MILLER: Marco was IndyCar's enigmatic mystery

IndyCar

MILLER: Marco was IndyCar's enigmatic mystery

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MILLER: Marco was IndyCar's enigmatic mystery

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The press release announcing that Marco Andretti is stepping away from his full-time IndyCar ride to concentrate on other areas of life – or possibly other forms of motorsports – was as confusing as it was nebulous, and represented creative writing at its best. Not many 33-year-olds change careers when they have a top-shelf ride in America’s premier open-wheel series and no obvious alternatives. So the best educated guess is that there was no longer a budget for the third-generation driver, and now he’s a member of the Indy-only club.

But it’s really just another chapter in the promising yet ultimately unfulfilling and head-scratching mystery of Marco Andretti.

Nobody in recent history has created as many opinions as Michael’s oldest son. He’s gone from potential Formula 1 material to last place among full-time IndyCar drivers. He’s dazzled us with his car control in a sports car, or on slick tires in the rain at Detroit, and puzzled us with back-of-the-grid qualifying and countless uncompetitive runs. He got everyone excited with his riveting pole run at Indianapolis last year but then had an immediate fade at the green flag.

Since 2010, his teammates have won 30 times. Since his debut in 2006, Marco has claimed two wins from 248 starts – his last coming in 2011.

He’s finished eighth, eighth, 16th, fifth, ninth, 16th, 12th, ninth, 16th and 20th in the point standings since 2010, and didn’t score enough points in 2020 to retain the Leaders Circle money, which no doubt accelerated his switch to part-time status.

Year in and year out, the most-asked question in the IndyCar paddock or from IndyCar fans is, “what’s wrong with Marco?” And the answers from people who have worked with him range from “bad luck” to “not hungry” to “mentally weak” to “trying too hard.”

The internet experts weighed in after his news with a mix of sarcasm – “I thought he quit four years ago” – to empathy: “I feel for that kid, with all that pressure to perform.”

There is no debating that the third wave of Andretti was gifted a full-time job and great life before he turned 21. A condo, cars, big salary and private jets were perks that came early and easily for this teenager, so the idea he was going to have to fight his way to the top of his profession never entered the equation.

Andretti’s early career momentum snowballed into talk of a future in F1, and he tested twice with Honda at Jerez during the winter of 2006/2007. Motorsport Images

In Indy Lights they flew in Mario’s old engineering whiz, Tony Cicale, to give Marco the best possible chance to succeed, and he responded by winning three races. Then, at 19, he was thrown in the deep end of the Indy Racing League in 2006.

He came within the blink of an eye of winning Indianapolis, was leading Watkins Glen when he got taken out and became the youngest-ever winner at Sonoma. Grandpa was talking F1, and you’ve got to think people were listening.
And here’s where this story, and career, could have really changed. What would have happened if he’d won Indy as a rookie? What would that that have done for his psyche? Racing is all about confidence, and teenaged Indy 500 winners might be tough to beat. Or, what if he went to Ganassi or Penske when his value was still high? Driving for his dad was both a luxury and a curse.

The other theory about his lack of success is that it all came too easy. Marco never had to work at finding rides or sponsors, nor worry about job security. That’s not his fault, it was just his lot in life, but there is something to be said for the A.J.s, Parnellis, Marios, Rutherfords and Kanaans who would sleep in cars or on floors to make it.

Mario came from nothing to become one of the greatest and most complete racers of all time. Michael never had to sweat for anything and also had his path planned by his dad but he delivered, becoming a ferocious competitor and one of the best of his era.

I don’t pretend to know Marco very well, but he’s very introverted and has a good heart, as evidenced his many kind acts through the years. People interpret his shyness as arrogance and claim he doesn’t care, but you know he’s got immense family pride and his performance has to be difficult for him to accept.

You can sugarcoat or spin it all you want, but the bottom line is that 15 years of statistics don’t lie. Getting away from IndyCar racing full-time might be the best thing for his peace of mind.

Andretti was at his best for Indy 500 qualifying last year, but the race itself remains unfinished business. Levitt/Motorsport Images

And if he hadn’t shown talent, speed and racecraft it would be much easier to dismiss him, but we’ve all seen the Andretti gene at various times. He developed a pattern of being up front in practice then nowhere in qualifying. He was long gone at Pocono a few years ago before his crew realized they were going to run him out of fuel, so he backed way off just to make it to the end. He won the pole at Detroit in 2018 by a mile, led the first 22 laps and then vanished due to some poor strategy.

On the flipside, he only led 42 laps during the past five seasons while driving for one of the three best teams.

The most telling paragraph of the Andretti press release came from Michael: “I think for any multi-generational athlete it can be really challenging to find your own ground and make your own name on top of your family’s.”

In other words, keeping up with Mario and Michael is a daunting assignment very few racers could ever match. I don’t know what’s going to become of Marco, but if it’s sports cars with his cousin Jarett, or a serious run at Le Mans, or just running Indy, hopefully it’s fun.

Obviously, the best thing for IndyCar would have been for this generation of Andretti to shine like dad and grandpa, but it didn’t happen and probably won’t. Still, it’s a tough loss for IndyCar, because Marco was one of the only recognizable names to the general public and remains popular with the national media, as evidenced by the response to his pole run last August.

It’s entirely possible that he’s more relieved than gutted about what’s happened and what lies ahead. That constant pressure to perform is gone, and while the Oliver Askews of the world would give anything to trade places, I almost feel kinda happy for the Andretti nobody ever figured out. Sure he’s still got that famous last name, but maybe now he won’t be expected to live up to it.

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