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That checkered flag is hazy for Andretti


INDIANAPOLIS -- He has been coming here for more than a quarter-century and has seen many changes. He has seen speeds go from 160 mph to more than 230. He has seen competition grow keener, the cars grow leaner, the crashes meaner.

But the one thing that has remained almost constant has been his luck.

If there's one thing Mario Andretti would like to see one more time before he retires, it's the checkered flag at the end of the Indianapolis 500. He saw it once, but it was so long ago it's almost buried in the mist of memory.

But this is a man who, asked to define himself, once said: "I can do it in two words -- eternal optimist."

"People suggest to me, 'You've had such bad luck here you should give up hoping,' " he says. "I have probably the best chance this year I've ever had going into the race. And it's not false hope."

Andretti, who will start from the front row, just as he did a year ago, is one of four drivers using the new Ford-Cosworth engine, and all four are in the first two rows.

Only the Buick of pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero is faster. Most experts are counting the Buicks out, figuring their record of reliability is against them. Andretti is not among them.

"They probably are armed with the best chassis they've ever had," he says. "Before, they were fast in qualifying but they were not very raceable. They've worked very hard to be competitive, so you're not going to discount them."

But even more dangerous than Guerrero and the rest of the Buick contingent may be the other Fords. One of them is driven by Andretti's son Michael, and if he cannot win the race himself, Mario would be delighted to see the reigning IndyCar champion in victory lane.

It is the presence of the other two Fords, driven by Eddie Cheever and Arie Luyendyk, he finds disconcerting.

"Not too many people were knocking the doors down to get this engine," he says. "We were the ones who stepped to the table. We rolled the dice big-time because we had an engine that had just won the national championship with a record number of wins.

"The main appeal was some degree of exclusivity. You'd like to keep a little bit of that to yourself. If anyone can get the engine, why take the risk? Now a guy comes in and gets the fruit of your labors. But who says things are fair in this world?"

After all the things that have gone wrong here in the past, he might ask. "I'd be a lot happier if, before I retire, I win another one of these," says Andretti. "But if I don't, I don't think I have to hang my head. The end result is up to fate, and it hasn't gone my way.

"When I was 30 years old, I said, 'Gee, hopefully I'll win this thing a few more times.' Now that I'm 52, I know darned well I don't have too many more chances. But you can't force it. If it's going to happen, no matter what, it's going to happen -- if it's in the cards to happen. That's where the crystal ball gets very fuzzy."

It gets fuzzier yet if Andretti is asked to look farther into the future. He has one more year to go on his contract with Newman-Haas Racing. Michael's contract is up after this year, and once again he is actively seeking a ride in Formula One next year.

Andretti makes no secret he prefers to run a one-car team, but "Michael's coming aboard I think has strengthened the team. Even though I haven't done as much winning -- actually he's done all the winning since he came here -- at least some of my blood is out there."

But if Michael goes, Mario knows, "what would happen is not for me to decide." Team owner Carl Haas already has decided "I'm committed to a two-car team, and the second driver will be a big-name driver."

So at 53, Andretti could face a big decision next year. "Probably by this time next year I will be looking at either/or," he says.

Right now, he is looking only at Sunday's race, planning the scenario yet knowing when the race begins "to expect things to fall that way, they just don't. Would you have predicted Big Al Unser was going to win in 1987? I'd never have predicted I was going to win in 1969. The fastest man, the man in charge of this event, does not always win the race."

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