What would Freud have made of this: Sons racing against fathers, trying with all their God-given guile and Valvoline to win the Oedipal battle in front of a half-million witnesses?
Whether through nurture or nature, the desire to get dressed up in a cherry-red jumpsuit and lower one's mortal self into a machine that will whip around an asphalt oval at 210 mph, well, that just may be an inherited trait. Let's face it. You gotta be a little crazy. Or at least inclined in that direction.
"Sometimes I stand in the pit and I watch the cars go so fast, and I can't believe I'd ever climb into one of them," said Michael Andretti. "But that's how I'm built. I guess it's obvious why. It's the family thing."
Check the demographics. The Indianapolis field on Sunday includes two father-and-son teams, the Andrettis and Unsers; the Bettenhausen brothers, and half-brothers Pancho Carter and Johnny Parsons Jr. Others in the field of 33, such as Tom Sneva, have relations who race but did not qualify.
Michael Andretti is 23, and has the clayey, unformed face of youth. What a legacy he faces. His father Mario won the 500 in 1969 and, after A.J. Foyt, has won more championship races than anyone else. On Sunday, Michael Andretti will start Indy in the front row next to Rick Mears and last year's winner, Danny Sullivan; his father, after crashing his first-string car last week, will start from the rear. Their presence on the track together, Michael said, "is real natural. It's just like any other father and son going to the same office.
"See, it's the world you're brought up in. You live in it and eventually you learn to love it." Michael Andretti is sitting in his spotless, slate-gray garage on Gasoline Alley while all around him older men clutching clipboards discuss "mirror positioning" and "mean turbulence" in whispered, mausoleum tones.
"I was raised on speed, it's what I've known all my life. When I was a kid, we had a place in the Pocono Mountains and every toy we had up there had something to do with speed: motorbikes, snowmobiles, speedboats, three-wheelers," Michael Andretti said. "The whole idea of fun was goin' fast."
Such families are common in racing.
A few garages down the road, Al Unser Jr. watches his team preen over his blue-and-red Lola. The "Hot One," they call it. His hair is thick and orange-red, and his face is thinner than Michael Andretti's. But he radiates that same serene sense of a kid who wouldn't mind beating his old man in front of a big crowd.
"I started racing go-karts, going around 60 miles per hour, when I was 9 years old," he said. "That was for my father. But when I started putting my life on the line, well, that was for me. The only person you can take that kind of risk for is yourself.
"If it came down to me against my dad, head to head, it wouldn't matter a bit. I don't care if it's my father, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford or anyone else. It's the same will to beat the other car and the man in it. When I'm out there, I don't see my father as a man. I see him as a car. My father the car."
With his brother Bobby retired, Al Unser Sr., 46, reigns in his family. Last year, he finished one point ahead of his son to win the season championship. It was the closest finish ever. At the Indy 500 in 1983, Al Jr. tried to run interference and block Tom Sneva from overtaking his father in the final laps, but Sneva finally broke through for the victory. Most of the time, though, the Unsers race without a thought to family affection.
"I try to race the car, not the man," said Al Sr., who has won here three times. "If I had to think about beating my son, I wouldn't be able to cope."
Most parents would blanch at the thought of their children risking their lives on such a regular basis. There is not a driver here who has not lost a close friend or relative. Al and Bobby Unser's brother Jerry died in a crash here in 1959, three years before Little Al was born. Gary and Tony Bettenhausen Jr. lost their father when he was killed here testing a buddy's car. Mario Andretti's twin brother Aldo crashed in 1959. He was given last rites but, after three weeks in a coma, recovered.
Last year Johnny Parsons Jr. lost his father, a celebrated Indy racer, of old age. But, he said, "No one escapes the danger. It's got to touch you sooner or later. I was a teenager just watching the cars go by when Tony Bettenhausen hit the wall in front of my eyes."
The danger, the pain, are facts. The trick, as Gordon Liddy used to say, is not minding. Mario's wife Dee Ann put up a fuss at the thought of her babies taking a run at their father's domain, but no one stood in their way. Michael, who was rookie of the year at Indy two years ago, and fledgling racer Jeff Andretti, 21, just don't mind the danger. That's how they were raised.
"Everyone gets excited and worried about the danger," said Michael. "But you grow up knowing that there's nothing worth getting killed over in a race, so you learn to test the edge, to push it out, but never cross it. I've seen what happens. I've seen my father make mistakes, but what can you do? Whenever you see the yellow flag come out, the first thing I do is look for his car and hope for the best."
Of all the Unsers and Andrettis, Michael Andretti, with qualifying laps of over 214 mph, has the best chance to win Sunday. His rise has been spectacular.
As a boy racing go-karts, he won 50 of the 75 races he entered, and quickly went up the ranks of Formula Fords (six victories in 14 races), Super Vees (six in 11) and Formula Atlantics (three in nine). He won his first Indy-car event in April at Long Beach.
"It would be great if Dad and I could have a year like the Unsers had last year," said Michael Andretti.
For the moment, Mario Andretti is convinced that even at 46, with his middle gone a little buttery and his reflexes a shade slower, wisdom keeps them up to speed with his boy. The struggle, though, could end, he said, "when I see that my kids are beating me every time."
"Dad's not ready to go just yet," said Michael Andretti. "At a certain age you lose a drive to win and he hasn't lost that. Not even close. All winter he couldn't wait to get into a race car. Just like me." Simon In, Firestone Out of Lineup Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS, May 23 -- Dick Simon moved into the Indianapolis 500 lineup and Dennis Firestone moved out today as Simon and the owner of Firestone's battered race car struck a deal. Simon, who had been bumped from the field last Sunday by the final qualifier, Gary Bettenhausen, will start his Lola in the 33rd position. Firestone, whose Lola was badly damaged Thursday in a crash during the final practice session prior to Sunday's race, found himself the odd man out.
The Pace Electronics team, owned by Patrick Kehoe, originally said it would work round-the-clock until race morning, if necessary, to repair Firestone's car.
"Dick proposed a merger to arrange for the withdrawal of car No. 36 Firestone's from the race and we agreed, feeling that a repaired car would not be competitive," said Kehoe. "Dick will start as part of a mutual interest. We feel this is in the best interest of the sport and the best interest of our teams."