Mario Andretti popped out of his race car's transporter last Saturday and onto his motor scooter, but before he could get moving, he was swallowed up by the picture-takers and autograph-seekers who follow his every move at a racetrack.
"Mario, could we get a picture?" asked a man standing next to a teenager in a wheelchair. Andretti, the famous father, hopped off the scooter, put an arm around the youngster and shouted to an aide, "Go get Michael!" But Mario's famous son could not be found. The photo was taken. Just Mario. No Michael.
It was a telling moment. For not only was Sunday's race at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif., the finale of the Indy Car season, it was also Michael Andretti's Indy Car swan song. In 1993 he will leave for the Formula One circuit, where he will attempt to become the first American to win the world championship since Mario accomplished the feat in 1978. At Laguna Seca, Michael, in a Lola-Ford Cosworth, fell just short of winning his second straight Indy Car crown. Though he and Mario finished one-two in the race, Bobby Rahal, who came in third, won his third series title in seven years, edging Michael by four points.
"My dad has mixed emotions about me leaving," said Michael before the race. "It's great to be following in his footsteps. But it'll be strange for him going to races without me."
On Sept. 3 Michael signed with Team McLaren, whose cars have won seven F/1 titles in the last decade. Michael's defection was followed two weeks later by the shocking announcement that 1992 F/1 world champion Nigel Mansell had signed a $5 million contract to replace Michael on the Paul Newman-Carl Haas team. Never before had a world champion departed for the North American Indy Car series while wearing the crown.
Hoping to replace Mansell on the F/1 circuit is Indy Car's other favorite son, Al Unser Jr., who successfully tested a Williams- Renault F/1 car last fall. Following Sunday's race, Unser's fate was up in the air. "I talked to Frank Williams [owner of the Williams team], and he doesn't want me to drive his car," Unser said. "He wants to go with someone established."
But Unser believes he still has an outside shot at getting a ride with Williams, and many Indy Car insiders are pulling for him to move to F/1. "The Europeans think most Americans can drive a nail and that's about it," says Rahal. "Everyone over here is excited that Michael and Al might give them a lesson in reality."
Reality for Unser on Sunday was a frustrating ninth-place finish, concluding a season that had been a disappointment after he won the Indy 500 in May. Rahal was Unser's teammate last year, but fed up with the politics involved in getting a good car, he formed a team of his own for '92. At Monterey, Rahal drove his usual flawless race, picking his way from sixth to third and pressuring Mario all afternoon.
Though Michael and Al Jr. were most likely turning their final Indy Car laps, the mood at Monterey was celebratory, with a graduation day air. "It will never be like this again for the rest of my career," said Michael of his 10 Indy Car years. "This is something I can never repeat."
Tugged from interview to interview after the race, Mario reflected on the parallels between his own career and his son's. As an established Indy Car driver, he too made the move to F/1, and won the world title in '78. Michael's move, someone suggested, must be like reliving a dream.