How Will Marco’s Career Be Remembered?
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.