Andretti's difficult Indy return

When Michael Andretti announced he was returning to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1995, he said he didn't expect it to be easy, that he wasn't going to come in and rule the month of May.

Andretti's difficult Indy return

He was right.

Andretti's name hasn't been on top of the speed list this week. In fact, his fast lap of 222.927 miles per hour on Thursday ranked him seventh - the highest he has been for any one day of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The CART driver has led more laps at the Indianapolis 500 (383) than any driver who has never won this race, but is driving an Indy Racing League car for the first time at Indy.

"We are trying to figure it out," Andretti said. "It's a different race car so I don't know exactly what we need yet. But we are working on it. We just don't know exactly what we need here because it is a different animal. We are working on that. It's a little frustrating because we are up against the clock. I wish we had a few more days to figure it out."

"Hopefully, if we get a good pick, we should be in good shape," Andretti said. "I'm not going to worry about it until I have to worry about it."

Andretti's car was prepared by Panther Racing in cooperation with Andretti's Team Green CART operation. Sam Hornish Jr. drives for Pennzoil Panther Racing and won the first two races of the IRL season. But he isn't running well, either, so Andretti hasn't been able to draw off his information.

"I'd have a little more confidence if Sam Hornish was running well," Andretti said. "We are both not getting it right yet. We are watching each other to try to help each other."

Although he has been away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for so long, Andretti feels like he has returned home. The Andretti name at the Indianapolis 500 have been synonymous, with his father Mario winning in 1969 and all the other victories that got away.

"It feels pretty similar, kind of like old times," Andretti said. "Like I've been saying, the cosmetics are different, but the nuts and the bolts of this place are the same."

Team owner Barry Green has had a pensive look on his face most of the week. His brother, Kim, is the general manager at Team Green and has been in charge of Andretti's Indy 500 effort. He admits the team has struggled this week at Indy, but is confident that the
team will do well in the May 27 Indianapolis 500.

"The pole position will probably be 225 or 226, depending on how the weather will be," Kim Green said. "I'm not sure we are pole position. We haven't put any qualifying motors together yet. We're just aiming for the top 10 in qualifying, which is probably 222 or 223."

Green's crew members are working with a different race car than the one Andretti drives in the CART series. The team has not been in the Indy 500 since their driver at the time, Jacques Villeneuve, won this race in 1995.

Although the cars are different, the challenges remain the same.

"I think the race cars are a challenge to get right," Green said. "In cool conditions, they are quite easy to go flat all the way around but you lose quite a bit of downforce when the temperature comes up. They are a bit of a challenge and if the race day is hot, it will be a pretty interesting race.

"You face the same problems getting the car comfortable through the corners. This race track may be a touch more unique than some of the CART ovals we run on. Other than that, there is no difference between now and when we were here in 1995."

Green applauds the IRL for creating a race car that is fast enough to be exciting, but slow enough to be safer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When Green's team last competed here, speeds were in the 234-mile an hour range. The fastest lap this month has been Scott Sharp's 226.137 mph.

"One thing that looks pretty sensible around here is the speeds," Green said. "They still look fast. Running around 220, it looks pretty sensible. I think the IRL formula is the right formula for this track. With the rules and engine competition in the CART series, every time we think we take boost and horsepower away at the end of the season, it's back again at the beginning of next season because the engine manufacturers are working so hard against each other.

"If you had more engine manufacturers in this series, you would see a little bit more development going on and maybe the speeds would increase."

Green is also impressed with the quality of the IRL teams, particularly Team Menard and Kelley Racing, Cheever Indy Racing and Treadway Racing.

"There are a lot of small teams in the IRL that do a real good job, like Jeff Ward," Green said. "He's doing very well. The bigger you get from my position you start to lose touch with the day to day things going on the shop floor. The more people you have, the less chance you have to communicate with those people. To me, growing big has been the biggest
disappointment because I thought we were always good at communication."

Green and Andretti have been trying to get two weeks' worth of work in the first week of practice. After this weekend, they have to leave for the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, the site of the next CART event next Saturday.

That is why the team has been so hard at work at Indy, trying to find the right combination that will make the return worthwhile.

"The race is what is important, we have to make sure we qualify safely so that we can go to Japan and race that race and feel comfortable we are in the show," Green said. "Any time on any race weekend when things aren't going well, you ask, `Why don't I have a real job where I have the weekend off and I'm playing golf. But the weekends when the car is running good, that's what makes it worth it."

Andretti and Green may have been gone for the biggest race in the world for five years, but both admit it seems like yesterday that they were competing in the race.

"It doesn't feel like we have been gone that long," Green said. "It's hard to believe it was so long ago. The biggest difference is the new grandstand suites behind the pits. There are an awful lot of the old faces around, still."

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