ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Sometime before his 11th birthday, Marco Andretti was forced to quit racing by his father, who feared his son was following in the wrong set of footsteps.
Michael Andretti had been down that path himself — racing because that’s what Andretti’s do — and learned much later in life that the pressure of living up to that famous last name had sucked all the joy out of competition. There was no way he was letting his son make those same mistakes.
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"It was like I was looking in the mirror. I could see he was doing it for the wrong reasons," Michael Andretti recalled Friday, two days before the IndyCar’s season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "He wasn’t doing it for himself, so I made him quit. He was like, relieved."
Marco Andretti was back a little over a year later asking to race again, and his father set in place two strict rules. He had to race only because he wanted to, and he had to have fun.
"And he did," Michael Andretti said. "But now it’s at the point where it’s just pressure."
Indeed, 14 years later, the racing doesn’t seem so fun for Marco Andretti anymore.
The third-generation driver is coming off the worst season of his seven-year IndyCar career, and it came in the year of a rebirth of sorts for the Andretti Autosport organization. Ryan Hunter-Reay gave Andretti its first championship since 2007 and James Hinchcliffe, in his first season with the team, had a breakthrough year on and off the track.
But Marco plodded along to just one podium finish and ended the year a career-worst 15th in the standings.
It was unacceptable and he was the first to admit it. So the off-season was spent on wide scale changes to him and his team, with no stone left unturned.
There have been personnel changes, time spent with a driving coach in Europe and assessments done internally at Andretti.
"We had some studies done with guys who studied our drivers and they said in terms of natural talent, out of the three, he has the most natural talent," Michael Andretti said. "He had the best car control of the three guys."
There was even a number change No. 26 to No. 25 and now there’s no looking back.
"I’m ticking off all the boxes, so the number, I’m sick of people telling me it’s bad luck, so let’s cross that off, too," Marco said. "My biggest thing going forward is if I look at what coulda, shoulda, woulda, I’m not going to be in the right state of mind. I’m frustrated, but you have to look at what you can do. Obviously, we were nowhere in the points last year and that’s super frustrating. Especially when you have a teammate that wins."
Especially when the kid everyone expected would carry IndyCar long into the future has done little on-track despite his golden opportunities.
He has just two career victories, doesn’t particularly lead a lot of laps and has never finished higher than seventh in the standings. Marco’s biggest moments come in the Indianapolis 500, where he shines and has established himself as a legitimate contender in one of the biggest races in the world.
But he’s got the infamous Andretti bad luck and has failed to win the 500 despite at least three solid shots, including 2006, when he led on the final lap but was passed on the final corner.
Those defeats have been crushing, but all of last year stung.
"I’ve always felt pressure, but to not be in victory circle last year, it killed me," he said.
It was difficult on the team owner, too.
"You want to help, but then you don’t want to put too much pressure on him," Michael Andretti said. "It’s not an easy thing to balance. My heart goes out to him because I’ve gone through stretches where you start to question everything in your career — I know that feeling. It’s a terrible feeling. But what’s funny is when you get it right again, you don’t even know what you did but it just clicks. Hopefully that will happen for him."
The father-son took steps last year when Michael moved off of Marco’s pit stand to become strategist for Hunter-Reay. They both felt the move was for the betterment of their relationship, the organization and Marco’s career.
"You start doing father/son bickering and people start getting nervous," Michael said. "We’d raise our voices and people would think we were mad at each other and it wasn’t like that, that’s just how we are. It was intimidating to the guys."
Said Marco: "Me wanting to win can be perceived as me being a spoiled kid when things aren’t right. And Dad, he takes it personal when I yell and he snaps back. All of a sudden we’re screaming on the radio. Not because we’re jerks, because we’re passionate."
That reputation that Marco — who dates model Marta Krupa and posted vacation pictures during the off-season with rapper Ludacris and comedian Kevin Hart — is a spoiled kid isn’t fair, said grandfather Mario Andretti. Instead, he sees a thoughtful young man who dotes on his kid brother and has settled down since buying his father’s old house in Pennsylvania.
"I think he’s misunderstood in a lot of ways because he hangs out with some of these starlets," Mario Andretti said. "But he’s really close to his family … and the fact he bought his dad’s house really grounded him."
What he really needs, Mario said, is more track time through testing. IndyCar has strict limits on testing and despite having seven years in the series, Mario believes his grandson simply needs more seat time.
"He knows there are certain areas he needs to work at, and to be aware of some shortcomings is being halfway to being able to solve your situation," Mario said. "He has the ability, I know that the talent is there. I’ve seen the quality there, and it needs to be nurtured. It’s probably taking longer than he’d like. But the best is yet to come, for sure."
And both grandfather and father believe Marco wants to be in a race car, even if he’s not presently enjoying it.
"He really wants to race, if I detected (otherwise) I would say ‘You know what, get yourself another job, "’ Mario said. "This is genuine love. This is where he wants to be the rest of his professional life."
Michael had his own struggles with finding happiness in his success, but believes it’s there for Marco.
"My success was not to fail, and it’s not as much fun," Michael said. "When Marco first started out, he didn’t have that and now he’s starting to develop that a little bit, out of frustration, I think. Once he starts figuring it out and winning, he’ll have fun again."