INDIANAPOLIS – Riding shotgun alongside his grandfather, Marco Andretti was at the front of 33 bright red convertible Camaros cruising down Main Street near Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an impromptu parade.
The cars then peeled off and headed to the homes of longtime Indianapolis 500 ticket holders who were forced to end their attendance streak this year because Sunday’s race will be held without spectators. Mario Andretti pulled up to the curb outside Brenda Hamm’s house and two generations of the most famous family in motorsports readied for the surprise.
Hamm opened her door, screamed when she saw the Andrettis, then rushed back inside her house to retrieve a doormat honoring the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s 1969 win. “Come sit on my porch!” she demanded.
Neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. Parents with young children on bicycles stopped in the street. Soon there was a small crowd in awe of racing royalty.
“Go Marco!” one shouted.
“Good luck tomorrow!” from another.
And then the one he often hears, “Go make your grandad proud!”
Marco Andretti will lead the field to green Sunday as the first Andretti on the pole for the Indy 500 since Mario in 1987. His father never won a pole at Indy, same for his uncle and his cousin. Five racers over three generations have a combined 1-74 record in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” They say the Andretti family is cursed at famed Indianapolis, something Marco refuses to believe.
Yet the burden is on him Sunday to get the Andretti name back to the winner’s circle and the pressure is palpable.
Andretti has carried it well in the week since he knocked five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon from the pole. The attention isn’t new, his very name can create daily pressure and the expectations on him have always been enormous: Mario Andretti is second on IndyCar’s all-time win list with 52 victories and Michael Andretti ranks fourth at 42. Both father and son made it to Formula One.
Marco, in his 15th season in IndyCar, has two total wins. The last was in 2011.
He’s now 33, has spent his entire life carrying that Andretti name around race tracks, and figured out long ago he’d need to get over it to fully enjoy his life.
“I think the win drought is not fun,” Andretti told The Associated Press. “Am I going to play the victim? Absolutely not. Outside of the sport, I live the best life with the best wife and family. But the sport has been challenging for me. It takes a toll on a competitor who wants to win. It’s a double-edged sword. I mean, I’m not complaining and no, it’s not hard to be me.”
Well, of course it isn’t hard to be Marco. He’s an Andretti, after all, and he does live a fabulous life away from the race track. He vacations with celebrities, has his own tequila line and wore a pair of $600 Saint Laurent sneakers with fluorescent green ankle socks to meet Hamm.
He’s an enigma in that his friends are fiercely loyal and his fellow drivers genuinely enjoy him. Yet the public views him as standoffish, aloof and entitled.
But that’s the same thing they said about his father Michael, who made no friends in a failed 1993 F1 season and also seems to keep people at an arm's length.
“The one thing I would change, and my dad dealt with that, is that perception,” Marco said. “We carry our hearts on our sleeves. When things aren’t going right, which it hasn’t, you can read it on my face. My engagement with my fans, I’ve been trying to work on that and be better. I wish I could change this because there’s a lot of people that once I finally hang out with them, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s actually a nice guy.’
“I think I’m shy. My dad is introverted. I wish I didn’t come across like that, but I guess I do.”
Among those in his corner is entertainer Ludacris, part of a vacation group with Andretti and Kevin Hart riding a nearly decade-long string of annual exotic jaunts. The rapper/actor said he and the race car driver are surprisingly similar.
“Family always comes first. We work really hard, consistently. We’re both very disciplined,” Ludacris told AP. “We love the finer things in life. Some of the best wines the world has to offer. Some of the best cigars the world has to offer. Some of the best spirits the world has to offer.
“We just love to have fun, man. He’s the same way I am in terms of living life to the fullest.”
Andretti has been notably relaxed since the speedway opened in early August and he seems comfortable with himself and the 500. The pressure is good, he insisted, because it means he’s in the game. He’s still in the shadow of his family, though, as the spotlight has been widened to include Mario and Michael in Marco’s moment. Mario will drive Michael in the IndyCar two-seater before the race as all three generations will be on track for the first time together at the 500.
“It’s special,” Andretti said at Saturday morning’s driver meeting. With a laugh, he then conceded that “even if I’m on pole, I still start behind these guys. It’s unbelievable.”
Whatever Andretti does Sunday will be in front of empty grandstands and he’s been denied his moment to hear the speedway crowd roar for another Andretti. But the 500 means everything to the Andretti family and so he understands the heartbreak for Hamm and ticket holders with five-decade streaks coming to an end Sunday. He’s a nice guy, everyone backs him up on this, and did his best to convey that to Hamm.
“We’ll come back for dinner next time,” Andretti quipped.
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report.
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