Work in Sports
Old dog learns new tricks
Andretti doesn't mind being the old man of CART
Posted: Wednesday February 23, 2000 10:49 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- The kids have apparently taken over CART.
Defending champion Juan Montoya is 24. Last year's second-place finisher, Dario Franchitti, is 26. So where does that leave 37-year-old Michael Andretti?
Still a contender.
"Michael is the most complete driver he has ever been," said John Tzouanakis, manager for the Newman-Haas team and the only employee remaining from its formation in 1983.
"I've been around him since he first came to this team in 1989, and I've seen a metamorphosis," Tzouanakis said. "He has always had unbelievable talent, but he is also now able to use the experience he has gained over the years in each race."
Andretti is one of the few very experienced 30-somethings in CART.
With Scott Pruett, 39, leaving CART for NASCAR's Winston Cup series, and Al Unser Jr., 37, moving to the rival Indy Racing League, only Roberto Moreno at 41 is older than Andretti among CART regulars.
But Andretti's age isn't showing.
"Michael is in great physical condition," said Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART champion and himself one of the series graybeards at 34. "Everybody thinks he's older because he's been doing this for so long, but he hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm for driving."
The son of longtime racing star Mario Andretti got a Champ car ride in 1983 and became a contender in 1986, when he won three times en route to second-place finish in the points race.
Now, the 1991 series champion is the leader in career CART victories with 38. He has won at least one race in 12 of his last 13 seasons in the series, including the last 10. He missed the 1993 season while driving in Formula One.
"Winning races is still exciting," Andretti said. "It is the evidence that you and the team are doing the right things. But, as competitive as CART is now, you have to do more than win races. You have to be consistent, finish races and pile up points."
Although he has had his share of bad luck on the track -- crashes and a variety of broken parts -- Andretti has been the most consistent of CART drivers throughout the years.
He wound up fourth in the standings in 1999, and will go into the season-opening race on March 26 in Homestead, Fla., having finished in the top 10 in points his last years on the circuit.
"I'm glad we've had so much success over my career, but I want that second championship," he said. "It would mean so much to me and to the team."
Andretti is in his second stint with the team co-owned by Paul Newman and Chicago businessman Carl Haas. Andretti drove for them from 1989-92 and, after his year in Formula One and another with Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti returned to Newman-Haas in 1994.
"This is home for me," Andretti said. "I feel comfortable with this team."
The two biggest changes heading into 2000 are Tzouanakis -- moving up from assistant team manager when Ed Nathman left at the end of 1999 -- and a switch from a Swift chassis to a Lola.
"You don't want change," Andretti said. "But the changes aren't that major. John has been here longer than I have and everything else is status quo. Our team is a very tight group."
Newman-Haas was the first team to race the Swift, in 1997, and did most of the development work. But the car was inconsistent and difficult to balance. A switch from Goodyear to Firestone tires just before last season compounded the problem.
"We were on a very steep learning curve with the Firestone tires and it put us behind," Andretti said. "We were starting to get hold of it by the end of the season, but we definitely gave away some competitive races early.
"Now we've had a year with Firestone, the Lola is really a good car and the new Ford XF engine right off the bat is very reliable and has a ton of horsepower."
The package the team has put together for Andretti has him thinking championship.
"This is our best shot," he said. "We just need to focus on finishing every race, take the points when they're given to us and be smart about it."