The Pressure on Being Marco Andretti

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It’s odd that the last couple of posts on this site have been dedicated to speculation on the careers of older drivers; Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. In those posts, I don’t think I once mentioned Marco Andretti, nor his future. I just assumed he had several more fulltime years left in the cockpit.

I don’t think I was the only one caught completely off-guard on Friday, when Marco announced he was stepping aside and mostly focus on the Indianapolis 500 for the remainder of his IndyCar career. He left the door open to drive in other IndyCar races, but he made it clear that he is interested in exploring other forms of racing in the coming years.

Marco Andretti has been the punch-line of many jokes over the years, including on this site. Some comments from fans were made out of frustration, while others originated from outright contempt – contempt for his lifestyle, and contempt for what they perceived as the squandering of an opportunity. Both reasons were somewhat justified, while at the same time were way off the mark. Hear me out on this.

Those of us at a certain age grew up watching Mario Andretti become synonymous with motor racing. I, myself, was sitting in the stands, when Mario Andretti made his first start in the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 – taking Rookie of the Year honors. I was also there four years later, when Mario captured what turned out to be his only Indianapolis 500 win in twenty-nine tries.

When his son, Michael, came onto the scene in 1984 – it always did my heart good to know that with Mario aging, there would still be an Andretti in the field for the foreseeable future. It was much the same way with Al Unser, Jr. the year before. The names of my childhood – Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Johncock, Rutherford and Bettenhausen – were still racing, but newer unfamiliar names were creeping in. There was something comforting about knowing that some of the biggest names would keep going for another generation.

Not only was I there for Mario’s first Indianapolis 500, I was there for his last one in 1994. I watched Michael grow from a baby-faced rookie in 1984 to a grizzled veteran, who won the CART championship in 1991 and had a very forgettable foray with McLaren in Formula One in 1993. Due to The Split, Michael missed the Indianapolis 500 from 1996 through 2000. When he returned in 2001, he was approaching the age of forty and his better years were behind him. He only had two IndyCar wins left in him – Toronto in 2001 and Long Beach in 2002.

When he returned to Indianapolis in 2003, it was as a car-owner as well as a driver. He had driven the first few races of the season, but was to step out of the cockpit for good after the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Like many planned retirements, things changed.

Michael’s son and Mario’s grandson, Marco Andretti had shown great promise in various developmental series. It appeared another IndyCar star named Andretti would be a regular in victory lane for the next generation to enjoy, four decades after his famous grandfather exploded onto the scene.

Although he was only nineteen and less than a year removed from high school, it was decided for the 2006 season that Marco was ready to join the IndyCar Series. He would drive the No. 26 car vacated by Dan Wheldon, who had just won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar championship. Those were big shoes to fill, but Michael decided that Marco was more than up to the task. To add to the pressure, Michael announced he would come out of retirement to run against his son at Indianapolis – the same honor Mario had twenty-two years earlier.

The first three IndyCar races of the 2006 season did nothing to bolster the notion that Marco would be the next great thing. His best finish to start the season was a twelfth at Motegi. But Michael and fans of the Andretti clan were vindicated when Marco qualified on the third row for the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie – out-qualifying his own father as well as future three-time winner Dario Franchitti.

Marco drove a clean race and found himself in the midst of one of the greatest final-ten-lap duels of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Michael was leading, but with three laps to go, Marco passed his father on the front-stretch. A roar erupted and we that were there felt like we were witnessing history in the making. Three laps later, we would find out we were, but not how we had thought.

Sam Hornish passed Michael and set his sites on Marco. In the final half-lap, Hornish reeled in the leader in a way none of us had ever witnessed on the final lap. As the two exited Turn Four with the checkered flag in sight, Marco still held a decent lead on the charging Hornish. Marco was passed just before the line, in what is one of the most thrilling finishes in Indianapolis 500 history.

Although I have always been a fan of Team Penske, I was never a Hornish fan. I was pulling for Marco that day and it still stings to watch that replay. If it stings me as a fan, imagine how it feels to Marco to watch it.

All of us in attendance that day and millions more watching at home, were convinced we had just witness the birth of a legendary racing career. Although Marco had, not one but, two IndyCar legends in his own family – it was obvious that the talent had definitely been passed down, and the immense pressure of carrying his family name was of no burden to Marco Andretti.

As we all know, almost fifteen years later – that talent rarely showed itself beyond the 2006 Indianapolis 500. Fans knew it was there, but felt as if it was being squandered. Those longing for a continuation of the Andretti legacy were frustrated and their frustration spilled over into social media, which was just becoming a thing as Marco’s IndyCar career got started.

Others grew tired of Marco’s own presence on social media. I joined Twitter in 2009 and followed mostly drivers and IndyCar media. While drivers over a decade ago began tweeting about what had happened to them in races, Marco was tweeting about his beautiful women, his extravagant vacations and his expensive toys. Most fans cannot possibly relate to the life that Marco Andretti was flaunting, and there was a backlash. Combine that with what was perceived as a wasted opportunity that he was not taking seriously, and contempt turned to downright anger.

It didn’t help that Marco appeared to be regressing. He finished seventh in points in his rookie season in 2006. In the fourteen seasons that followed, he only had one season better than his rookie year – the 2013 season, when he finished fifth. His last five seasons saw championship finishes of sixteenth, twelfth, ninth, sixteenth and twentieth. In 2020, he finished lower than Oliver Askew, who missed two races, and barely ahead of teammate Zach each, who missed the final three races of the season.

As I said earlier, I have taken my own shots at Marco Andretti over the years. He was an easy target and proved to be low-hanging fruit. If you wanted to elicit a few chuckles or “likes”, you could always make a Marco joke on social media. It was about as easy as making a Lotus joke during the 2012 season. It was there for the taking.

But somewhere along the way, I stopped cracking Marco jokes. Several drivers began to come to Marco’s defense, as they were aware he was receiving fan criticism on social media. They pointed out that Marco was probably the most misunderstood driver in the paddock. He was a shy introvert, who was well-liked and tremendously respected by the drivers. But when it came to interviews or trying to interact with fans via social media – he came off as aloof, awkward and unlikable.

Since then, I started to study Marco Andretti – not the driver, but the man. I began to see what other drivers had been saying publicly in defense of Marco. I realized that I had completely misread Marco and was misrepresenting him in the things I had written about him. I ceased the personal attacks over the past several years, unless it was purely related to some misstep he had created in a race.

I don’t think I have ever met Marco Andretti. I have been very close to him in different settings, but I have never encountered him personally. I did witness his humorous side firsthand, when Susan and I attended the 2012 Championship Banquet at IMS in December of that year. Ryan Hunter-Reay was being celebrated as that season’s champion. During Hunter-Reay’s speech, I witnessed Marco going to James Hinchcliffe and whispering something. The two of them got up from their seats and snuck up behind Hunter-Reay to play some prank on their teammate while he was giving his “thank-you” speech. I can’t remember the prank, but it impressed me that Marco Andretti had a playful side to him – one that we fans had never seen to that point.

When Marco won the pole for last year’s Indianapolis 500, his interview for NBC afterward was the most relaxed I had ever seen Marco. I don’t know if it was because the stands were empty or if he has finally gotten comfortable with the media over time – but it certainly seemed like a different Marco Andretti. Unfortunately, he lost the lead by the first turn in the race and limped to a thirteenth place finish. It was the lowest finish by a pole-sitter still running on the lead lap at the end of the race.

Marco Andretti says he still has unfinished businesses, especially when it comes to the Indianapolis 500. He will turn thirty-four before the upcoming IndyCar season starts. Although this year will be his sixteenth Indianapolis 500, he is still in his prime. IMS has been his best track over his career. In fifteen starts, he has finished second once, third four times and fourth once. He has three more Top-Ten finishes besides those already listed. He has also crashed hard there, ending up upside-down on the backstretch in 2007; so he has paid his own dues there, along with his family.

None of us can imagine the intense pressure that Marco Andretti has faced since he could crawl. Given his grandfather’s fortune along with his father’s, it would have been very easy for Marco to be a writer, or train horses or anything else that wasn’t involved in the family business. But when your last name is Andretti and you chose to go racing at Indianapolis, you are entering into territory that few on this earth can relate to. The pressure to live up to your last name can be overwhelming, and we were all to blame for setting those expectations. Few can live up to that pressure. Three generations of star athletes are a rare thing in sports. Billy Vukovich III was possibly destined for Indianapolis success, but that dream ended when he was fatally injured in 1990.

Marco could have lived off of his family’s money and had a good life. He may not have accomplished anything, but history is filled with third-generation trust fund babies living off of their ancestor’s accomplishments. Give him credit. He chose the family business, knowing the legacy he was expected to live up to. Ten years ago, it was obvious to most that that wasn’t going to happen. Yet he stayed in the arena, subjecting himself to daily criticism from fans, the media and lowly over-aged bloggers. Maybe if we had made the effort to understand what makes Marco tick, we could have alleviated some of that pressure and he could have accomplished more.

I don’t know if Marco Andretti will ever win the Indianapolis 500, but I wouldn’t bet against him. I think the IndyCar fan base has come to understand Marco a bit more, just as I have. If he is ever standing in Victory Lane hoisting a cold bottle of milk, it may be one of the biggest cheers any of us have heard from those hallowed grounds. Personally, I’d ke to see it. He has earned it.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Pressure on Being Marco Andretti”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Marco reminds me a lot of Kraig Kinser. Both third generation drivers whose fathers and grandfathers were legends of the sport, both showed promise early in their careers (a young Kinser did win his Indy, the Knoxville Nationals) but wound up as long-standing veterans with just a few wins, neither really contended for a championship. But both Marco and Kraig are well-liked and respected by their fellow drivers. They’ve both worked to keep their rides funded. And they’ve both certainly felt the weight of their last name and of the legendary and more successful ancestors. They’ve both definitely heard comments ranging from mean and disparaging to simple disappointment that they are not their fathers and grandfathers. Neither has to put with this, but they did, for years and years and years. I was not a fan of either initially, but I have come around to both respect and rather like both Marco and Kraig.

    Frankly, for a driver with such a seemingly uneventful overall record, I actually have quite a few good and vivid memories of Marco Andretti on track. His drive at Texas in 2009 sticks out especially. The track that night appeared to have only one line and by mid-race it looked like Ryan Briscoe was threatening to put the whole field a lap down… well, the whole field except for Marco that is. Over the course of about 25 laps, Marco found a second line and passed Dixon, Franchitti, and Castroneves, all on the OUTSIDE, to take second. He was reeling in Briscoe when AJ Foyt IV wrecked and the ensuing caution shuffled the order to Castroneves’ favor.

    Bad luck that night, something that seemed to strike Marco more than most (how many other drivers have had their tires put on the wrong side at Indy?). Great drivers overcome bad luck, of course, and adjusting to issues and challenges mid-race is perhaps Marco’s greatest weakness, but let us also not underestimate the kind of boost a lucky break or two can give to a driver’s career.

  2. It’s easy to have an opinion of Marco Andretti wether misguided or not based on the facts and opinions presented by writers and media people over the span of Marcos career. I think misunderstood very well describes the image forced upon him and mysterious is a good description as well (just read Robin Millers well written article on Marco as usual). Marco seemed reluctant to chart his own identity and image and that left the door wide open for the media and fans to do it for him. I think he still has a massive opportunity to chart his path in life now. The new big mystery is what he will do next with his life. I hope it is go give back to the sport that made his family famous like his Dad and Grandpa did. IndyCar needs him.

  3. In retrospect, it seems like Marco Andretti was never quite the same since his crash at Indianapolis in 2007. However, he did have several resurgences or comebacks like that year when he won at Iowa and that year when he led so many laps at Pocono and that rainy day at Belle Isle when his engineering team took Carlos Munoz to his lone IndyCar victory on a strategy thought up by Marco for himself in whilst in the car. And I was so happy for him to get the pole at Indianapolis last year. What a spectacular run that was.
    Even though he now goes part-time, Marco is still going to be a factor at Indianapolis like he always has been. Here’s hoping he will add Gateway to his races for this year, too.

  4. Talón de Brea Says:

    Interesting commentary on an interesting guy.

    I believe Marco is a valid (if not generational) talent … yes, he has certainly benefitted from an iconic family name (it’s significant that he therefore didn’t have to self-promote), but we should keep in mind that in an era of largely spec racing he has not had the benefit of the “magic” chassis-engine-tire packages that have won countless races and championships in various forms of racing over the decades. We could all name drivers here, but that’s not the point of George’s post (maybe a topic for some off-season commentary by a dedicated blogger, though, hmm?).

    Lots of good drivers have taken wins over great ones aided by the fact that they were driving a particular chassis, on a particular tire, powered by a particular engine. That has traditionally been a part of racing, but I’ve always found it a little disappointing that the Formula 1 World DRIVERS’ Championship is decided by teams that are able to flex superior technology and deeper pockets. But I digress …

    Marco might not have risen to the narrative that we would assign to him (a downside to any type of fame, I’m sure), but he has seen, done and accomplished things that we fans can only dream about. While I was in an office cubicle, he was behind the wheel (OK, and livin’ large). Good for him. I wish nothing but the best for Marco Andretti.

  5. No should have been just No…not he’s not dedicated enough.

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