He May Be Retired, But Mario Still Has A Passion For Racing


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

The 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner will be the biggest fan of drivers Michael and Marco Andretti this Sunday.

Indianapolis: Andretti won the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and came close many other times in 29 starts.

NASCAR: In 1967, Andretti found himself in victory lane at the Daytona 500.

By the numbers: Andretti scored 111 wins in 879 events between 1961 and 2000.

Honors: Both AP and RACER magazine have named Andretti Driver of the Century.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about motorsports.

But when the green flag finally flies, the excitement in me builds almost to the level it did when I was driving. I still follow every series — watching the performance of the rookies and veterans, tracking changes in technology and rules, monitoring the inevitable politics. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few observations.

 In Formula One, despite the retirement of Michael Schumacher, the biggest stories so far this season are the resurgence of McLaren and BMW and the caliber of two rookies — Lewis Hamilton at McLaren and Heikki Kovalainen with Renault.

Hamilton is the first rookie ever to finish on the podium in his first three races. And he’s only 21. Although I think Kovalainen has good potential, I’m surprised at the decline of Renault, winners of the Constructors Championship the last two years.

Also keeping things interesting is the shuffle of the top drivers — Fernando Alonso from Renault to McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen from McLaren to Ferrari. Although each has won one race, neither is a clear front-runner to take the title. I fully expect it to be a battle to the end between McLaren and Ferrari with any of their four drivers capable of winning the world driving championship.

 NASCAR continues to retain its popularity among American racing fans, despite a plateau or decline in TV ratings and race attendance. What’s interesting this year is the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow with the hopes of leveling the playing field. To me, it has shown that as much as you try to achieve equality, the usual suspects always come to the surface. The drivers and teams that were top performers before the CoT are still the top performers now. I predict it will remain this way. And that’s reinforced by what is happening in Champ Car.

 In Champ Car this year, you have the introduction of the new Panoz chassis that is much more of a spec chassis versus the defunct Lola. In this case, the objectives are cost control and creating a level playing field. Even though it’s early in the season, it’s being proven that the drivers and teams that were expected to be up front are still up front. And the ones that are usually in the back — are still in the back. While everyone presumes Newman-Haas and Sebastien Bourdais will win the championship, it’s nice to see the strength of Will Power and Team Australia. There are at least three drivers among the rookie class who could win a race this season.

 Obviously, the most exciting thing for me in the IRL IndyCar Series is my grandson Marco. The competition in this series is very tight at the top. I think this year will be much less predictable. Last year you could safely put your money on either Penske or Ganassi. So far this year, we’ve seen that Andretti Green Racing is now contending on the mile-and-a-half ovals. I am particularly looking forward to seeing Michael and Marco return to Indy after the success they had last May.

How can I even comment on Champ Car and the IRL without saying that I still hold out hope that Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George will find a way to work together and unify the two series.

Both are committed to their quest to make the sport stronger and healthier, but they have adopted different tactics to achieving that goal. There are certain strengths on each side, but it seems to me and to nearly everyone else who loves this sport that blending them would achieve the ultimate in open-wheel racing. The framework is there.

Am I going to go to my grave talking about this? I hope not.

(Original Print Date: May 23, 2007)