Jacques Villeneuve.

"I think I have a good shot of winning," Andretti said. "I think the oddsmakers have me way down the list. Normally I'm one of the favorites. So it might be good."

Michael Andretti

AGE: 38.

RESIDES: Nazareth, Pa.

HT/WT: 5-8, 158.

WIFE: Leslie.

CHILDREN: Marco, 14; Marissa, 10; Lucca, 1.

CAR: No. 39, Dallara-Oldsmobile.

INDY 500 STARTING POSITION: 21st.

CAREER INDY 500 STARTS: 11.

BEST INDY 500 FINISH: 2nd (1991).

CAREER INDY 500 EARNINGS: $2,287,921.

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