Not in the five years since Marco Andretti began competing in the IndyCar Series has the impeccably-pedigreed member of America’s royal racing family received the media attention and fan adulation he’s experienced in the two weeks. That was when he snapped a four-season winless streak with an inspired, will-not-be-denied victory at Iowa Speedway.
Radio show call-ins, television appearances, magazine articles, front-page photos and website overload were part of the after-victory glory tour for a driver and series desperate to flash some alternative star power.
But ultimately it was a simple statement from his biggest fan that meant the most to Andretti.
“My grandfather (legendary driver Mario Andretti) came over to my house the next day and said he needed that win more than I did,’’ Andretti said laughing.
Touching sentiment, but debatable.
The 24-year old Andretti and the IZOD IndyCar Series – which may lose its highest profile driver, Danica Patrick, to NASCAR next year – both needed that win. Badly.
So as the series arrives in Toronto, Canada, this weekend, Andretti has provided a refreshing storyline beyond the “will-she, won’t-she” Danica drama.
“I don’t see us (IndyCar) dying without her,’’ Andretti said. “We have to talk about life without Danica. IndyCar is on an upswing.’’
It had been 77 races, four calendar years and a whole lot of shoulda-woulda since Andretti recorded his only other win in 2006, which came on the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, California, – a victory remembered as much for its controversial ending as for Andretti’s coming of age.
His Andretti-Green Racing teammate Bryan Herta spun in the waning laps, bringing out a late-race yellow flag that helped the race-leading Andretti save just enough fuel to hold on for his maiden IndyCar win and, at age 19, become the youngest winner in series history. Some questioned the timing and circumstances.
But no one could begrudge Andretti at Iowa.
He was aggressive. He was smart. He was game-on, displaying all the traits and promise so many expected but failed to see consistently when his father, Michael, hired him to compete in open-wheel’s big leagues at the age of 19. That followed an impressive, if short, stint in the Indy Lights development division.
His Indianapolis 500 debut in 2006 — when he was ambushed while leading and overtaken 300 yards from the finish line by Sam Hornish Jr. — is still considered one of the most dramatic 500s ever.
But since his Sonoma win later that year, he’s only had nine top-three finishes, including three runner-up effort, in more than four years. And he is again enduring what’s become a typical Marco season of high ups and low downs. He started the year off on his head — literally — after his Andretti Autosport Honda was flipped over in the first turn of the first lap in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“It feels like a breakthrough (to win) because it’s been so long,’’ Andretti said last week. “The drought I went through made me realize what we have in IndyCar with the competition.
“I never doubted myself. Nothing’s really changed in my driving. It’s just that all the stars aligned that night.
“At the same time, I smelled blood. I knew I had the car to win.’’
As for his win being a Danica antidote, Andretti was careful to say he didn’t know of his teammate’s future plans, but if need be, he is perfectly happy to carry some of that impending publicity burden for the series.
“I’m okay winning for them (series),’’ joked Andretti. “I’ll keep it going for them.’’
After all, when your grandfather is a racing icon and your father was the winningest driver in the modern IndyCar era, you get used to high expectations and heavy burdens.
“I’m working as hard as I can and the biggest part of it is not doubting yourself when everyone else does,’’ Andretti said. “Having this name, I just turn into a positive that I’m lucky to have the greatest teachers in my grandfather and dad to learn from.