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Looks Like The Year Michael Andretti Finally Takes Indy

I don’t want to say there’s a bunch of losers in this year’s Indy 500 field.

I don’t want to say there are a bunch of people who can’t win.

I don’t want to say there are a couple dozen drivers no one ever heard of.

I just want to ask: Who are these people?

Where did they come from?

What happened to Foyt and Unser and Mears?

What happened to the people we have heard of? People who have won a race, any race - at least once.

Three years ago, 10 former winners of the Indianapolis 500 were in the field - A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser the elder, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Gordon Johncock, Spokane’s Tom Sneva and Arie Luyendyk.

Today there will be only 10 drivers in the field who have won an IndyCar race, anywhere.

Did you win in Elkhart Lake, Mr. Tracy? OK, that’s good enough. You won at Mid-Ohio, Mr. Guerrero? Great! You’re a winner. Come on over to Indy.

What, you won at Road America, Mr. Villeneuve? I don’t know exactly where that is, but that’s great.

Andre Ribeiro will be here today.

And Allesandro Zampedri. And Eric Bachelart.

Rahal took note Thursday of the new names and the absence of some old ones and commented: “When racing is predictable, it is boring. Sunday IndyCar racing is unpredictable.”

There comes a time when the old guys have to move on and youngsters have to take over and you can say this is progress, if you want, but I’m not at all certain.

I know it will come across as provincialism, since Roger Penske lives in Michigan, but something is wrong with an event when Gil de Ferran, Davy Jones and Christian Fittipaldi can put a car in the field and Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi cannot. Unser and Fittipaldi failing to qualify is like Cecil Fielder going to spring training and not making the team.

Something is wrong when the three front-row cars are owned by teams that race just once a year. I’m not sure what that says about this year’s race, or this sport, other than fans of Luyendyk, Scott Brayton and Scott Goodyear had better pay attention today because next week they’ll be back in their offices, concentrating on accounts receivable and endorsements instead of throttle adjustments and pit stops.

Of the 33 drivers in the starting grid, only Luyendyk, Rahal and Danny Sullivan are Indy winners.

Or put it a different way. The drivers in today’s field have won 94 races - Michael Andretti has won 29, Rahal 24, Sullivan 17, Tracy nine, Teo Fabi five, Luyendyk three, Scott Goodyear, Roberto Guerrero and Villeneuve two apiece and Robby Gordon one.

Everyone else is zero-for-a-career.

Some will probably say this is a dangerous situation. Too many young drivers in the field. Too many rookies. Too little experience.

Rahal doesn’t see it that way, though, because he says the young drivers are “pretty intelligent young men” who will be “aware of the risks.”

I don’t think they will be a problem, either. But for a different reason. Most of them rarely go fast enough to hurt anybody. I look at the people who are in the field and it seems most of these guys have proved they cannot win unless they have the best equipment, the best technology and the biggest nest egg of money to finance their operations.

Most of them are here on a shoestring. Most lack the competitiveness of Foyt, the persistence of Sneva, the experience of Al Unser Sr., the financial backing of Team Penske. So when I look around for a potential winner, my first inclination is to say: I pick Scott.

Scott Brayton is on the pole.

Scott Goodyear is outside on the front row.

Scott Pruett is the IndyCar points leader.

And Scott Sharp is … well, in the race.

Since there is a chance of rain here today, I figure I’ll pick any old Scott in a storm. Truth is, though, when you look at experience, history, teams, financial backing, equipment, commitment and genes, one driver seems a prohibitive favorite today.

In a field that has no Unsers, no Foyts and the wrong Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti should finally break his family’s jinx here and win for the first time in 11 tries.

Andrettis have run here 49 times and have won just once, when Mario took the checkered flag in 1969.

Odd things have kept them from winning more. In 1982 Mario was knocked out early in an accident. In 1987 he led 170 laps before an engine problem put him out. In 1991 Michael led 25 miles from home but Rick Mears beat him out for his fourth win. In 1992 he led 160 laps before a fuel pressure problem sidelined him.

In 1995 Michael Andretti is matched against a bunch of once-a-year Sunday drivers, non-winners and teams long on dreams and short on cash.

In a field filled with strange-sounding names from faraway places, his has a familiar ring and a connection with the past. And if ever an Andretti is to win this race again, this is the year.

 
Tags: auto racing

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