How do you end the Andretti Curse? Put the Andrettis back together again. Quietly this time, but with the same passion.
Michael Andretti has returned as race strategist for his son, Marco, putting them in direct radio communication for the first time in three years. Now 28 years old, Marco and his 52-year-old father have more reasoned, less bombastic conversations than they did the first time around.
And, in spite of the lack of speed shown by the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda in practice, the father-son duo could be the surprise of Sunday’s race, in part because their radio transmissions are subdued.
“The reason he came off my radio in the first place is because we were so intense,” Marco Andretti told USA TODAY Sports. “It sounded like we were fighting, but we weren’t. I’m the same way he was when he drove; I’m very much up on the wheel and intense. I can be screaming and not know I’m screaming. He knows that. But the way we used to communicate affected the people around us. It didn’t affect us — we can be at each other’s throats and turn around and go to dinner — but it affected the people around us.”
Their intent is to end a silly superstition known to race fans as the Andretti Curse. Mario Andretti, Michael’s dad and Marco’s grandfather and one of the all-time greats in racing history, competed in the Indianapolis 500 29 times, winning in 1969. Michael raced at Indy 16 times and holds many track and race records, yet didn’t win. Marco is entering his 10th Indy 500, and has stood on the podium after four of them — including a runner-up finish to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 — but also hasn’t won.
“I’m frustrated for him,” Michael Andretti said. “I want it more than anybody. I want him to win any race, but this one obviously would be great for him in so many ways. It would be great for us as a team and great for us as a family, but I also think it would be great for the series, as well. I think it would be a big news story because of the so-called Andretti Curse. I think it would make the front page of all the newspapers. It would be huge for that to happen.”
Before their radio breakup in 2012, the Andrettis were known for their high-decibel battles.
“There were times when it got pretty heated, but I think people misinterpret that at times,” said Nathan O’Rourke, Marco’s engineer. “They’re so passionate about what they’re doing, and their emotions are on display so much. I don’t interpret that as a negative. I interpret that as passionate. It’s a father and a son whose goal is what’s best for Marco. … This is all they want to do. They love every minute of it.”
Marco was an Andretti from the start, and Michael still loves to tell the story of his son’s first day of kindergarten, when he decided he didn’t want to get on the school bus and raced back toward the family home on a golf cart. From the moment Marco could first comprehend, he was watching — and listening — to his father race.
“When I was a kid and I listened to my dad on the radio, I thought he was a lunatic,” Marco said with a laugh. “But I’d smile to myself because I knew he was passionate. Every time he’d flip out, I had that inner smile. That was him being passionate about this sport. That’s the only way others need to perceive it.”
His dad still has that passion, but now it burns for his son’s success. Some see Marco as lacking the success of his father or grandfather — he’s won only twice in 156 IndyCar races — but others, Michael included, feel like it’s a matter of time and circumstance.
“I feel bad for him,” Michael said. “He’s pushing hard. If you look at his career, there are a lot of races that we as a team took away from him by making mistakes. There are at least seven or eight races that he had, but mistakes were made on our part. It’s disappointing. Indianapolis is one of those races. He knows he can do it. It’s just frustrating for him, and I can understand why.”
Many drivers bloom later in their careers, and Marco pointed to Dario Franchitti, the former teammate who won three Indy 500s after the age of 34. O’Rourke backs that theory.
“He’s coming into the peak of his career,” O’Rourke said. “When you look at the life cycle of a driver, they come into it fast and talented, but how many examples of fast, young rookies can you come up with that finished 22nd in points because they weren’t the whole package? He’s coming into the 28-to-35 sweet spot of a driver, where they’re young enough to still be fast and crazy when they need to be, but they’re smart enough to not put themselves in bad situations.”
That’s rarely an issue for Marco. Since his 0.0635-second loss to Hornish in his rookie year, Marco has finished third three times at Indy — in 2008, 2010 and 2014 — and fourth in 2013.
“I’ve been a contender almost every year we’ve competed here,” Marco said. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t be again. When I got out of the car (after practice) Thursday night, I said, ‘This car can win. We’ve got it.’ The trick, then, becomes to replicate it. Every time out that the car rebounds, that’s when we know we’ve got a solid one.”
So shhhhh, be quiet. This could be the end of a Curse.
“There’s something about him and this place,” Michael said. “This was one of my best racetracks, and I’ve got to say he’s even better than I was here. He just has this place down. It would be really a shame if he went throughout his career without winning it. I’m really hoping that this is the year.”