All week, Robin Miller has been highlighting those Brickyard stars who deserved to capture at least one Indianapolis 500 win yet who never got a chance to drink the milk (see links on right). Finally he profiles a driver whose stats beat several multi-time winners and whose sheer combative nature saw him regularly fight his way to P1, only for misfortune to smack him between the eyes.
The statistics alone are the compelling argument, if not staggering evidence of the injustice.
Michael Andretti led more laps at Indianapolis than four-time winner Rick Mears and three-timers Louis Meyer, Dario Franchitti, Johnny Rutherford, Mauri Rose and Helio Castroneves. He was on point three times more than two-time winner and rival Al Unser Jr. in nine of his 16 starts. Andretti was out in front at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the tune of 431 laps – but never the last one.
Oh, by the way, the second-generation star never even ran Indy from 1996 to 2000 because of the CART/IRL war, so those were five more chances missed while in his prime. And he left the best ride on the grid in 1993 to go try Formula 1. It's not that Andretti was superior to Dan Gurney, the most versatile driver never to make it to Victory Lane, or more star-crossed than Lloyd Ruby, but the facts speak for themselves. Of all the great racers who never got to taste the milk at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michael Andretti is at the top of list because nobody ever dominated like he did and got turned away every May.
“It can be a very cruel place,” understates Mario Andretti, who knows a thing or two about heartbreak at Indianapolis. “Michael is the classic example. How many people have ever dominated this race like he has? I realized I'm biased, but he's as good a race driver as I ever raced against and he's the best who never won Indy.”
Naturally, some beats were worse than others and there was even the eyewitness gut-wrench of watching his son Marco pass him for the lead with three laps left in 2006 only to get pipped at the checkered flag by Sam Hornish Jr.
But nothing was as painful as 1992, where Andretti led 160 laps and was long gone before breaking down with the checkered flag virtually in sight.
Here's a capsulized look at the Andretti Indy Curse, Volume II.
1986: He was leading on lap 82 when a long pit stop put him a lap down. Finished sixth.
1989: Started 21st and charged into the lead by lap 35. He was leading on lap 162 when his engine expired.
1991: Was out in front for 97 laps and staged a classic duel with Mears that featured back-to-back outside passes for the lead at Turn 1 on laps 187 and 188, but wound up a disappointed second.
1992: The meanest day of his life. Overcame watching the ambulance take away his brother Jeff and father in separate accidents and utterly destroyed the competition. He lapped the field and was in another area code from eventual winner Unser Jr. when his Cosworth lost fuel pressure on lap 190.
1993: Was running Formula 1 while Nigel Mansell, in “his” ride with Newman/Haas Racing, came within one restart of winning Indy as a rookie. A vet like Michael would never have lost out.
1995: Started fourth but had the lead by lap 17 and was cruising in first place when he drifted a couple feet into the gray exiting Turn 4 and slapped the wall, bending his suspension.
1996-2000: Missed Indy because he was running in CART.
2001: Started 21st in a one-off with an IRL chassis but managed to lead 16 laps and finish third.
2003: Had the lead from laps 58-67 but got KO'd by throttle linkage problems.
2006: Came out of retirement to run Indy, led laps 194-197 before being passed by his son Marco and Hornish and wound up third.
Of course, there was finally some sunshine at 16th & Georgetown for Michael as a car owner in 2005, when the late Dan Wheldon triumphed and Franchitti gave him No. 2 in '07.
“Those were both satisfying, but in a different way, obviously,” says Andretti, whose 5-car armada has a great shot Sunday to make him a three-time winner as a team owner. “Winning as a driver is the ultimate satisfaction but it just wasn't meant for me, for whatever reason.”
But while his effigy never made it on the Borg Warner Trophy, when you think of all the great racers who ran at Indianapolis, Michael Andretti's face will always be in the frame. He was a true ace around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whatever the record books show.