It’s Time For Marco To Grow Up
One of the more confounding on-track issues in the Indy Racing League is the underwhelming performance of Marco Andretti, who was once tabbed to be a future star of the league. After a strong rookie season in 2006 that saw him win a race, almost win the Indianapolis 500 and finish seventh in points, there was no reason to think that those predictions were very far off base. However, as Marco is now about to head into his fifth season in the IndyCar Series, we are still waiting for his second win and even a glimpse of the promise he showed as a rookie.
The experts continue to say give him time, as they point to the fact that he is only twenty-two. Well, that excuse is wearing thin as he will turn twenty-three the day before the green flag flies (supposedly) in Brazil next March. The novelty of his youth has worn off as quickly as the promise he once showed.
He literally burst onto the scene in the different development series. Marco made his way to the Indy Pro Series (now Firestone Indy Lights) in 2005. He won three of only six starts, which is an impressive stat in any series. Although still a teenager, he was deemed ready to move into the IndyCar Series – filling the seat of the departed 2005 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion, Dan Wheldon. The problem was, the person that was making that assessment was his father and team-owner, Michael Andretti – not a totally objective viewpoint.
The first two races made those that doubted Michael’s decision become more vocal that the kid simply wasn’t ready. At Homestead, he broke a half-shaft on a pit stop – something that would become emblematic of Andretti’s rookie season. He crashed at St. Petersburg after an altercation with an old family foe – Eddie Cheever. He stayed out of trouble at Motegi and finished a respectable twelfth.
Then at Indianapolis, he had what has been his career-defining moment to this point. On the last re-start of the race, he passed his father who had come out of the retirement to race against his son at Indy, just as he had done with his father Mario so many times. Michael was a sitting duck as Marco blew by him. It appeared that the infamous Andretti curse at Indy would finally be put to rest, as a teenager was about to drive off with the biggest prize of all. Then, with two laps to go, he found himself in a duel with Sam Hornish who had seemingly come out of nowhere. Heading into turn three, Marco slammed the door on Hornish as he attempted to pass on the inside. At first glance, it appeared that Hornish had lost all necessary momentum as he backed out of the throttle.
As they came around for the white flag, it seemed that Hornish would have to settle for second, as a rookie was about to break Troy Ruttman’s fifty-four year old record as the youngest driver to win the Indy 500 by three years. Instead, Hornish got one of the strongest runs coming off of turn four that I’ve ever seen. Hornish literally gobbled him up as they approached the checkered flag. It was the first time in the ninety-year history of the race that a pass for the lead was made on the last lap. Everyone always says that nobody remembers who finished second – but in this case, they would.
Marco and Michael had acquitted themselves in the court of public opinion. After Marco’s win at Sonoma that year (with a little help from teammate Bryan Herta), the sky seemed to be the limit for the talented rookie. The league banked on the success of this young American third generation star with the famous last name. Little did we know then that this would be as good as it would get.
The next season started rather ominously for Marco. He mysteriously parked his ill-handling car midway through the first race at Homestead. When asked what the problem was, he said that he was scared to drive the car. Uh-oh. No matter if we’re talking the 1950’s, the 1980’s or 2007 – it is an unwritten rule that drivers don’t park cars because they’re scared. Marco would ultimately suffer ten DNF’s that season while only completing seven races. Instead of another blazing finish at Indy, he ended up on his hat on the backstretch as he locked wheels with Dan Wheldon and took a tumble. He did manage a second place finish at Michigan, but there was tremendous attrition in that race. Overall he finished eleventh in points, in a season that featured only eighteen full-time drivers.
For 2008, things started much better as Marco led most of the season-opening race at Homestead and finished second. His next two races were DNF’s but he then had a fifth at Kansas and a third place finish at Indy. The inconsistency continued with two more DNF’s and then a third at Iowa. Before Iowa, Andretti drove an excellent race at Texas. He was one of the few drivers that could make his car work on the outside. But his impatience showed as he moved up on Ryan Hunter-Reay late in the race and took both of them out. Marco continued to run hot & cold for 2008 but managed to finish seventh in points – this time in a season that normally had 24-26 drivers per race.
The 2009 season was more cold than hot. The entire team struggled and Marco pretty much fell into oblivion, yet still finished a surprising eighth in points. He placed himself in a position to get taken out by Mario Moraes after the first turn at Indy. The incident was not Marco’s fault but he probably knew he shouldn’t have placed himself in that position at the beginning of the race. At the season finale at Homestead, he had brake problems but the Versus crew chose to not even pursue an interview with him after he fell out of the race. There is a rumor going around that he hopped into his Ferrari while still wearing his driver’s suit, and left the grounds immediately after his retirement.
Along with his diminished results, Marco is often criticized for his lack of skills in dealing with fans and the media. Robin Miller is fond of saying that Marco is doing better lately in that regard, but he still has a way to go before he’s on the level of his grandpa Mario. I’ll probably catch some flack for this, but I’ll submit that he already deals with fans the way his grandfather does.
Over the years, I’ve encountered Mario, Michael and Marco in the garage area and the parking lots at Indy, Nashville and Barber. I’m not normally an autograph or picture hound, but I generally attend races with friends and kids who are. That entire branch of the Andretti family tree has mastered the art of the brush-off. When the cameras aren’t present, they all have a look on their face like they are about to visit a proctologist.
During pole day at Indy one year, my group came across Marco and Danica near the motor homes behind the garage area. Danica was by far the bigger name of the two, yet she surprisingly signed autographs and posed for pictures. Meanwhile Marco ducked out and left Danica to fend for herself before anyone could even blink, all the while with a frustrated sneer on his face.
That DNA doesn’t seem to have gone down Aldo’s side of the tree. His son John acts nothing like his arrogant and aloof cousins. He is one of the most open and friendly drivers you’ll meet in the paddock. Not only can you count on him for the usual picture/autograph, he’ll generally carry on a conversation with you.
But getting back to Marco – I always got the impression that he thought he was doing the IndyCar Series a favor by stopping off here for a couple of years, before he moved on to his entitled seat in Formula One. Now that he has under-performed his way out of that possibility, I’m quite certain that he’ll claim that the IndyCar Series dumbed-down his amazing talent and caused his skills to erode.
I don’t begrudge Marco for the opportunity he got in 2006. It’s what he has done with it that bothers me. Although he was a little young, his resume and credentials certainly justified his opportunity to have a seat in the series. I wish some of the top owners would pay more attention to the results of young Americans in the varied ladder series. But if anyone else had been as forgettable for four seasons and not been driving for their father’s team, they would have been kicked to the curb long ago.
I’m not sure all of his problems can be blamed on age. Graham Rahal is almost two years younger, but his maturity level seems years beyond Marco’s. From what I read and hear, Marco is very interested in the lifestyle that comes with being an IndyCar driver, but his work ethic and dedication is sorely lacking.
Marco Andretti has more pressure on him than most young drivers simply due to his lineage. That means he must work harder to live up to the expectations that will always follow him. It may be unfair, but that is the name of the game when you carry a famous last name. He knew that from day-one. Michael Andretti learned to deal with it. So did Al Unser, Jr. Others within the sport have had varying degrees of success carrying the burden of their last name. But until Marco Andretti starts living up to the legend that seems to be in his own mind, he will continue to have no credibility while he continues to wallow in mediocrity on Daddy’s team.