A More Mature Marco?

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One of the more pleasant surprises of this young Izod IndyCar season has been the performance of Marco Andretti. I have been very impressed with how the young Andretti has handled himself on and off the track this season. Most people that know me understand that I am not a huge fan of the Andretti’s, and Marco in particular. These feelings arose from my childhood. As an IndyCar fan growing up in the sixties, you were either an AJ Foyt fan or a Mario Andretti fan. You couldn’t be both. You just couldn’t. I grew up a Foyt fan and my allegiance has never swayed. As I grew older I learned to appreciate the Andretti’s, but I could never truly embrace them. Childhood teachings are tough to overcome.

It’s hard to believe that Marco Andretti is now in his fifth season of Izod IndyCar Series competition. After a stellar climb through the ladder series, Marco had a very successful rookie season in 2006 in the IndyCars. As a rookie, Marco came within a couple of hundred yards of becoming the first teenager to win the Indianapolis 500. Later that same year, he won his first race at Sonoma.

Things looked promising for the third generation driver. He drove for, what was then, one of the top teams in the league. He was young, talented and an American. He was a tad bit aloof, but was still a good-looking kid that the league was going to cash in on for years to come. Suddenly, things went awry.

His sophomore year at Indy saw his race end in the late stages – not in a battle for the lead on the front straightaway like the year before; rather in a battle with Dan Wheldon on the backstretch that he lost when his car tumbled and Marco ended up crawling out of an upside down car. Interspersed through that season was an episode of parking an ill-handling car because he was scared and a smattering of broken half-shafts.

The next two years saw a few glimpses of what we thought Marco was, scattered among mostly inconsistent and underwhelming drives. He did have a third place at Indy in 2008; but then last year, he tangled with Mario Moraes just after the first of eight hundred turns in the race. Moraes was to blame for the incident, but Marco’s judgment came into question for putting his car there in the first place.

All the while, it seemed that Marco was following in his father’s footsteps of not meshing well with the media or fans. I’ve seen Marco’s famous grandfather Mario sometimes grow a little tired of the attention he gets, but for the most part – Mario Andretti was a fan favorite because he appeared to embrace the adulation he received from them. When Michael came up, his driving talents were obvious; but he treated dealing with the media and the fans as a necessary evil at best, and sometimes just seemed to downright hate it. To his credit, Michael has seemed to become more fan friendly as a car owner than he was as a driver.

For the past four years, Marco has looked as if he was waiting to see a proctologist when a microphone was in his face. You couldn’t tell if he was nervous or just hated being there. It could have been that most of the time; he was being interviewed in the middle of a race. That’s never a good thing when a driver is being interviewed while there are other cars whizzing by. Maybe he just didn’t like having to explain how he had just wadded up a car or broken another half-shaft. The sad thing is that Marco wasn’t always like that. When he was coming up through the ranks, he seemed to be a personable kid with a sense of humor. By the time Marco began his IndyCar career; it seemed his personality was zapped and he morphed into a humorless, arrogant kid who could no longer drive.

Over time, Marco’s reputation grew and for the wrong reasons. He seemed to enjoy the lifestyle that went with being a (semi) famous racecar driver, but he never seemed to want to put forth the effort to improve his driving skills or his public image. He appeared mostly interested in cashing the check. There were those that said if his name were Marco Smith, he would be without a ride by now.

I don’t begrudge anyone born into wealth and I find reverse-snobbery maybe even more despicable than regular, everyday snobbery – and that comes from someone on the lower end of the income spectrum. That being said, I sometimes wonder if Marco’s personality is a function of his upbringing. When Mario and Aldo fled their homeland following Nazi occupation, their family left everything behind. They came to this country with nothing. When Mario made it big, he certainly enjoyed his wealth but always seemed to remember from where he came.

Marco has only heard about his grandfather’s struggles and it probably sounds like ancient history that doesn’t apply to him. Marco has grown up surrounded by affluence and a celebrity lifestyle his entire life, so he can’t be totally blamed with not knowing how to interact with the common, everyday fan. He simply doesn’t know how to do it. There’s not much of a common bond.

Marco is the exact opposite of his Andretti Autosport teammate, Tony Kanaan. Even though he isn’t an American, Kanaan does have that ability to form that bond. When he was coming up, Kanaan would sleep in the racing shop because he didn’t have a place of his own. Many a night, he would sleep on the couches at the home of crewmembers, because he had nothing. Kanaan has earned his way to the top and is now able to enjoy the lifestyle that he does, but he hasn’t forgotten the dose of humility of sweeping the floor of the race shop and sleeping there in his early days. Those memories probably have helped Kanaan keep the perspective he has, and why he is a fan favorite.

But it’s time to give Marco Andretti some credit. His first lap crash at Brazil notwithstanding, Marco appears to have matured in many ways – both on the track and off. At St. Petersburg, he qualified in the Firestone Fast Six and lived up to his famous name as he shot to the front on his first lap. When the car started going away, he didn’t overdrive and force the issue. He fell back and smartly drove to an eleventh place finish, knowing that a solid finish was more important to the overall picture than a spectacular drive. He showed everyone at Barber that he was capable of running up front, although pit strategy turned what looked like a certain win into a disappointing fifth place finish. The fact that Marco was disappointed with fifth speaks volumes.

Marco has also improved his public persona. He was very subdued in the subsequent interview following his crash at Brazil, when it would have certainly been in his rights to come unglued at his nemesis Moraes. Instead he was very diplomatic.

So maybe the light bulb has come on for Marco. Some grow up faster than others. I would say that Marco has definitely gone through some growing pains lately. It’s what he has learned from those pains that will determine whether or not he can deal with the pressure of living up to that name. If we are still talking about a more mature Marco at the end of this season, then his season will be considered a success – regardless of where he finishes in points.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “A More Mature Marco?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Nice job George,
    A fair and evenhanded assessment of a more than above average driver, who seems to have found some balance, and who seems to finally be settling into the racing groove.
    Stay tuned folks.

  2. I, too, have been impressed by Marco this season – he does seem more mature, even if it’s just when the red light is on the camera.

    I’ll be interested to see how he is in person in Indianapolis this year – in years past, he’s been too interested in hopping on his scooter and zipping past anyone waiting for an autograph (as opposed to Sarah Fisher or Graham Rahal, who will sign and engage fans for a good long while). If Marco slows down and takes the time to acknowledge his fans, it would go a long way to eliminating some of that snobbish attitude he’s been perceived as having the last few years.

  3. John McLallen Says:

    Well written and thoughtful column, George. I like what I am seeing out of Marco, too. During his excellent run this past Sunday, I couldn’t help remembering when he parked the car during his sophmore year and then reflecting on how how he has come a long way since then. I found myself pulling for him once again. I think he has come a long way and I could see his disapointment during the post race interview. I think he has the maturity to win Indy.

  4. Well put, Mr. George. Well put. (And so ends the “SO’S YOUR FACE!!” era. That makes me a bit sad, I must say.)

  5. Brian McKay Says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful column.

  6. tim nothhelfer Says:

    Maybe Marco would have been better served having to drive less than front line equipment on his way to the IICS. A year or two in ALMS would have given him a lot more experience too. That said maybe he really is starting to figure out how to make to the front in a tough field.

  7. I wrote the same on my blog…I also noticed a more mature Marco…

  8. I can’t find the quote and I don’t have the video, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and maybe I’m wrong. But I thought when he got knocked out at Sao Paolo, he referred to Mario Moraes as “the kid.” When you’re a 20-something, you look extra ridiculous referring to other people as “kid.”

    He needs to vent his frustration by walking out to the edge of the track and throwing his gloves in the direction of whomever made him angry. At least there’s comic value in that.

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