Mario Andretti sped through Phoenix on his farewell tour nine IndyCar racing seasons ago.
Now it's son Michael's turn.
Though probably lacking the hoopla of Arrivederci Mario 1994, Michael Andretti's Countdown to Indy marks the final spin for one of American racing's all-time great drivers.
Michael, 40, winner of 42 major open-wheel races (taking a backseat only to Mario with 52 wins and A.J. Foyt with 67), will drive in the IndyCar Series Purex/Dial Indy 200 on March 23 at Phoenix International Raceway. He'll race in the Indy Japan 300 on April 13, and he'll try one last time to win the Indianapolis 500 on May 25 before stepping out of the cockpit for good.
“I have had an amazing run over the past 19 years, and now it's time to focus on being a team owner," said Andretti, who will turn over the wheel to promising young Englishman Dan Wheldon to concentrate on operating Andretti Green Racing. "I have accomplished almost everything I wanted to as a driver. The only thing that I have not yet done is win the Indy 500. I am determined to give it one last shot this year.”
After a seven-year absence because of the Indy Racing League's split with CART, Michael, who jumped from CART to IRL for his final season, returns to PIR this week, a track that has played a significant role in the growth and success of the second-generation racing legend.
Phoenix's mile oval has provided the traction for:
• Michael's first grown-up wheel-to-wheel battle with another second-generation racing great, Al Unser Jr.
• Michael's 1986 Indy 200 victory that nearly propelled him to the CART championship.
• Numerous family racing memories, including the 1991 IndyCar race that included four Andrettis — Mario, Michael, brother Jeff and cousin John.
BATTLING LITTLE AL
As kids, Al Jr. and Michael rose through the ranks of go-karts, establishing their potential as future superstars.
But a defining moment, from Michael's view, that jump-started their budding rivalry came on March 27, 1982 at PIR.
Unser Jr., 20, coming off the 1981 Formula Super Vee Championship, had moved on to the Can-Am series, but he stopped in Phoenix to run the ’82 season-opening Super Vee race against Andretti, 19, who was jumping up a division after winning the SCCA Northeast Division Formula Ford championship.
Unser Jr. captured the pole for the race, but Andretti, in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Little Al in cars smaller but similar to IndyCars, took the early lead and won the 60-lap race.
“It was a special one because I raced Al Jr. for the first time and that was one of the races that sent me off to winning the championship in Super Vees,” said Andretti, who won six of 11 races that year, including another race, the season finale in Phoenix.
Unser Jr., putting on his best competitive face, couldn't recall racing Andretti that day.
“Who won?” he asked.
“But of course he would remember,” Unser Jr. said after a hearty laugh. “I remember racing Mikey, but my memories are of running him in the IndyCar Series. We've had lots of good races.”
For the record, Andretti dominated that ’82 Super Vee race in Phoenix, recording the fastest lap (209.156 kilometers per hour) while Unser Jr. slipped to fourth, one lap behind.
Michael trailed Bobby Rahal by just 10 points heading into the Circle K/Fiesta Bowl 200 at PIR, the second-to-last CART-PPG race of the 1986 season.
Michael ran away with the win, earning his one Phoenix CART victory after leading 166 of the 200 laps to pick up 20 precious series points.
“I finally put it together, and we ended up dominating the race,” Michael said.
His nearest rival, Danny Sullivan, finished 20.24 seconds behind.
“He was strong,” recalled Mario, who finished fourth in the race.
That dominance in Phoenix, Michael's third career victory, really set the tone for his career, Mario said. “He was a force to be reckoned with there on.”
Unfortunately for Michael, Rahal lucked into third place when Emerson Fittipaldi ran out of fuel with three laps left. That allowed Fittipaldi to cling to a 174-171 series lead heading into the ’86 season finale in Miami, Fla.
Gear box problems in Miami ended Michael's championship hopes a week later.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Michael's dream season was 1991, when he won eight races en route to his lone CART season championship.
He finished fourth in the Phoenix Indy 200 (Arie Luyendyk led most the most laps, including the final 58), but the ’91 race at PIR “was special,” Michael said.
It might as well had been a family reunion. Four cars in the 22-car field were driven by Andrettis — Michael (fourth place), Jeff (10th), Mario (ninth) and John (11th). It was the first season that four drivers from the same family had ever driven in the same race.
“Probably the most rewarding part was when we were racing together, racing up front, sharing podiums,” said Mario, who owns four wins at PIR.
“I consider these times so precious. Let's face it, you can't plan these things.”
Mario (pole) and Michael became the first father-son duo to share the front row of a major auto event at the first of two ’86 Phoenix races. They duplicated the front-row feat a year later at PIR.
Jeff has stepped away from competitive racing, John has moved over to NASCAR Winston Cup and Mario retired from driving in 1994.
It's Michael's turn to end another chapter of the Andretti legend.
“As a dad, absolutely I'm happy he's stepping out of it,” Mario said. “As a fan, I hate to see it end. He's a very exciting driver.
“I'm happy for him. He's able to determine his path in life.”
Purex/Dial Indy 200
Thursday: 2.-3:15 p.m. — USAC Midget practice; 3:15-4:30 p.m. — USAC Silver Crown practice; 5-9:30 p.m. — Speedfest, Tempe Beach Park (Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway); 6-8 p.m. — driver autographs at Speedfest
Friday: 8 a.m. — Gates open; 8:20-9 a.m. — Midget practice; 9:15-10 a.m. — Indy Racing League Infiniti Pro Series practice; 10:10-10:50 a.m. — Silver Crown practice; 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. — Indy Racing League IndyCar practice; 12:45-1:15 p.m. — Midget practice; 1:15-1:45 p.m. — Silver Crown practice; 1:55-2:25 p.m. — Infiniti Pro Series practice; 2:30-3:30 p.m. — IndyCar practice; 3:40 p.m. — Infiniti Pro Series qualifying; 4:40 p.m. — Midget qualifying.
Saturday: 8-8:30 a.m. — Silver Crown practice; 8:40-8:55 a.m. — Infiniti Pro Series warm-up; 9-10:30 a.m. — IndyCar practice; 10:45 a.m. — Silver Crown qualifying; noon-1:45 p.m. — IndyCar qualifying; 1:15-1:30 p.m. — Midget warm-up; 1:45 p.m. — Midget qualifying race (10 laps); 2:45 p.m. — Infiniti Pro Series race (100 laps); 4 p.m. — Midget race (25 laps); 4:45 p.m. — Silver Crown qualifying race (15 laps).
Sunday: 8 a.m. — Gates open; 9-9:30 a.m. — Silver Crown warm-up; 10-10:30 a.m. — IndyCar final practice; 11:30 a.m. Silver Crown race (100 laps); 2 p.m. — Purex/Dial Indy 200 (200 laps).
Michael Andretti's mark
A look at Michael Andretti's 14 major open-wheel races at Phoenix International Raceway.
• Oct. 29,1983: Started 14th, finished ninth.
Noteworthy: Third career CART start.
• April 15,1984: Started seventh, finished third.
Noteworthy: Valley resident Tom Sneva won race.
• Oct. 14,1984: Started fourth, finished third.
Noteworthy: Swapped lead with eventual winner Bobby Rahal; dad Mario led 10 laps.
• Oct. 13,1985: Started sixth, finished fifth.
Noteworthy: 1-2 finish for Al Unser, Al Unser Jr.
• April 6,1986: Started second, finished 15th.
Noteworthy: First father-son front row with Mario (pole) and Michael.
• Oct. 19, 1986: Started fourth, won race.
Noteworthy: Pulled Andretti to within three points of Rahal in CART championship.
• April 12,1987: Started second, finished fourth.
Noteworthy: Pole sitter Mario finished fifth.
• April 10, 1988: Started 10th, finished third.
Noteworthy: Another Mario victory.
• April 9, 1989: Started seventh, finished fourth.
Noteworthy: Led laps 68-119.
• April 8, 1990: Started eighth, finished 20th.
Noteworthy: Engine problems, completed just 41 laps.
• April 21,1991: Started second, finished fourth.
Noteworthy: Mario ninth, Jeff Andretti 10th, John Andretti 11th.
• April 5,1992: Started on pole, finished 10th.
Noteworthy: Rahal led all 200 laps.
• April 10,1994: Started 12th, finished 20th.
• April 2,1995: Started fifth, finished second.
Noteworthy: Was leading race with five laps left, thought Robby Gordon was a lap behind and let him pass; Gordon won.
Note: Andretti raced in Formula One in 1993; drove in CART series from 1996-2002
Purex/Dial Indy 200
What: Indy Racing League IndyCar Series race
When: 2 p.m. March 23 (Ch. 15)
Tickets: (602) 252-2227 or www.phoenixinternationalraceway.com