Youngest Andretti faces mounting pressure in 2011 IndyCar season
Racing royalty by birth, Marco Andretti has struggled to live up to his famous name
If Danica Patrick leaves Andretti, Marco could be forced into the team's lead role
Michael Andretti thinks some of his son's missteps could make a future champion
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Marco Andretti tramped across the grass expanse between Turn One and the end of pit road, a fugitive from a track worker who had failed to herd him toward the safety vehicle.
Freed from his overturned race car and all but the first few hundred feet of the IndyCar Series' season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the 24-year-old stopped, still wearing his helmet and head and neck restraints, as a replay flashed onto a large video board on the other side of the runway that comprises the front straight.
Minutes earlier, Helio Castroneves' green-flag dash for inside position and a greedy advancement from ninth had caused him to overcook the right-angled first turn and lock his brakes on the painted tarmac. He'd plowed into Andretti, who was making a similar move, pushing him up and over Scott Dixon's wheel.
A brief demonstrative hand gesture preceded a shrug, and Andretti was off. Off and struggling again.
The grandson of arguably the greatest race car driver in history, the son and employee of one of the top American open wheel drivers of his generation, Marco Andretti is the successor to a regal family legacy and business. He is expected to excel, but he has not, winning just one race in 83 IndyCar starts since becoming a full-time driver at Andretti Autosport at 19 in 2006.
He feels the pressure of a legendary last name and the scrutiny it brings. But he's also enjoyed the benefit of the doubt from a proud family trying to give him every opportunity to succeed. Excuses have been made, concessions have been granted, but one race into his sixth season in open wheel's big leagues, Andretti has pressure and expectation clearly on his shoulders, both competitively and financially.
"It's hard to separate relationships like father-son and grandfather with owner/race car driver," said Andretti Autosport senior vice president of operations Tom Anderson. "I'd be silly to say it doesn't interfere. But Michael is a realist. I think he's trying to do what's right.
"He has a lot to do to get Marco going correctly for [sponsor] Dr. Pepper. Dr. Pepper has a huge investment in this kid, in Venom, and it's important sponsorship-wise and stuff like that, so there's pressure on them, big-time. Father-son, OK, but it is owner-driver when it comes to business and that's the way it is. Been said many times: 'they don't wait for you in racing, so you better produce.'"
The departure of reputed team leader Tony Kanaan has left a power vacuum at AA that Andretti and Anderson hope will be filled by a coalition of Andretti and teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick and Mike Conway. The loss of what Anderson calls a "dominant" personality in Kanaan may give Andretti room to develop.
Even with Andretti's iconic last name, Patrick remains the face of the team, but her impending free agent status will greatly impact both the image and the finances of the team. She could elect to return to Andretti and bring her high-dollar sponsorships with her, take them to another IndyCar team or leave for a full-time NASCAR career. She said all options are being probed by her representatives.
Patrick's possible departure would thrust the sometimes diffident Andretti into the lead role, and his father thinks he is ready to accept it. Conway bunked in Andretti's Miami-area residence this offseason, where they spent a lot of time with Ft. Lauderdale resident Hunter-Reay. Andretti also became a frequent texting buddy with Patrick.
Andretti's friendship with socialite Paris Hilton will likely be more noticed and scrutinized in comparison to his on-track results. It's a casual relationship, he said, one he and his father suggest is a way to insert IndyCar more into the mainstream. "At this point, any publicity is good," Marco Andretti said. "If she's out there tweeting about IndyCar to 3.5 million people, that's good.
"Everyone has the ammunition to say 'my focus' and this and that, but they can't be more wrong. There's only so much we can do during the offseason, so much training and preparation. I've got to have a bit of a life as well. You can bet every time I step in the car, I'm ready."
Probed further about his relationship with Hilton, Andretti revealed they met "at the Playboy Mansion with dad," then pivoted quickly back to his performance, perhaps underscoring how much the analysis of this has come to bother him.
"For me, it's a bit of a double-edged sword because if we win Homestead, then nobody can say anything, you know what I mean? It's just frustrating," he said. "To the average race fan, all they look at is the results. They just see I finished seventh ... didn't see I drove to the lead and didn't have to pit, [but] we did."
His father is trying to change the results and the perception. Michael Andretti shuffled team personnel again before this season and will call Marco's race strategy because he said his son has matured enough to take his direction positively. And to better harvest, he said, opportunities lost in 2010, ones Marco recounts often.
"I just think it's better because I think people are just afraid ... they get on the radio, they're afraid to make a call because they think it's my kid, so they take it so conservative," Michael Andretti said. "I think it cost Marco three wins last year. So, we felt like, you know what, maybe I should get on the radio now and it'll be all my fault if it's wrong. We'll probably roll the dice a little more."
Marco Andretti considers the race at Barber Motorsports Park, where he led 58 of 90 laps, as one of those missed opportunities. He was forced to pit for fuel with eight laps left, surrendering the lead to winner Castroneves. He gets his next chance on April 10.
"That gives me a lot of confidence going into this year," he said. "There were four races that all we had to do was do something right strategy-wise and we win. Not doing anything different this year, if we do that right, those are Ws."
Anderson said the new team alignment should be a positive change for a driver who has never finished higher than seventh in driver points, but will only increase the pressure on Marco, and the demand for him to grow as a driver.
"Tell me what's more pressure than having three Andrettis on the microphone," Anderson said, frankly. "You've got Mario, you've got Michael, you got Marco in there. We're building a group around him that understands him. But it takes a little bit. You've got to act a little different when you're dealing with a living legend, but you've got to remember, too, Dad and Grandpa won a hell of a lot of races.
"So, you've got to listen and you've got to put it in perspective because the basics and fundamentals of racing have not changed, plain and simple. What applied in Mario's day applies today. And if you get that wrong, I don't care how much science you throw on top of it, it ain't gonna work. You've got to get the basics right."
Michael Andretti has made excuses for his son before. Poor seasons have been written off because of an unpublicized case of mononucleosis, another because of what Michael Andretti called subpar race cars. In 2007, Andretti criticized then-employee Dario Franchitti after he collided with Marco late in the season at Sonoma, Calif., as Franchitti attempted to finish off a championship. The title won, Franchitti left for a NASCAR opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2008, returned to IndyCar with him in 2009 and has won consecutive championships.
"Michael is in an awkward position being a team owner and a father," said Franchitti in 2007. "Sometimes he doesn't have as clear a view as he should have as a team owner maybe."
"That's just human nature," Anderson said.
Much of Andretti's career has been about the one that got away, a pattern that began with a personal tutorial in the family's unrequited love affair with the Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti won racing's greatest prize just once, in 1969, in his fifth of 29 attempts. Michael Andretti was winless in 16 tries. Marco took the lead from his father on Lap 197 of 200 as a rookie in 2006 and led by .9454 seconds with a lap left, only to be caught in the final stretch by Sam Hornish Jr. Marco Andretti has finished second and third twice in five Indy starts.
"I think things would have been a lot different for him. But things happen for a reason," Michael said, considering if his son had won that race in his first try. "Maybe it would have come that easy to him, maybe he would have turned into a different person. Now, you're finding a very, very hungry guy. I think when the results start coming, they're just going to start coming because he's just so hungry to get them, and he's going to appreciate them when he gets them so much more. I think, his work ethic, if he'd won that right away, being so young, he might not have developed what he had now. I think what he has now, he's developing, I think, into a champion of the future. So, it could have been a two-edged sword, where you hit it too early and it came so early that he wasn't' going to work as hard to get it."
Anderson, as his charge from a more detached position, just wants results.
"I'm looking for him to step up," Anderson said, "especially superspeedway stuff, Indy, 'OK, pal, you're team leader. You've had a better run here than the other guys had. I need somebody. Put the emotion aside, let's focus here and step up now.'
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