INDIANPOLIS, January 20, 2004 Michael Andretti is smiling a lot these days, particularly when he's around the guys who drive the cars he co-owns with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree at Andretti Green Racing (AGR).
That's a four-car Dallara/Honda entry in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series for this second-year squad that was the revolving door for exceptional open wheel pilots in 2003. As Bryan Herta aptly points out, "We had four different guys drive the car I drove" last season in relief of Dario Franchitti. The others were Dan Wheldon at Twin Ring Motegi and Robby Gordon (Indianapolis).
Andretti, Herta, Tony Kanaan and Franchitti were in Indy today for various functions and it was like being in a fraternity house around this bunch. The only thing missing was Ashton Kutcher and his "Punk'd" TV show.
"This is the most fun I've had in racing, developing this chemistry," Andretti chortled, and this is a man who never seemed to smile while he was in or around a race car. It always was such serious business for Michael; you had to wonder where his joy was.
All that's changed since the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Andretti now works on the pit road side of the track, coordinating the group. For Michael, "it's scary because it's not difficult not to race anymore. Really," he insisted, "I have no desire to get back in the car."
The best part about his change of hats is the fact that Michael Andretti did it on his own terms; he was ready to stop, yet he was still competitive enough to win any (all!) of the final four races on his IRL docket last season. "I'm happy with this decision; it's fun and it's challenging."
Not the least amount of his post-driving test is putting up with the funny, mercurial, happy group Andretti Green Racing have put together to win the 2004 IndyCar Series title for Honda, for Dallara, Firestone and all of their individual car sponsors this season.
Take Tony Kanaan, the 29-year-old Brazilian who led the point chase much of the season last year in his #11 Team 7-Eleven car. Kanaan never seemed to get the right opportunities after beating some guy named Castroneves for the 1997 Indy Lights title. Andretti took him, and the guy showed up and almost did it all last season.
For the first time, Kanaan had the resources behind him and the personnel he's comfortable working around. There were some struggles last year with the bulbous learning curve and a couple of shunts. The shootout at the end between five guys [at the last race in Texas] was something else. "In the last race we all had a chance and then Helio..."
Three and a half months out of a race car could keep anyone beserk and it's easy to tell everybody wants to get going at AGR. Heck, Dario hasn't driven since he finished fourth at Pikes Peak International Raceway in June in his #27 Archipelago/Motorola car. He's been working out, though.
"It's been a while," Franchitti smiled. "I've not done karting, just working out and doing all kinds of things to get it back. I'm doing everything I've ever done, a lot of cardio and a lot more weight training. It's more than I used to do because I have to get back!"
There's another reason Michael's out. "Driving is, to me more difficult. It's the total mental commitment and that's where I was tired. I was tired, you know and even in the off-season you never let down. Even though these guys have been out of the car for three and a half months or so, their minds are on it every day and they're training for it every day."
Kanaan remembers the trash talk that accompanied Andretti Green Racing's entry in the Indy Racing League. "Everybody had great expectations for us not to succeed. Everybody was expecting us to fail and we knew what we could do. So we didn't listen to the criticism. We used that as an extra boost to succeed."
It's been a while since Bryan Herta was at the right place at the right time, his last good run coming with Team Rahal in 1999. It's not just nice to have his deal wrapped up before the start of the season, "It's good because of what it is. This is a pretty monumental project, this four-car operation.
"I think it's got the potential to do so many great things this year, so I'm excited about it. Not just for myself, but for all the guys on the team. Tony, Dario, Dan and I get along so well and that is what's going to make this thing work," Herta stated. "We don't have to worry about the ego clash and things like that. We're all very competitive and we all want to win," yet still be supportive of their teammates.
It's an unusual situation.
"If the team is winning, I am winning because I'm part of it," Kanaan insisted. "Somehow Bryan's part of my setup, Dario's part of my setup and I'm part of them. They win and I have a part of it."
Herta praised the team: "Especially after last year with the team, they've had their share of change and of adversity and I think the more prepared teams are going to sit down and be ready." The car number and sponsor for Herta's mount have not been announced yet.
"It looks really promising for all four cars," Franchitti said. "We have the whole package and that's what it's all about. We have everything it takes to get back racing again and that's what we're trying to do."
Andretti Green Racing is one of the few Honda teams that did not change chassis from 2003 to now, staying with Dallara. "The cars are fairly equal. You've got to be careful not to get wrapped up in the equipment. I think the way the rules are, it's pretty tight," Michael Andretti admitted, "and it's hard to get an advantage. Besides, Dallara have been great to work with and really support of us. There's no reason to change."
If I didn't know these guys better, I'd think they were punking me with this syrupy language, but it's real. They've been acting like this for over a year now, and that much friendship and talk can be hard to fake. Whether it can translate over to the 16 playing fields the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series visits during its 2004 season, though remains to be seen.