UNSER, Andretti seek validation, redemption at Indy

Saturday, May 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. were once the young princes of auto racing, drivers whose names conjured visions of glorious victories and numbing defeats on the sport's grandest stage.

The childhood friends are together again this year, two late-30-something drivers racing at the Indianapolis 500. Andretti is still looking for the elusive victory that would make his career complete, and Unser is trying to salve his recent troubles with another Indy win.

``What's good about Al is that we've always been in very similar situations with the same pressures,'' Andretti said. ``We both understand each other, and what the other goes through, a little better than other people.''

With age, the issues have changed. No longer do the pressures of living up to the greatness of their fathers haunt them; they're too old and too successful for that.

These days, there are other demons to conquer.

When the 38-year-old Andretti signed with owner Barry Green's CART team before this season, he made a point of asking Green to help him get back to Indianapolis.

He returns to the hallowed ground for the first time since 1995, the year before IRL and CART began their bitter feud.

As always, his return to the Brickyard brings with it scores of bad memories: close calls, late failures and numerous examples of the dreaded ``Andretti Luck.''

``I don't believe in curses,'' Andretti said. ``For whatever reason, things happened.''

Andretti, who has the most wins of any active Indy-car driver, is 0-for-11 at Indianapolis. He has led 382 laps, the most for any non-winner. In 1995, he led 45 laps before brushing the wall with nobody around him and dropping out of the race.

The most painful loss came in 1992, when he had a dominating car that led by a wide margin for 160 laps. A mere 25 miles from the checkered flag, his car lost fuel pressure and he dropped out of contention. None other than Little Al took advantage, beating Scott Goodyear in the closest Indy finish ever. Thus ended Unser's 10-year winless streak at Indy.

``I can't speak for Michael, but if I hadn't won by now, I'd be climbing walls, going crazy,'' Unser said. ``And now that I have won, there's a certain feeling. I feel good about this place.''

But if there's anyone who could use another victory here, it's Unser.

The 39-year-old's life has become a soap opera of late. He's nearing the tail end of a messy divorce with his wife of 20 years. His relationship with his children is chilly. His 13-year-old daughter, Cody, is paralyzed, victim of a rare spinal cord disease.

``My personal life, my personal problems, that doesn't change even if I win the race,'' Unser said. ``But winning the race will, I guess, make me a race car driver again in some people's eyes.''

In 1994, Unser was at the top of the racing world. Spurred by his second Indy 500 victory, he won the CART championship for the second time and established himself as the best open-wheel driver in America.

Things changed quickly. After a fast start in 1995, he became the first defending Indy champion to fail to qualify for the race the following year.

Thus began his five-year hiatus from Indy, a period that coincided with a steady slip in the standings, down to 21st in 1999. It led car owner Roger Penske to sever ties.

Unable to land a CART ride in 2000, Unser reunited with Rick Galles on the IRL circuit, which allowed him back into the race he and his family members have won nine times.

But last year was a disappointment; he finished 29th because of mechanical problems. This year, qualifying has been tough, too. He's starting in the seventh row _ the same as Andretti _ and is considered a heavy underdog.

It reminds him of 1987, when Al Unser Sr. came to Indy without a ride, but left with his fourth victory, a stirring performance that tied him with A.J. Foyt for most career wins. (Rick Mears earned his fourth in 1991).

``That memory is what has helped get me through this week,'' Unser said. ``He proved to me that day that you never give up. You keep plugging away, you keep your head down, try your best and if you do that, things are going to work out for the best.''

It's a lesson Andretti wants to believe in, too.

``I know I'm running out of chances to win this race,'' Andretti said. ``I've lost five good chances. I don't know how many more I have. You try to take advantage of any opportunity you have. That's why I pushed for this year. Because if I hadn't, I'd be coming back next year and I'd be 39.''