RISKY BUSINESS Haas team takes chance on Andretti and he on them

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- They have the driver name, the pedigree of champions in crew chief and ownership, and the money.

Now all this hybrid team needs is a little time to find out if all the pieces fit.

"A truckload of money won't win championships without luck," said Tim Brewer, the crew chief on the Michael Kranefuss/Carl Haas team, whose car is driven by John Andretti. "You can have all the money in the world. But you need luck and you need a good driver and the want-to-do-it atmosphere. You've got to want to get more out of your car and your team than the other guys out here; and that's the hardest part, because there are a lot of workaholics in these garages."

This team does have a truckload of money, reportedly more than $5 million. But while it has the name Andretti in its driver's seat, it is John Andretti, the enthusiastic but unproven Winston Cup driver. And while the team has plenty of desire to win, no one is quite sure if it can.

Andretti has been the nomad of motor sports, going from race car to race car, from sanctioning body to sanctioning body. Name a style of racing and the 31-year-old probably has driven in it.

But Brewer said he doesn't see Andretti "as a drifter," and Kranefuss saw enough to take a chance.

Last May Andretti grabbed attention by becoming the first man to race in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on the same day.

In the Winston Cup garages, he made an impression in the latter half of 1994 by driving for a struggling Richard Petty team. With Andretti driving, the team led more laps than any other Pontiac team did in the entire season, and Andretti finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year points.

Kranefuss said this team is risky business in several ways.

It's a risk for Andretti, he said, "because we are an unknown." It is also a risk for Kranefuss and Haas because "maybe he's not the kind of Winston Cup driver we think we need to have."

But what little Andretti has shown was enough to make Kranefuss willing to take the chance.

"It was a matter of making him commit 100 percent to Winston Cup racing," Kranefuss said. "And I think he has. He has bought a house [near Charlotte], and it was a very important point to me.

"There aren't even a handful of top drivers remotely available," he said. "And we had to make this work. He has to make this his career now. And Brewer, who didn't have a great year with the team he went to after leaving Junior Johnson, really wants to show this sport that he's still one of the top guys."

And, Kranefuss added, he's not in this for the fun of it.

"The only thing that motivates me is winning races, and it's the same for Carl [Haas]," he said. "Carl can give you the impression that he's a very miserable son-of-a-person sometimes, when he looks at you and chews on his cigar. But if you want to see Carl Haas smile, all you have to do is win a race in one of his cars."

Andretti knows a lot of people are watching him. But he refuses to admit to the pressure of expectations, which come in part from collecting a salary that is reported to be $500,000.

Kranefuss would not verify it, but said the figure was not out of line. He said the reason for the three-year contract was because he felt Andretti needed to know that someone believes in him.

"I know he can win," said Kranefuss. "But I think he needed some stability and I think he needs that first win because he hasn't won in a long time."

Andretti, however, says his biggest problem is convincing people he got this job on his own, without the help of Mario and Michael Andretti, who have driven for Haas and Kmart in the past.

"It's the biggest negative about coming to this team, that people would think I was here because my uncle [Mario] or my cousin [Michael] did something for me to get here," Andretti said.

"But it wasn't anything like that. I worked hard for this, to get here. It wasn't like they were out there beating on doors for me to get this job. I've worked hard enough my whole career, I think, to earn this, and I hope this is the break I've always wanted."

In tomorrow's 37th Daytona 500, they will start in 38th position, relegated to that spot when rookie Ricky Craven smashed Andretti's car into the wall with less than 10 laps to go in Thursday's qualifying race.

"Right now," said Brewer, as his crew swarmed over the backup Thunderbird, "we're in a rebuilding mode."

Brewer brings talent and experience in the Winston Cup world. He has gathered an experienced crew and has 10 cars in various stages of repair at the team's garages in Charlotte.

"If you're asking if I have something to prove, the answer is no," said Brewer, who owns stock in this operation. "If you're asking if I want to come back and be very successful, the answer is yes. I want that very much."

And so does Kranefuss, who is with the team every day.

"We have top fabricators, top mechanics, top tire guys and an extraordinary amount of talent," Kranefuss said. "But we still have to become a team, and that's what we're going through right now. I believe if you want it bad enough, have good sense and the right people, you'll make it."

But they won't know for sure until they do it.

THE KRANEFUSS-HAAS TEAM

Driver: John Andretti, nephew of Mario, who won the 1967 Daytona 500, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and the 1978 Formula One championship. John has raced in everything from USAC midgets and sprints to IMSA endurance races, NHRA dragsters, Indy cars and Winston Cup stock cars. He has one IndyCar win.

Crew chief: Tim Brewer, who has worked in Winston Cup racing for 21 seasons, led championship efforts for the Junior Johnson team in 1978 (Cale Yarborough) and 1981 (Darrell Waltrip), and runner-up efforts in 1979 (Yarborough) and 1992 (Bill Elliott).

Car owners: Michael Kranefuss and Carl Haas. Kranefuss was head of the Ford Motor Company's worldwide racing program from its inception in 1980 until retiring late last year. Haas is co-owner with Paul Newman of the team that won the IndyCar titles with Michael Andretti (1991) and Nigel Mansell (1993) and fielded cars for Mario Andretti until his retirement last year.

Money: Sponsored by Kmart and Little Caesars, the team is one of the best financed in the Winston Cup garages, with more than $5 million at its disposal. Andretti reportedly signed for nearly $500,000.

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