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.
``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.
Al Jr. got his first Indy car victory in 1984 at Portland, Ore., and won twice last year, at the Meadowlands and Cleveland.
Michael Andretti, 23, has been fifth and eighth in his two starts at Indy, where Mario, now 46, won in 1969.
Michael won 50 of 75 Go Kart races he entered between 1972 and 1979, then began racing Formula Fords, winning six of 13 events in 1981. The next year he was national Super Vee series champion. He teamed with Mario to finish third in the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1983, the year he also made his first start in an Indy car. Michael started fourth and Mario sixth at Indy in 1984 and both finished among the top eight here last year.
Twice last season, Michael was the fastest driver in practice for an Indy car race, only to have Mario win the pole position in qualifying. ``I've never wanted to do anything else,'' Michael said of following in his father's footsteps. ``I grew up around race tracks all over the country watching dad race. I guess it was a natural thing for me to want to do the same thing.''
``Growing up in racing has had some advantages and some disadvantages. We [Al Jr. and I] have been exposed to the racing life, but it created pressure to do well when we were just starting out.''
Al Jr. and Michael aren't the only racers' sons who'll be behind the wheel Sunday. Geoff Brabham, who will start 22nd at Indy and who was third behind Michael and Little Al at Long Beach, is the son of former Grand Prix champion Jack Brabham. Tony and Gary Bettenhausen are sons of the late Tony Bettenhausen, a favorite of Indy fans. Pancho Carter's father, Duane, drove at Indy from 1948 to '63. Johnny Parsons Jr. is the son of 1950 Indy winner Johnny Parsons. Scott Brayton, who a year ago set a one-lap speed record (since broken) here, is the son of Lee Brayton, who drove on the Indy car circuit for several years but never managed to qualify for the 500.
In fact, there's even another generation out there getting its first feel of the road. ``I have a son named Al,'' Al Jr. said. ``We call him `Mini Al,' so there are actually three of us -- Big, Little, and Mini. Mini Al can race when the time comes if he wants to. He has a Go Kart and he drives it pretty well, considering that I just took the training wheels off his bike.'' Mini Al is 3 years old.
``I want to say that the changing of the guard has happened,'' Al Jr. said of himself, Michael, and the other young drivers. ``Here we come.''
Still, the old guard isn't making any concessions. After all, Mario has won more races, been the fastest qualifier more times, led more laps, and earned more money in the last three years than any driver on the CART circuit, and Al Sr. won the championship last year despite starting the season driving part-time. Geoff Brabham realizes the changing of the guard isn't quite complete. ``It is nice to be up here [in the standings],'' Brabham said, ``but some of the older guys can still run hard. Obviously, the juniors have caught up with the seniors as far as competitiveness. But the younger generation is far from taking over. You could easily see Foyt, Mario, and Unser Sr. 1-2-3 at Indianapolis.''