Harris: Andrettis Search for Speed

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 12 2010
Michael and Marco Andretti are struggling to catch the Big Two in the IZOD IndyCar Series. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Michael and Marco Andretti are struggling to catch the Big Two in the IZOD IndyCar Series. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

In the summer of 2005, longtime racing star Mario Andretti sat under a tent in the paddock during the CART weekend in Toronto and talked with great pride about grandson Marco.

“He’s got the passion,’’ Mario said, grinning widely. “He’s more like me than his dad, as far as how much he loves being in a race car. And he might be better than both of us.’’

At that point, the son of Michael Andretti, another longtime star of open-wheel racing, was 18-years-old and yet to drive in his first IndyCar event.

He made the most of his rookie season in 2006, driving for Andretti Green Racing, co-owned by his father. The youngster was leading on the last lap of one of the most exciting Indy 500s ever and wound up second to Sam Hornish Jr. and just ahead of his father, who came out of retirement to race with his son.

Later that year, Marco won his first race at Sonoma. He wound up seventh in the points and it looked like his grandfather might be right. At that point, with the series struggling for fans and TV ratings, there were those that thought Marco Andretti could be the American driver to lead the IRL and its IndyCar Series back to the promised land, going head-to-head with big, bad NASCAR.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened.

Now, in his fifth season in IndyCar and still driving for his father, who bought out his partners over the winter and renamed the team Andretti Autosports, Marco has yet to fulfill that golden promise.

Heading toward next Sunday’s race in Long Beach, Calif., he has gone 56 races without another victory and has never finished better than seventh in the points, a result he matched in 2008.

Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, the beautiful new road course outside of Birmingham, Ala., Marco led 58 of 90 laps, but wound up fifth behind winner Helio Castroneves in a race of  fuel strategy and luck.

Part of the problem the past couple of seasons has been that the Andretti team, once the elite of IndyCar, is constantly at least a few horsepower behind perennial powerhouses Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Teammates Tony Kanaan (eighth), Ryan Hunter-Reay (12th) and Danica Patrick (19th) never got near the front at Barber as Castroneves and Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe and Will Power and Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti all finished among the top six.

“We’re making progress, but we’re still just a little behind those guys on speed,’’ Marco said. “I do think we’re going in the right direction, and it’s still early in the season.’’

Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

But Michael Andretti is determined to help his team regain its competitive edge and to get his son and the other three drivers back in the championship hunt. That’s the main reason he took control of the team.

And, while it seems like Marco Andretti has been around forever, the fact is he is still just 23 years old.

In his early years in IndyCar, Andretti didn’t seem able to tell his engineers what he needed in his race cars. There were times when it appeared he was unwilling to work to improve an ill-handling car.

He also seemed to have about the worst luck of any driver in the series, constantly getting caught up in other people’s wrecks or being the victim of mysterious mechanical ills.

A turning point of sorts came in 2008 when Andretti had six top-fives, eight top-10s and led a total of 330 laps. He regressed last year with only two top-fives and a total of only 10 laps led. But it was no secret that the Andretti cars were not in the same class with the Ganassis or Penskes in 2009.

The results have been mixed in 2010.

In the opener in Brazil, Andretti and E.J. Viso crashed out in a spectacular wreck at the start and Kanaan’s 10th-place finish was the highest for an Andretti entry.

At St. Petersburg, Patrick led the Andretti team with a seventh-place finish and Andretti finished a respectable 12th.

The run at Barber gave the young Andretti  more hope, if not outright optimism, about what is to come.

“We’re definitely getting close,’’ he said, quietly. “We just need to get on to Long Beach and see how we do there. We have to keep improving every week.’’

That’s exactly what needs to happen if Marco Andretti is ever to live up to his grandfather’s forecast.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 12 2010
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