During qualifying in Long Beach on Saturday, two of my IndyCar Twitter friends (Zach and Tiffany) had a discussion about drivers who polarize the fans. Zach mentioned Dario Franchitti and Tiffany commented that Marco Andretti might be up there too. I can’t say I disagree.
I haven’t tried to hide the fact that I’m a fan of Andretti Autosport generally, and Marco specifically. Yes, I’m a big fan, but I’m not one of THOSE fans, if you catch my drift. Truthfully, I didn’t want to be a fan of Marco at first. I grew up watching Mario and Michael was the first driver I truly cheered for, and when teenaged Marco made his IndyCar debut I was convinced it was only because of his last name and the fact that his father owned a racing team. I realize many people continue to believe that is the only reason he still has a ride.
But then I watched him race. And I realized he had a lot of talent in his own right. I mean he’s an Andretti, right?! I’m not trying to deny the advantage that gave him growing up. Having two of the greatest IndyCar drivers as your next of kin is invaluable for a driver. But if you don’t have talent, you’re not going to stick around. Period, end of story.
Do I think Michael would ever fire Marco? Probably not if I’m being honest, but let’s not forget that when Marco was 11 years old, Michael made him quit racing. (“IndyCar’s Marco Andretti looking for answers,” Sports Illustrated, March 22, 2013) Marco is no longer a kid, but for most who have a good relationship with their father, dad’s words carry a lot of weight no matter how old you are. Especially when dad is also the boss.
I said I’m not one of THOSE fans, and I meant it. I realize Marco has been very dramatic at times. Overly dramatic, even. I’ve listened to his crew-to-driver transmissions on several occasions, including last year at Indianapolis. A friend who was listening with me asked why he always sounded like he was panicking, even when he was leading the race.
Some of his comments during interviews have made me cringe. I recall seeing the Twitter meme “#thingsthataretryingtokillMarco” floating around a year or so ago after one such interview. I’ve criticized things he’s said and moves he’s made out on the track, because that is what I believe true fans do. (I am equally critical of my beloved New York Yankees, for whom I have cheered much longer than I’ve cheered for Marco, when warranted.) I’ll always support him, but I call it like I see it and as he now admits, he’s made a lot of mistakes.
But let’s not forget one important thing. Marco turned 26 years old last month. Yes, he’s been around for what seems like forever, but he is still young. For some perspective, teammate James Hinchcliffe, who is in only his third IndyCar season, is 3 months older than Marco. I don’t know about you, but when I was 26 I still had a lot of growing up to do. And I’m a girl–we all know it’s MUCH worse for guys. (Kidding, just trying to interject some humor for those who are ready to throw something at me…)
The 2012 IndyCar season was a tough time to be a fan of Marco Andretti. It had its highs (IndyCar Fast Friday and qualifying, and leading the most laps during the race; finishing on the podium in Iowa; qualifying on the pole for the season-ender in Fontana), but by his own admission it was the worst season of his career. There was the usual drama, and pressure, and coming while teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was winning a series championship made it even more glaring.
During 2012, Marco made a lot of comments that were deemed to be “whining.” I’m not here to classify those statements, they speak for themselves and I’m not going to change anyone’s mind anyway. But after the season was over, for whatever reason, Marco realized he had to change. Several articles have been written detailing the steps Marco took during the offseason to figure out where he was making mistakes and how to improve.
From the start of testing for the 2013 season, we’ve seen a different Marco Andretti at the track. His interviews sound much more mature and reflective, and much less like he’s trying to place blame anywhere but on himself. Perhaps the most telling interview thus far was after qualifying on Saturday. He was hit with a somewhat questionable penalty (I didn’t see it but from the description on IndyCar Radio it sounds like it may have been given to the wrong driver) but rather than rant about that, he took it in stride and simply said he had a lot of work to do on Sunday.
And it hasn’t only been his interviews. Marco has improved markedly on the track. He’s making smarter decisions, showing a patience that was very uncharacteristic of him in prior seasons, and it’s paying off big time. He hasn’t won a race yet, but the season is still young. He started the season with a podium finish, his best season-opening finish in 5 years. His average finish this season has been 5.67 and along with Helio and Justin Wilson, he’s one of only 3 drivers to finish in the top 10 in every race so far. Before qualifying I heard someone on IndyCar Radio predict Marco might score the third win of his career at Long Beach.
Marco didn’t win at Long Beach, and he didn’t make up as much ground as Justin Wilson (who finished in 3rd after failing to even make a run at qualifying), but I didn’t think there was much chance of him finishing in the top 10 after starting 25th. Especially when they had to change the nose on his car in the opening laps and he drove most of the race with damage to a wing on the replacement. In previous seasons he would have panicked and it would not have ended well. On Sunday he showed patience and maturity and made smart driving decisions and it paid off.
I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind here, and I know some will say I can’t be objective. I can’t change what other people think. But maybe, next time you hear an interview with Marco, or next time you see him on the track, pay attention to what you hear or see, and think about how it would have played in previous seasons. Especially 2012.
I’m thrilled to see the changes Marco’s made. And I hope he continues to show the improvements we’ve seen so far. And if that makes him even more polarizing, well that’s just fine with me. Maybe it’s something IndyCar needs.