Back in 2008 at the Milwaukee Mile, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal were sitting next to each other in the media center after claiming the front row in qualifying. Sons of champions with nothing but time and talent on their side, it was easy to imagine these two kids continuing this family rivalry for the next 20 years as they dominated the IndyCar landscape.
Well, as we know, that hasn’t happened.
After a rough patch earlier last decade, young Rahal found his stride beginning in 2015, knocked off five wins in the next three seasons, challenged for the championship and finished fourth-fifth-sixth in the points.
A better racer than qualifier, the 31-year-old second generation driver is competitive in all four disciplines of the NTT IndyCar Series. But his counterpart has been the biggest head-scratcher of the past 25 years. Now in his 15th season, Andretti only has two wins in 240 starts (none since 2011) and finished 16-9-12-16 in the past four championships.
The most puzzling thing is what’s happened to him lately at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He came within a few feet of winning Indy as a rookie in 2006 and then finished third three times (2008-10-14) with fourth in 2013, and has led 141 laps. Yet despite the prowess of his team at IMS in recent history, Marco hasn’t led a lap in he past five races, and not been nearly as competitive as his earlier starts. Last May was the worst, as he started 10th and then immediately dropped to the back and wound up five laps behind winner Simon Pagenaud in 26th place.
It was hard to fathom, and Bryan Herta (his race strategist), father Michael or grandad Mario couldn’t explain it other than that Marco had zero confidence in his car.
That’s why Sunday was so invigorating, overdue and popular.
The 33-year-old out-dueled Scott Dixon (pictured top, congratulating Marco afterward) to win the pole position, and he did it under the kind of pressure that only Indianapolis can bring. He’d been among the fastest all week, had quickest time on Saturday, and then was the last bullet for Andretti Autosport after his three teammates had struggled to repeat their previous speeds.
He couldn’t afford one hiccup in the last lap, and brought it home flawlessly to beat Dixon by 0.017 of a second.
“I got nervous watching his teammates and figured we were done, but I jumped up and hit my head on the ceiling after he took the checkered flag,” said Mario Andretti. a three-time polesitter a Indy. “That was driving the friggin’ race car, and I yelled, ‘That’s my boy’, and I’m so proud of him.”
Grandpa touted Marco as F1 material years ago, but that talk subsided fairly quickly. He was always in the pit box trying to help or offer advice but nothing seemed to work, and Herta’s steady hand was brought in to run Marco’s races. A pattern developed in that Andretti would be fast in practice everywhere, but seldom able to repeat his speed in qualifying. It’s easy to press when your teammates are always up front, and it seems like he was just trying too hard.
“It’s hard to reach him,” confided Mario, “but I never doubted his talent and I think something snapped in him this past week, and I think it’s going to stay with him. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself, and that comes from your team – and I think they’ve found the car’s sweet spot and haven’t gone crazy over-engineering it.
“I watched him yesterday (Saturday) in those hot conditions, and it’s obvious he’s got something to work with and build on.”
Marco might be one of the more misunderstood personalities in the paddock. He’s not aloof, just quiet and kinda bashful like his old man was, and he’s very well-liked among his fellow drivers. That’s why there was such an outpouring of congratulations when he pulled into the pits after his pole run. Although nobody said it, they also had to be happy to see the third generation of Andretti regain his confidence and a big smile.
“We all know what this place means to Marco and his family, and I’m happy for the guy,” said Dixon.
I’ve written for years that the best thing that could happen to IndyCar would be an Andretti or Rahal victory at Indianapolis. It would resonate with mainstream media that never recognizes motorsports, and generate headlines all over the country. Well, Marco starts on the catbird seat and Graham lines up eighth on August 23, so this is the best chance yet.
But this past week may have been the renaissance of Marco Andretti.
“I hope it’s the beginning of something good, career-wise, because now he knows he can do it,” said Mario. “I always knew he could but the driver has to believe, and I feel so good for him.”