The biggest name in American open-wheel racing will be returning to America's premier open-wheel race.
Michael Andretti, the winningest driver in Championship Auto Racing Teams who has been shut out of victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 11 tries and absent from the May classic since the Indy Racing League/CART split in 1996, is finalizing plans to compete at the 2001 Indy 500.
The 38-year-old second generation star from Nazareth, Pa. has made a deal to drive for the Pennzoil Panther Racing team at the Speedway, although it won't be formally announced for a couple weeks.
"Yes, it's been discussed and I'd love to do it," said Gary Pedigo, one of Panther's co-owners. "But I don't think it's close to being a done deal."
Andretti, slated to drive the 22-race FedEx Championship for Team Green in a Reynard/Honda with sponsorship from Motorola, has been in Japan visiting Honda's facilities and was unavailable for comment.
But, only three weeks ago at CART's season preview, Andretti admitted he was going to do everything in his power to get back Indianapolis -- where he's led an astounding 382 laps without winning. By comparison, Al Unser Jr. is a two-time winner despite leading just 109 laps.
Watching '99 CART champ Juan Montoya score an easy triumph at Indy last year also reinforced Michael's desire.
"I'm almost 40 and I've missed out on it (Indy) the last five years," said Andretti, whose 40 wins rank him third on the all-time champ car list behind his father, Mario (54) and A.J. Foyt (67).
"I want to win that race."
Andretti is scheduled to meet with Motorola management this week to get their blessing (and possible associate sponsorship) but it's believed he's already secured a major sponsor for his Indy effort.
Andretti will be joining Team Penske and defending CART champ Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves at the Speedway, along with defending champs Target/Ganassi Racing and rookies Bruno Junquiera and Nicolas Minanssian.
Also expected to return to Indy is CART veteran Mauricio Gugelmin.
Gugelmin, who led the most laps (59) in the '95 Indy 500, will be joining fellow Brazilian Felipe Giaffone in a two-car, Hollywood Cigarette-sponsored effort out of the Hubbard/Treadway stable.
"I don't know what you're talking about," laughed Gugelmin from his cell phone on his way to the Miami Airport to fly to Brazil for Christian Fittipaldi's wedding. "I have a very bad connection."
Gugelmin was sponsored in CART by Hollywood from 1993-2000 at PacWest Racing and Giaffone will contest the entire, 13-race Northern Light series.
Two-time winner Arie Luyendyk is coming out of retirement to run Indy only and will also be reunited with Treadway.
But Luyendyk's addition has subtracted Davey Hamilton from the equation.
Hamilton, the only driver to start every IRL race since the league's inception in '96, has gone from Hubbard/Treadway's full-time driver to out of a job.
"I'm baffled, I don't know what happened," said Hamilton, twice a runner-up in the IRL championship. "I'm sitting at home watching the Super Bowl and Sam Schmidt's wife calls up my wife and says she heard I was let go.
"Then a another buddy calls me and tells me the same thing. I finally get a call from the team manager and I'm told that Arie's coming back screwed everything up. Fred Treadway tells me he doesn't know what happened but I'm out of a ride.
"I signed a contract with these people last September and now they've left me high and dry. If they'd have just been honest with me and said there was a chance I wouldn't be running, I could have gotten another ride. But now, I'm screwed."
Reached by phone in Florida, Treadway had "no comment."
"Davey is still under contract and we're actively pursing a major sponsor," said Scott Cronk, the team manager for Hubbard/Treadway Racing. "A number of things that looked promising have not materialized and we don't have a sponsorship package for Davey.
"But he's free to pursue other options."
Scott Pruett, fired by Cal Wells from his Winston Cup ride after only one season in the Tide Ford, is negotiating with Kelley Racing to run the Indy 500.
IRL veteran Jeff Ward, cut loose by A.J. Foyt at the end of the 2000 season, will be driving this year for a new team formed by John Mecom III and Jim Rathman Jr.
Steve Chassey has turned down CART's offer of a one-year contract to become chief steward.
CART's race at Rio de Janerio, scheduled for March 25, is in jeopardy again. After being canceled by the new mayor two weeks ago only to have the state's governor intervene with a $2 million grant, the new regime said the race would not take place because the sanction fee has increased from $1.2 to 5.3 million and that money should be allocated for the city. No official word from CART but the owners may have to fund this race out of their reported $140 million kitty.
Panther owner denies Andretti will race for him at Indy