By JENNA FRYER
INDIANAPOLIS — Shortly before he left home for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Marco Andretti watched a documentary that showed his grandfather, Mario, at the famed track.
“It was him and (radio announcer) Paul Page, they were walking down the start finish line and he said, ‘You know, I always said I hated this place,’” Andretti recalled. “And then he paused for a while and said, ‘I lied.’ That pretty much tells it all. We’ve been through a lot here, but we live for it.”
Five different drivers from the famed Andretti clan have combined to make 80 starts in the Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti’s 1969 victory remains the lone win and the family has been answering questions about the “Andretti Curse” for decades now.
It was Michael Andretti who had it the worst, leading 431 laps in 16 career starts and never getting a chance to drink the celebratory milk.
But it’s not been any easier for Marco, the third-generation driver who has suffered his own share of heartache at Indy. He was passed by Sam Hornish Jr. on the final straightaway in 2006, when he raced as a 19-year-old rookie with his father in the field. Hornish won the race, and Marco and Michael finished second and third.
He believes he gave away the 2008 race, which was won by Scott Dixon while Andretti finished third. There was another third-place finish in 2010, and then he went into last year’s race convinced it was “mine to lose.”
“And we lost it,” he said Thursday with a shrug.
Upset with his car all day, even as he led a race-high 59 laps, an ill-timed caution shuffled Andretti back into the field after a pit stop. He was struggling with his handling, and crashed out of the race 13 laps from the finish.
So the curse has been passed down, even as Andretti does his best to put his own positive spin on the suffering.
“I believe that as a family, having one win in 70-something tries, that’s frustrating as competitors,” he said. “But I think we’re blessed as a family because we are all healthy. And I am still young, knock on wood, and I’ll have a lot of shots at this race. So I’m blessed because we are able to compete. I love this place and it’s an honor to be able to compete.”
He then took his own pause before continuing, “But we want to win, dammit.”
Andretti has another shot on Sunday when he starts third, on the front row for the first time in his career. Funny thing is, he wasn’t even focused on qualifying and the best starting spot of his career came as something of a surprise.
And all five of the Andretti Autosport entries have been fast this month, and teammates James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay combined to win three of the first four races this year.
Andretti, meanwhile, is off to the best start of his career after a focused offseason of figuring out what he needed to do to be better. The results are two podium finishes so far this year and he heads into the Indy 500 — a race he’s always considered a contender regardless of how his season started — ranked second in the IndyCar standings.
“Marco sort of woke up halfway through last year and decided that he needed to be better for himself,” said Hinchcliffe. “The effort we saw over the offseason was a big change. He is a different guy. He was at the shop a lot more, he contacted his engineer a lot more, he was really focusing on himself a lot more. And it shows. He’s second in points, he’s off to the strongest start of his career. And he’s just consistent. And he’s aggressive.
“I think he’s going to have a breakout year and I hate to admit it, but this one might be his. This guy gets Indy better than most.”
His grandfather sees it, too, in the 26-year-old standard bearer.
“He just loves this joint,” Mario Andretti said. “He knows his way around here, and he has excellent race craft here.”
Andretti doesn’t harp on the offseason work he put into his career, which came at the end of a season in which Hunter-Reay won his first championship and Hinchcliffe had a breakout year in his first season with Andretti Autosport. The namesake, meanwhile, finished a career-worst 15th in the standings.
So he worked with a driving coach, studied his weaknesses and recommitted himself to his career. It’s no coincidence he now admits racing simply wasn’t fun for him last year.
All that work has helped him to this strong start, and helped him recapture his love of racing.
But four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who has known Andretti since he was a kid and was his teammate in 2006, said the joy everyone sees now comes from running well on the track — something Andretti has worked hard for.
“Marco has really calmed down. He just seems a lot more focused, but I don’t want to use that word because that would be a disservice to what he’s done before,” Franchitti said. “But I think he’s got his priorities straight. He’s got all the talent in the world, he just needed to get it funneled. And he seems to have done that.”
And Franchitti notes that Andretti races with a pressure no one else in IndyCar can understand.
“Marco has something that none of us have — he’s got to live up to his name,” Franchitti said. “He’s not his grandfather, and he’s not his father, and a lot of fans will never forgive him for that. They are savage about him, and they were the same with Michael because Michael wasn’t Mario. And so even when Marco does something well, Marco can never do anything right. And that’s not his fault.”
His birthright can also be a burden, but one that gave him a magical childhood of hanging around the old speedway motel, listening to announcer Tom Carnegie, watching everything he could on closed circuit TV as he figured out ways to sneak into the garage at the historic race track.
So it’s difficult sometimes to keep from daydreaming about kissing The Yard of Bricks, dousing himself in milk and celebrating with his family.
“I have to stop myself from thinking what it would be like,” Andretti said. “But I think it would be all of our misfortunes, it would be so bittersweet that it would all come out with one victory. I think it would be so emotional for the family. That one victory is going to make up for a lot of things. God willing. That would be awesome.”