Elder Andretti sees light at end of tunnel

May, 27, 2011

Mario Andretti spent more than a decade playing for the enemy, so to speak, during the long feud that almost destroyed Indy car racing.

He was an outcast from Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- the place he loves, the place where he won in 1969 and the place that often broke his heart.

Andretti was a supporter of a rival league (CART/Champ Car) and a vocal critic of former IMS president Tony George and the new Indy Racing League that George formed in the mid-1990s.

All that's in the past now, including the hurtful words and the damaged races and teams from two leagues competing for the same fan base.

Most of the bitterness is gone now, also, for Andretti.

On the centennial celebration at The Brickyard, Andretti has one simple goal: make up for lost time.

"That's exactly what we have to do," Andretti said. "In some ways, this type of racing needs to be reintroduced to the mainstream. It was a lost generation after almost 15 years when things were just chaos. Now we have a true direction."

Andretti believes that all the pieces are in place to regain much of the fan base that open-wheel racing lost during the feud.

Simona De SilvestroJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMario Andretti says Simona De Silvestro's has just scratched the surface of her talent.

The IndyCar series will introduce a new car next season with a revolutionary look and different aero packages. It also brings Chevrolet back to the series as an engine supplier, along with Lotus, to challenge Honda.

"The buzz of the centennial helped everything," Andretti said. "But it's more than that. Now the depth of the field is there again. Try to pick a winner for Sunday. No way."

This is the closest Indy 500 field ever in terms of qualifying times. Some skilled drivers will start near the back, including Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Ryan Briscoe and Marco Andretti, Mario's grandson.

And Danica Patrick, IndyCar's most recognizable name, will start 25th. Patrick is expected to move to NASCAR full time next season.

"She will be missed," Mario said. "Danica has been a very important player in the interest in the series. It was needed at the time, but if the sport has to depend on one individual, we're in deep trouble. I think that is changing. We've grown past that."

Andretti sees one woman on the horizon he believes can become as good as or better than Patrick -- Simona De Silvestro, who will start 23rd Sunday.

"Simona has raced really well," Andretti said. "She has just scratched the surface of how good she can be. She's determined, capable and smart, all the qualities that will bring her to success."

After living through the Dark Ages of open-wheel racing, Andretti believes the Renaissance is coming.

"It will be the product that ultimately speaks the loudest," he said. "All the hype and fanfare won't matter if the product isn't good. But I think that's in place."

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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