ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The best season of Marco Andretti’s career was 11 years ago when he was a raw, unproven rookie without a care in the world.
He remembers 2006 vividly, when he was labeled the next great American driver, the next great Andretti. Just three days away from his 30th birthday, Andretti wants to be that driver again.
"I go back to 2006 and I did not care. I did not question myself," Andretti told The Associated Press. "I couldn’t be shook, no matter what."
So what happened?
The way Andretti figures it, he stopped being that carefree kid and let the pressure of living up to expectations eat away at him. It’s not a surprise, really, considering Andretti has managed just two victories in 183 IndyCar starts. His last win was in 2011, and as IndyCar prepares for its Sunday season-opener through the streets of St. Petersburg, Andretti knows he must produce some results.
To get podiums and victories and become a championship contender, Andretti wants desperately to simply drive the car. He is in the best physical shape of his life, he said, but more important, he’s in the best mental place of his career.
"I approached last year and said this has to be my best year. Well, that was the wrong approach," he said. "If you go in thinking you have to do this, you are going to drive with a chip on your shoulder, you are going to drive angry and you are going to drive frustrated and you are not going to drive fast."
The light finally clicked for Andretti when he began to take the mental preparation of racing more seriously. He envied Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, who as a rookie last season won the Indianapolis 500 and seemed to have a different approach.
"These guys are just driving the car and that’s what I need to do — just drive," he said. "I know I naturally have it, it’s just to extract the most I need to be clear and just show up and drive. I’ve been really, really overcomplicating it. I need to be thinking less. … The harder I’ve been pushing, the slower I’ve been going. But it’s hard to diagnosis it because all you want to do is drive faster."
His father, team owner Michael Andretti, has noticed the new, relaxed approach. It’s something Michael Andretti says he’s been "trying to pound into (Marco’s) head," and doesn’t think it’s accidental that the rookie year was the best for Marco.
"He was just doing it, not thinking," Michael Andretti said. "The whole pressure thing is tough, and when he was younger he wasn’t feeling it. Now he’s 10 years into it and hasn’t gotten the results he wants, and it just spirals."
Andretti was fastest in Friday’s opening practice of the season, and he was eighth overall on the day. A notable change this year is that Bryan Herta will be calling his races and the two have a relationship dating back to when they were teammates in 2006.
It’s a change his father thinks will yield impressive results because Herta can help relieve some of the pressure of being an Andretti who drives for his father. Mario Andretti, his grandfather, is second on IndyCar’s all-time win list with 52, while Michael ranks third with 42.
"Marco has a lot of respect for Bryan, Bryan loves Marco, he knows what Marco can do," Michael Andretti said. "Bryan is so excited to be working with him because he knows the potential there and believes he can pull it out of him."
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has won an Indianapolis 500 and a series title as Andretti’s teammate, said he imagines the pressure dates to Marco’s earliest days in go-karts.
"That’s a lot of pressure on a kid and he’s developed as a professional driver with that weight on his shoulders," Hunter-Reay said. "He’s dealt with it, and he’s honest with himself and he’s done well shouldering that. It’s crazy. I couldn’t imagine, Michael and Mario, and their success in this sport. He’s pretty much got the most famous name in racing."
Andretti doesn’t hide from it, though, and he doesn’t consider his lineage a curse. He’s proud to be part of this racing dynasty, and ready to add to the family win total. To do it, he’s not going to worry about it.
"Corner by corner, that’s how I want to drive this year," he said.