INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The day after Marco Andretti put his car on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 — 51 years after his grandfather scored the only Andretti win in the only race that matters to the iconic family — the third-generation racer dismissed any idea of a curse at the historic track.
He said all the right things about being an Andretti at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the hallowed grounds where seven different family members have raced with only that one win, by patriarch Mario Andretti in 1969.
Marco had suffered his own heartbreak in his Indy 500 debut, a crushing 2006 loss when the rookie was passed just 100 yards from the finish line. He had just two wins to show for a 15-year career, and a year ago, with an Andretti about to lead the field to green at Indianapolis with the spotlight at last all to himself, Marco was doing his best to convince anyone who asked that he very much still loved racing. If he didn't, he insisted, he'd walk away.
Just five months later, he did just that.
It wasn't so much of a surprise, at least not to his father. Michael Andretti had heard rumors through the grapevine. Andretti Autosport was having a difficult time selling sponsorship for the 34-year-old, but Michael Andretti was not giving up, not until his oldest son himself called off the hunt.
There was maybe enough money for a partial season, Michael Andretti told The Associated Press, but when father and son finally connected in a telephone call, Marco wasn't interested.
“I think he was worried about talking to me about it,” Michael told AP. “And when he saw that I agreed with him, the weight was just lifted off of him. I could hear the change in his voice immediately. It's been so good for him because he's so much more relaxed and happy.”
The IndyCar season began this year without an Andretti on the track for the first time since 2006. There had been stretches before — Michael retired from full-time racing after the 2002 season — but Marco's decision to scale back puts the brakes for now on the most famous name in motorsports, which Michael himself acknowledges is disappointing but ultimately trivial.
“As long as this is what's good for him, that’s all I care about,” Michael said.
Marco Andretti returns to the speedway Tuesday to begin preparations for the Indy 500, the only race on his IndyCar schedule this year. He will be part of Tony Stewart's six-race Superstar Racing Experience All-Star Series that begins next month, and he will likely join the Andretti Autosport sports car program later this year and drive alongside his cousin, Jarett.
Michael will reunite with Marco as his race strategist at Indy, another chance for them to break the Andretti curse together. Like so many others in the sport, Michael doesn't know where things went off course in Marco's career.
It certainly had a promising start when as a 19-year-old rookie he passed his father for the lead at Indy with two laps remaining and the checkered flag in sight. But Marco was caught before the finish line by Sam Hornish Jr., victory snatched away in the final seconds as his grandfather could only shake his head in disbelief from pit lane.
Marco scored a win later that 2006 season, and a second victory came in 2011, but that was it. Mario ranks second on IndyCar's all-time wins list and is considered one of the greatest racers ever, and Michael ranked third on the wins list when he retired.
But it just doesn't come easy for Marco, not even last year. He was the final driver to make a qualifying attempt on a windy afternoon at Indy and bumped six-time series champion Scott Dixon from the top of the board to put an Andretti on the pole for the 500 for the first time in 33 years.
On race day, though, Marco failed to lead a single lap, something that had not happened to a pole winner since 2001. He finished 13th.
His grandfather won't attempt to explain why Marco walked away from full-time racing.
“Only Marco can answer that and I can't say it's not disappointing for me because I live for the fact that he was out on the track,” Mario told AP. “Last year he proved something to me — I always felt that he had the talent and just putting the car on pole under those conditions last year, he beat the very best that day. So he's capable. Why he's not more consistent? I can never answer that. But Marco's a good kid. That's the main thing for me.”
Michael can't help but wonder if he should have taken a different approach with Marco's career and not brought him immediately into the top-tier team team he owned. His first job was as a rookie teammate to Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Tony Kanaan. His only boss was his father.
Bobby Rahal, meanwhile, sent his son out to learn in other organizations. Graham Rahal had driven for both Newman-Haas and Chip Ganassi when, six seasons later at 24 years old, he finally went to drive for his father.
“People say that maybe I should have done what Bobby did and have him go race for somebody else and all that stuff, I don't know, maybe I should have,” Michael said. “Maybe because people think, you know, the silver spoon and all that crap. I don't know. I really don't.”
The youngest of his five children is a twin 7-year-old boy they call Rio, named for his grandfather but with enough of an age gap between Mario Andretti that Michael didn't worry about the pressures of being a namesake. Rio has recently caught the racing bug, but Michael doesn't really know what to do with him.
“He's not out there doing it every week and it's partly my fault because I'm not going to be out there doing it every week. I'm not that type of dad who is going to sit down and school him on everything,” Michael said. “And second, well, I don't think I want him to be doing it just yet. It's too early. I want him to see other stuff.”
Andretti Autosport in April signed Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon, the 12-year-old and 10-year-old sons of the late driver Dan Wheldon, to junior development programs. The Wheldon boys and their mother have been navigating the junior racing divisions the last six years and could guide Rio should Michael greenlight another Andretti chasing the bug.
Mario remembers setting up a race course at a high school near their Pennsylvania home for his sons to navigate on a golf cart. Michael, then 9, he said “took to it like a laser. Like a duck to water.” Little Rio, he's been told, only likes to go fast and hasn't yet figured out how to complete a lap.
“Rio tells me, ‘I like the straights! I like to go fast!’” Mario laughs, the pride unmistakable. “We'll see. He's still a little young. We've got to get him to complete a full lap before we make big plans for him.”
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