I had a long conversation recently with Michael Andretti for the book I’m writing about Newman/Haas Racing. Andretti drove for Newman/Haas for 10 seasons between 1989-2000, scoring 35 of his 42 Indycar wins with the team. He won the 1991 CART title with Newman/Haas when Indycar racing was at its healthiest and, despite his terrible season in Formula 1 with McLaren in 1993, Michael remains one of the fastest, most spectacular drivers Indycar racing has ever seen. He was a true racer, as anyone who witnessed his fierce battle with Juan Pablo Montoya in the 2000 Michigan 500 will know.
It’s interesting that Andretti was particularly fast on superspeedways because he despised those tracks. Although he never won the Indy 500, Michael led 431 laps at the Speedway during his career and is easily the highest ranked non-winner among the race’s all-time lap leaders. Yet he freely admits he didn’t like Indianapolis or Michigan.
“Indianapolis was not my favourite track but it seemed like my style really worked there,” he says. “That was one of the best tracks I’ve driven in terms of being competitive, not necessarily just being fast. In the race it seemed like I knew what I needed and it would always work for me, whatever that was. But I never got a result there.
“I always ran good at Michigan but I hated the place. You only hate it because you know that if something goes wrong, it’s going to be big. But once you’re in the car, you’re not thinking about that. When you get out the car at the end of the race your mind is just junk because you had to be so on it mentally. And three or four times in every race at Michigan something big almost happened. I think maybe because I felt that way I really respected the place.”
Andretti believes having confidence in himself and the car and getting through traffic quickly was key to his success on ovals. “If you’re aggressive on an oval you can make time in traffic,” he says. “Races are won on ovals in traffic. You can’t sit back. I won a lot of races on ovals not just because I was [in] the fastest car, but because I had a car that was good in traffic and I was aggressive in traffic.”
Ed Nathman has worked with many drivers over the decades. He was team manager at Newman/Haas from 1989-92 and today he’s chief engineer at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, running Montoya’s NASCARs. Despite working with Montoya, Nathman says Andretti remains the most aggressive driver to ever sit in one of his cars.
“Michael is still the most aggressive driver I’ve run,” he declares. “You just had to remind him which way the race track went and he’d take care of the job. Michael was like what I’ve seen with good drivers in NASCAR. They’re always searching for a line. They always know that somewhere out there, there’s more grip on the track.”
Brian Lisles is general manager of Newman/Haas Racing and has been with the team for 21 years. He was Andretti’s race engineer from 1990-91. “Michael was unbelievably brave,” he says. “He hated the superspeedways. He would talk non-stop about how stupid Indianapolis and Michigan were and it was insane to drive there. But he’d get in the car and blow everybody off. I don’t know how he did that, but he just did. A complicated man, Michael, in some ways.”
And a survivor of a great driving career who is fully occupied these days as the sole owner of Andretti Autosports, running no fewer than four IRL cars for Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick and his son Marco. It will serve them well to listen to his advice.