For Michael Andretti, another chance to end his family's misery at Indianapolis has passed him by.
"I miss the feeling of being there," he admitted. "I'm sure I would be feeling different if I had won the race."But Andretti has never been first across that narrow strip of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he won't get a chance to be first this year, either. Because of the feud in Indy-car racing, he'll be at Michigan International Speedway along with other top drivers for Sunday's inaugural U.S. 500.
All the points and counterpoints don't account for much when your sport has been torn apart and you won't get a chance to end your family's 27-year losing streak in the Indianapolis 500. It seems the fluky mishaps and bad karma that plagued Mario Andretti have carried over to his son.
"Who knows how many more chances I'll have to win at Indy, and I've just lost another one," Michael Andretti said, slumped on a sofa in his team's motor home after a practice session. "That's what bothers me the most."
The drivers insist they're solidly behind their car owners, who pulled out of Indy when the track's president, Tony George, decreed that 25 of the 33 starting positions would be reserved for drivers in his new series, the Indy Racing League.
For the small group of former Indy winners, the feud between George and the car owners is easier to take. Al Unser Jr. had hoped to redeem himself for failing to qualify at Indy last year, but he shrugged off the disappointment of not being there Sunday.
"I've won at Indy," said Unser, a two-time 500 champion. "I think the guys who are really disappointed are the ones who haven't. I know Scott Pruett is really disappointed because he felt like he had a car where he could go win the race for the first time. The same goes for Michael Andretti, Robby Gordon, Paul Tracy. The list goes on and on."
Championship Auto Racing Teams launched the U.S. 500 as a way of thumbing its nose at George. All of the top teams chose to stick with CART, which went so far as to schedule its race on the same day as Indy, with the cars lined up in rows of three - even though a lack of cars failed to make it a 33-car field.
Twenty-seven cars qualified, including pole-sitter Jimmy Vasser with a speed of 232.025 mph. He is joined on the front row by Adrian Fernandez (231.108) and Bryan Herta (230.774).
The past Indy winners in the field are Unser, who qualified fifth at 230.213; Emerson Fittipaldi, eighth at 227.816; and Bobby Rahal, 15th at 225.464.
CART officials claim that all 90,000 grandstand seats have been sold, and they're predicting more than 100,000 will turn out for Sunday's race. Still, it won't be even half as large as the throng that will be at Indy to watch a bunch of obscure drivers.
"I was talking to my dad the other day and told him they're expecting a lot of people here for Sunday's race," said Unser, whose father is a four-time Indy champ. "He said, `It's still a shame, because it ain't 400,000 (the size of an Indy crowd). And that's true."
Unser doesn't plan to watch the 10 a.m. (MDT) start of the Indy 500, which comes two hours before the green flag drops in Michigan.
"I'm going to be concentrating on this one," he said.
But Andretti and Fittipaldi admitted they might take a peak at the television to see how a field that includes more rookies than veterans - and even a couple of drivers who have barely raced above the dirt-track level - are faring in the world's most famous race.
"It's going to be scary," Andretti said. "Most of those guys have no idea what's going to happen on that first lap. They've not experienced any turbulence of that type before. I'm going to hold my breath for a while."
There figures to be plenty of breath-holding at Michigan, too. The drivers expect a more competitive race at Michigan, where the high-banked, 2-mile oval allows for three-abreast racing in the turns and plenty of high-speed drafting.
"We can pass here," Andretti said. "At Indy, it's just follow the leader."
Another thing the drivers don't miss about Indy is the pressure-packed month of May, with its seemingly endless series of practice sessions and qualifying runs. The CART drivers came to Michigan two weeks ago for qualifying, then returned a few days ago for the race.
"May is a pretty nice month in Pennsylvania. I never knew that," said Andretti, who lives in Nazareth. "And the miles we did at Indianapolis were just unbelievable. Every mile we put on the car, the risk of something happening was greater. I didn't miss that all."