A Driver Divided, Mario Andretti Wants the Indy 500 for Both Himself and His Son
05/28/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
The two men in the pit seemed to be lost in reverie, so intent were they upon the two-and-a-half-mile track before them, so oblivious to both the swirl of photographers and the 200,000 beer-drenched spectators behind them. Suddenly a blue and yellow racing car, little more than a blur, streaked by. And an excited voice was announcing over the P.A. system that the Electrolux/Kraco had scorched the track at 208.126 mph. "The kid's doing it," whispered Paul Newman, an actor by trade, to his racing partner, Mario Andretti, who permitted himself just a trace of smile.
The "kid" was Michael Andretti, 21, Mario's eldest. The scene was Indianapolis a week ago, where the son of one of our most celebrated race car drivers qualified in his maiden effort for the Indy 500, the vehicular equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. Not only did Michael qualify, he also posted the fastest speed ever recorded by a rookie at Indy, earning the fourth starting spot in a field of 33 cars and giving every indication that he had as much gasoline in his veins as his old man.
Small wonder. After all, Michael was barely out of diapers when he first cast eyes on the Indianapolis speedway. That was in 1966, a year in which Mario took eight out of 15 Indy Car races and claimed his second consecutive Indy Car Championship. (In 1969 he won the Indy 500 itself.)
Mario, 44, and Dee Ann Andretti, 41, reared their three children—Michael, Jeff, 19, and Barbra Dee, 14—in Nazareth, Pa. in a five-bedroom house on a street renamed Victory Lane by local politicos. The family spent winter vacations in the Pocono Mountains, where Mario enjoyed pushing his souped-up snowmobiles through the hills at 107 mph. Come summer the holiday racecourse just changed from snow to water as Mario knifed his powerboats through the inland waterways.
Speed was the Andrettis' element. Michael never considered any profession other than racing. After cutting his teeth on go-cart competitions at age 9, he went on to smoke the circuit, taking 50 of 75 races over a seven-year period. In 1980 he got himself a Formula Ford and moved up to car racing. Two years later the Sports Car Club of America named him Pro Rookie of the Year. The next year Michael and Mario fulfilled a lifelong dream when they teamed up in France in the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race.
At Indianapolis, Mario and Michael will be competitors. Mario, in a Lola T-800 partly owned by Newman, drives for Budweiser; Michael for Electrolux/Kraco. "If Michael was on my team, someone would have to accept No. 2," says Mario, "and he shouldn't have to do that. On the track you got to be greedy sometimes. Yet he's my son, and I can't help but worry a little."
Shortly after Michael's stunning performance at the trials, Mario himself took to the track to qualify. The first lap Mario flashed by at 209.678 mph—a new one-lap track record. Then, trouble. A faulty ignition system cut the car's speed, dropping Andretti to sixth position, two places behind his son. "Dad's going to be real mad about this," observed Michael, adding that he was "going to lay low" and let his father cool off for a couple of hours.
Before heading off, however, he took exception to the notion that he had beaten Mario. "I didn't beat him," he said. "A bad part in the car beat him." No less "greedy" for victory than his old man, Michael wanted to beat the great Mario Andretti only when he was at the top of his form. "Then," Michael said, "I'll feel like I've done something in racing."