How Will Marco’s Career Be Remembered?

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We’ve now had a few days to digest the results of the IZOD IndyCar Series season-opener at St. Petersburg. While many drivers could be classified as pleasant surprises after one race, others may look at last week’s race as something of a wake-up call. Ganassi drivers Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal come to mind. But the driver that I think should be most disappointed in their opening performance is Marco Andretti.

Most drivers hate excuses. It’s in their blood to want to win. Although several drivers – any driver with a Lotus engine in their car – would have been justified leaning on an excuse, none of them did. To his credit, Marco didn’t either.

But enough time has elapsed since Marco Andretti’s rookie season, that we fans feel we are due an explanation as to why Marco has underwhelmed us for all of these years. Marco Andretti’s defenders, of which there are many, will tell you that he is very young and he’s still at the learning stage of his career. Well, Marco is now twenty-five years old. That’s not old, but out of twenty-six drivers in Sunday’s field – five were younger than Marco. And as far as IndyCar experience goes, Marco is entering his seventh full season of IZOD IndyCar Series competition. There were twelve drivers in Sunday’s field with less than six years combined experience in IndyCar, Champ Car or Formula One. Marco is definitely middle of the pack in experience.

Yet after six full seasons and ninety-two starts; Marco Andretti has produced two wins, one pole and a top finish of seventh in points. In fact, he finished two seasons in  seventh – his rookie year of 2006, then again in 2008. Those two seasons sandwiched an eleventh place finish in 2007, then came three consecutive eighth place seasons. Marco Andretti may be consistent, but he’s consistently mediocre. Drivers like Charlie Kimball and James Jakes would die for seasons like that, but they don’t have the pressure on them to perform like the nineteen year-old Marco Andretti did his rookie campaign.

The frustrating thing is; Marco did perform during his first season. He produced a victory at Sonoma, albeit somewhat controversial; and came agonizingly close to winning the Indianapolis 500 before Sam Hornish passed him at the line. Marco’s rookie season was a huge success, no matter how you measured it.

It’s what he’s done since that has me concerned. That’s why I wonder what Marco’s legacy will be once he finally retires. How will his career be remembered? Will he rank as a bust, a disappointment or will he finally catch fire?

If his name were Marco Smith, it would surprise no one if nineteen year-old Marco Smith faded into the answer to a trivia question. Sports history is full of young one-season wonders that didn’t have the maturity to avoid the temptation to rest on their laurels. But Marco Andretti grew up with success. His grandfather is an iconic legend. Almost twenty years after he hung up his helmet, practically everyone around the globe still knows who Mario Andretti is. Mario’s son Michael grew into an excellent driver in his own right. Michael didn’t carry the charisma that his famous father did and still does, but there was no denying that he had a fire that burned deep within. Michael drove to win and consequently, he won often.

By the time Michael had completed six full seasons, he had already amassed ten CART victories and had been season runner-up twice and third once. On one hand it’s quite unfair to compare Marco to his famous family members, on the other hand – it’s inevitable. Marco knew this when he decided he wanted to drive. If he wished to avoid it, he could have chosen any other career path. Instead, he chose the path where such comparisons were certain to follow him – just as they did Michael.

That’s why it is so frustrating for fans. I grew up watching Mario Andretti earn the accolades that he still enjoys today. As a young adult, I was interested in following Michael’s blossoming career. It always intrigued me that despite the inevitable comparisons; Michael was able to carve out and establish his own racing career, even while having his legendary father as a teammate for four years. That’s a pretty tall order, but Michael was able to excel in that environment.

Marco Andretti hasn’t been so fortunate. The question is: why?

Is it just not in his makeup? We know he has talent, because we’ve seen it on display as recently as his victory at Iowa last June. Unlike his tainted Sonoma victory in 2006, when teammate Bryan Herta spun mysteriously late in the race to assure Marco the victory – Iowa was no fluke. He battled former teammate, Tony Kanaan, for the victory – and won! But since that race, counting Sunday’s lackluster performance, Marco’s average race-finish has been thirteenth. That’s not exactly a stat that will make other teams come calling.

But maybe that’s what he needs. Marco has driven for his father’s team since he drove selected Indy Lights races for Andretti-Green in 2005, before taking Dan Wheldon’s seat in 2006. Perhaps complacency has set in, and he knows he can keep his job without ever pushing the limits. It’s been long suggested that if Marco had been driving for another team, he would have been fired years ago. Maybe. None of the top teams would have put up with his underwhelming performance, but teams like Dale Coyne or Dreyer & Reinbold would certainly give him a look. If he were to drive for some struggling teams, he could probably see what a golden opportunity he has for success where he is now.

There were some seasons when Michael Andretti’s team seemed lost. In 2009, they couldn’t buy a victory and they had become a punch line. Danica Patrick finished fifth, Kanaan was sixth, Marco was eighth and Hideki Mutoh was a forgettable eleventh. The team was dysfunctional and Danica received most of the blame. Now she’s gone as well as Kanaan and Mutoh. It’s now a three-car team with Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco. Hunter-Reay finished third in Sunday’s race, while Hinchcliffe finished fourth. Obviously, Andretti Autosport is no longer a punching bag. Yet for some reason, Marco Andretti slid backwards all day and finished fourteenth.

The pressure of living up to a family name, the result of growing up in a privileged celebrity home, too much success too soon, too young, too inexperienced – we’ve heard every explanation as to why Marco has underperformed thus far. As mentioned earlier; the talent is there. He may not be as talented as his famous father and grandfather, but he is still very talented nonetheless.

So what is the answer? I haven’t a clue. But I still think that Marco stands an excellent shot at salvaging his career. He has the talent to do it, and he has the available resources on his team to do it. In fact, I fully believe that he will do it – eventually.

He also has an excellent opportunity to jump-start his season this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. The IZOD IndyCar Series heads to Alabama for the third time, this weekend. Marco finished fifth in 2010 and improved that by one by finishing fourth last season, after starting ninth. I’m going to make a bold prediction and pick Marco to win this weekend and begin the long-awaited turnaround to his career. What better time to start than the present? Either that, or he continues his slow slide into the land of obscure trivia questions.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “How Will Marco’s Career Be Remembered?”

  1. I think that, currently, Marco Andretti, is an upper-middle-class driver…it’s not scandalous that he drive for a good team…yes, maybe some drivers some would have deserved the chance that he ahd and actually has (for example, I think about Wilson or Servia, or also Baguette)…but he is still a good driver…indeed, when it’s his day, he is impressive for speed, skill and courage, but unfortunately he is not constant (often in the same race)…if he becomes more constant, he can do everything, especially at Indianapolis where he has always raced well…

  2. An Andretti will never fire an Andretti!

    It is like when a boss is constantly making excuses for an employee who doesn’t perform. You will never get that individual to do the job well. He is Daddy’s boy. He will never get fired and that is what he needs.

    By the way, when was the last time you heard one of his peers say anything about how good he is?

  3. Marco’s issue to me is he disappears mid-race. We’ve seen several times Marco leading a race and with one of the faster cars and somehow when the checkered flag waves he’s 15th.

    I thought a couple years ago when the Kanaan/Danica/Marco lineup was giving Michael Andretti gray hairs it’d’ve been best for Marco’s career if he found another team to drive for but he’s stayed at home. He has a last name which helps his marketability which is one reason he’s probably stayed. All this said, he has been in the top series a long time but he’s still only 25 years old. So he has a lot of experience that a similar driver his age would have to learn coming up, and he’s in a normally top 10 car. I feel like he’s not far away from reeling off 4 race wins. We go to Barber this weekend and it was a couple years ago I think where he had the race won there if a caution had come out a couple laps earlier but he only lost due to pit strategy and Helio wound up winning.

  4. He has talent, but I don’t think he’ll ever be in the top rank of drivers in the series. However, I do have to say he has a knack for running at Indy. I would not be surprised to see him break the Andretti curse before he retires.

  5. To what extent do Marco’s struggles paralell those of Team Andretti???

  6. Lots of good stuff as always, George. I’ve never figured Marco out, I had hoped that he would have become a team leader and face of the series by now, but neither has panned out. I think he likes racing and likes his job but it just doesn’t burn inside him like we thought it would or maybe should.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I’m wondering two things.

    One, when did most race car drivers start hating excuses?

    Two, if Marco’s last name was Smith, that would end the old “no driver named Smith has ever started the Indy 500″ trivia bit. What would be the new go-to trivia bit? You can’t say “no driver named Jones has ever started at Indy”…

  8. So now you hate Marco Andretti AND Japan.

  9. Marco’s a guy I want to like, but he keeps disappointing-or at least underwhelming. We don’t know him well-while you could say the same thing about his father, he at least had (and certainly still has) an intensity about him. Maybe Marco’s problem is a question of momentum. Get him winning a few races, and once he’s figured out how to do that and knows what that feels like, the real Marco will emerge.

  10. Further to Mike’s comment. For me Marco would have more credibility and respect had he gone the route of Graham Rahal – at least in the beginning. Driving for your father unnecessarily sets you up for “Daddy’s Boy” comparisons – deserved or not. Marco further draws questions to his seriousness to racing by hanging out with rap stars, double dating with Paris Hilton and at least being scheduled to appear on Donald Trump’s game show.

  11. Did Michael Andretti’s substitution for his son on the Donald Trump show bring his seriousness into question? I guess I just saw it (and the other stuff, really) as more initiatives by Indycar to get its stars out in the public eye and bring more attention to Indycar.

  12. He is the IndyCar equivelant of Dale Jr. Talented (who isn’t at this level) but he is stuck with the last name. He will never be as good as his father no matter how much his legions of fans want him to be. He will win some races, never sniff a championship, but the masses will view it all as underperforming. He just isn’t that good guys.

  13. Chris Lukens Says:

    I think it is a little early to be writing off Marco. He is still a young man with many seasons still ahead of him. I can think of a couple of racers that showed flashes of brilliance early in their career and then settled into mid-pack form, only to later rise to the top. Jensen Button comes to mind.

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    I don’t feel that Marco owes his fans an explanation for “how he has underwhelmed us for all of these years.” I think it is a bit premature if not presumptious to be asking at this point how a 25 year old driver’s career will be remembered. Perhaps the question should better be asked of that old Phillips guy.

  15. james t suel Says:

    I think its to early in Marcos career to write him off! Hes not his grandfarther or his farther, nor does he have to be. I belive he will win the 500 and maybe more. Mario was one of the best ever if not the best! Michael was also a great driver. Marco may never be the driver grandfarther or dad was , a mario only comes along raely!!!

  16. Marco appears to be neither humble or hungry. Here is a recent tweet from Marco, “Just had the windows tinted on the Lambo”. Mario and Michael had a fire burning in them to compete and win. Marco is spoiled and privileged.

  17. The Lapper Says:

    I always remember howa few years ago the car scared him.

  18. I’ve been saying that IndyCar drivers should debut at age 22-23, not 19. After doing karting and perhaps Skip Barber or F1600, they should do USF2000 at age 16-17, Star Mazda at 18-19 and Indy Lights at 20-21, so they do their first IndyCar race with at least six years of experience in formula racing.

  19. re-tread Says:

    I’ve heard from several crew members on Andretti Racing, that Marco is not the problem. It is Michael. Somehow, I tend to agree.

  20. Simona Fan Says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that when racing fans discus drivers they always forget to include their equipment. You can’t compare drivers without factoring in their equipment. Look at Formula 1 where the discrepancy in equipment is much more obvious. I became a fan of Jenson Button in 2009 when I heard his story about being a good driver that was always in a backmarker team. Suddenly in 2009 he’s got the fastest car and he wins. Did he get “better” as a driver? His results got better, but really he just got into good equipment.

    For much of his career, Marco has been saddled with an underperforming team. It’s not like he had teammates that were winning championship after championship. He, Danica, TK, all struggled.

    Marco tweeted all you need to know about last weekend; He went with a different setup than his teammates. Case closed. His setup proved to be the wrong one for the race. Sure he’s involved with that process, but getting the right set-up is crucial to competing at the top.

    If Andretti Autosport can get their set-up right and Chevy can keep giving them an advantage, then all Marco has to do is to stay out of those first lap crashes and he’ll start bringing home the points.

  21. There is no sense of urgency for Marco. I really don’t think he cares whether he is successful or not, the exception being at Indy. If that is the only race he wins for the rest of his career, he would be satisfied. Marco has been spoiled, has none of the drive that his father or grandfather had. He can’t setup a car if his life depended on it. Look at where he has been from a qualifying standpoint in his career, always mid-pack. This forces AA to gamble on strategy and most of the time it doesn’t work.

  22. I think a lot depends on how he does at barber. He’s much better at the road courses than at the street ones. If Hinch and RHR still outperform him, hes got problems.

    On the other hand, Darios what, 39. He didn’t get to his peak until 5 years ago. Some drivers hit their prime late. I think 25 may be a little young to be writing Marco off

  23. Getting way ahead of things with this. Let him have a career before worrying about how it will be remembered. If Dario or TK retired at Marco’s current age their accomplishment’s would be nil.

  24. I agree with Darren below, Marco is typical of the 3rd generation of a successful family business: generation 1 worked hard and never stopped, enjoyed success later in life but never stopped working, generation 2 comes in with money and success and raises their kids spolied, generation 3 is spoiled and entitled which generally causes a lack of success because they never worked for anything!

    I was happy to see Marco win but generally have changed my tune on the Andrettis since he came into the sport, I dislike he and Michael now..

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