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Sons duel famous fathers at Indy 500. Andrettis, Unsers will take green flag Sunday

By Larry EdsallSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1986


Even while their famous fathers are still very much in the picture, sons slowly but surely are taking over the family business on the Indy car racing circuit -- slowly but surely, that is, if such terms can be applied to a sport in which speeds of 200 m.p.h. have become routine. Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. are fast following in their fathers' tire treads. Still, the old guard isn't quite ready to move over into the slow lane and let the youngsters go by without a battle.

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``I think Michael and his team have served notice,'' said Mario Andretti, one of the few drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the World Grand Prix Championship, after his son claimed his first Indy car victory in the recent Long Beach Grand Prix. ``It is tough to break the ice for that first one. You have a lot of `could haves' and would haves,' but nothing counts until you take the checkered flag.''

As for the second generation catching up or moving ahead, however, Mario made it clear that he's not interested in taking a back seat just yet. ``I'll have to see about that,'' he said.

But it may take Mario a while to see much of his son Sunday in the 70th Indianapolis 500. While Michael will be starting in the No. 3 position on the outside of the front row, Mario will be last among the 33 drivers when the gentlemen are asked to start their engines.

At one time during the opening weekend of qualifications, Mario had a place on the front row, but Michael bumped him back to the second row, and a bump with the wall during practice has forced Mario to his backup car and thus to the back of the starting alignment.

Al Unser Sr. will start in front of his son, though. ``Big Al,'' the winner here in 1970, '71, and '78, will be in the second row, while ``Little Al'' will be in the third.

Back in 1983, the Unsers became the first father and son to race at Indy in the same year. And at this point the two appear pretty evenly matched, as indicated by the fact that last year Unser Sr. beat Unser Jr. by only one point for the Championship Auto Racing Teams national title. The 151-to-150 final point total marked the closest race ever for an Indy car national championship. Ironically, Al Sr., 46, became the oldest driver ever to win the season title, while Al Jr., who turned 24 last month, would have been the youngest such winner.

``Only a father will ever know what I'm feeling,'' Al Sr. said as he and his son prepared for the dramatic final race of the season and their showdown for the championship. ``I don't even think Little Al will know how it feels until his son grows up and something like this happens.''

``He's taught me everything I know,'' Al Jr. responded, ``but he hasn't taught me everything he knows.''

Al Jr. has won three Indy car events while his father has won 38, third on the all-time list behind A. J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (45). Little Al began racing Go Karts when he was nine, then graduated to the rugged sprint car circuit before gaining experience in sports car competition. He won the Can-Am series title in 1982, the year he also made his debut in an Indy car. In 1983, at age 21, 1 month, and 2 days, he became the youngest driver to break the 200 m.p.h. barrier, which he did in qualifying at Indianapolis, where he has finished 10th, 21st, and 25th.