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Mario Andretti happy to refuel open-wheel interest

Racing has been Mario Andretti's life. It's given him success and a comfortable lifestyle. One way Andretti repaid the sport was playing a prominent role in the merger earlier this year of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car series.

Racing has been Mario Andretti's life. It's given him success and a comfortable lifestyle.

One way Andretti repaid the sport was playing a prominent role in the merger earlier this year of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car series.

Following the split between sanctioning organizations in the mid-1990s, interest in IndyCar racing in the United States declined. NASCAR seized the opportunity and soared to No. 1 in popularity.

Three years ago, Andretti said he brought the IRL's Tony George and Champ Car's Kevin Kalkhoven together for their first meeting. Among others attending the meeting at Andretti's home in Nazareth, Pa., was actor Paul Newman. He had been a longtime co-owner of Andretti's IndyCar team when he was winning 52 races.

Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in IndyCar racing, also is credited with moving along the merger.

Seated at a table adjacent to his office in his luxurious and spacious home on Monday, Andretti said that he and Newman "expressed ourselves quite vividly during the breakup, to the point of maybe offending some people and losing some friends."

"There were three other very meaningful meetings. One was [just with] Tony, Kevin and myself spent 2 days in Aspen [Colo.]. All this was top secret. A lot of key issues were resolved. One issue was Kevin Kalkhoven agreeing to allow Tony to be CEO of the new company. That was quite a concession [by] Kevin."

Andretti, 68, believes that George, also the president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kalkhoven, who made a fortune in the technology business, listened to him because they needed someone they trusted. Andretti also kept George and Kalkhoven in touch with reality.

"I'm on the road 18 to 20 days a month," he said. "People express themselves [to him]. I told [George and Kalkhoven] that fans won't say to you what they say to me. Ninety percent of them tell you what you want to hear."

Referring to the merger, Andretti said: "Obviously, it was necessary to save what used to be the premier discipline in motor racing in America. Now, there's a whole new wave of enthusiasm. Now you have some story lines - Graham Rahal winning the first race [since the merger], Danica Patrick winning in Japan and such great competition at Indianapolis."

Andretti said he played an active behind-the-scenes role because of his affection for open-wheel racing. He is the only racer to win a Formula One championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.

Andretti also wants his grandson, Marco, to enjoy a racing career similar to his.

"The sport of open-wheel has been my life," Andretti said. "I know it's done for me and my family. To see it diminish in any way was heartbreaking.

"Marco's career was another motivating factor. I have family continuing [in racing]. I know how good it can be when it's right. They were being cheated. Now they have it back."

Andretti is hopeful that Indy cars will return to Pocono Raceway. Through the 1970s, the Indy cars, with Andretti, A.J. Foyt and the Unser brothers, were the big show at Pocono. After the split, however, IndyCar racing never regained its fan base in the Mid-Atlantic area.

"My preferred track to drive was always Pocono, as far as total satisfaction," he said. "It was also the toughest track to drive. I know a lot of drivers felt the same way.

"A lot of the ovals NASCAR is on are perfect for them, because they need banking to show speed and get side-by-side racing. [Indy cars] don't need banking. Pocono, like Indy, is the only superspeedway that offers that."

Big bucks for Pettys

Petty Enterprises is going corporate.

PE announced yesterday that it is partnering with Boston Ventures, a private equity firm. BV will provide capital to the Pettys, allowing it to catch up with the more successful NASCAR Sprint Cup teams.

BV's David Zucker, a former ESPN executive, will be the new CEO of Petty Enterprises. Richard Petty, winner of a record 200 Cup Series races, will continue to be active in the company.

Bobby Labonte will continue racing for the Pettys for the next 4 years. Labonte, 44, said having Boston Ventures join the Pettys was the key for his remaining with the organization.

Busch: Shorten Pocono

Add Kurt Busch to the voices who think races at Pocono would be more interesting if they were 400 miles instead of 500. Sunday's Pocono 500 finished in just under 4 hours.

"It could stand to be shortened," Busch, the winner of the August '07 race at Pocono, said Tuesday. "These new race cars are so much warmer inside. You're driving twice as hard, so a 400-mile race might be more exciting. Matt Kenseth made the comparison. He said, 'You've got the 24 hours of Daytona and the 500 miles of Pocono.' "

This week's race

LifeLock 400

Michigan International Speedway

Brooklyn, Mich.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m..

TV/Radio: TNT/WXTU (92.5-FM), WNPV (1440-AM)

Race course: 2-mile oval

Race distance: 400 miles/200 laps

Last year's race winner: Carl Edwards

Last year's pole winner: J.J. Yeley, 187.505 mph

Track qualifying record: Ryan Newman, 194.232 mph (June 2005)

Track facts: Martin Truex Jr. was runner-up in last year's race; Tony Stewart was third ... Bill Elliott has the most wins (seven) at Michigan among active drivers, but his last W at the track was in 1989. Mark Martin has four wins at the track; Bobby Labonte has three W's ... Kurt Busch won the August race at MIS last year ... Matt Kenseth continues climbing toward another berth in the Chase. He is 15th in points, 34 points out of 12th place, the final Chase qualifying spot. In the last four races, he has three top-10 finishes, including a fourth at Dover .... Clint Bowyer's last three finishes of 25th, 36th and 39th have dropped him from fifth to 11th place..

Wins: Kyle Busch, 4; Carl Edwards, 3; Kasey Kahne, 2; Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, 1 each.


1. Kyle Busch (1 last week), 2,084 -

2. Jeff Burton (2) 2,063, -21

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3), 1,939, -145

4. Carl Edwards (4), 1,856, -228

5. Denny Hamlin (9), 1,800, -284

6. Jimmie Johnson (7), 1,799, -285

7. Greg Biffle (5), 1,781, -303

8. Jeff Gordon (6), 1,767, -317

9. Kasey Kahne (12), 1,719, -365

10. Kevin Harvick (10), 1,690, -394

11. Clint Bowyer (8), 1,679, -405

12. Tony Stewart (11), 1,614, -470

13. David Ragan (13), 1,607, -477

14. Ryan Newman (14), 1,604, -480

15. Matt Kenseth (16), 1,580, -504

16. Martin Truex Jr. (15), 1,558, -526

17. Brian Vickers (19), 1,502, -582

18. Travis Kvapil (18), 1,464, -620

19. Bobby Labonte (20), 1,455, -629

20. Juan Montoya (17), 1,439, -645

Up next: Toyota/Save Mart 350, June 22, Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, Calif., 5 p.m.; TV: TNT.