INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The roar rose from the crowd with the simple introduction of one of the Indianapolis 500’s all-time stars.
“The great Mario Andretti!”
With that, thousands of fans before Friday’s final race practice stood at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and went wild for the patriarch of one of racing’s most storied families.
Some, with a deep appreciation of Indy’s history, chanted his name. But as “Mario! Mario!” filled pockets at the speedway, it was easy to wonder if he was recognized as much for what his family symbolized in failure at Indy more than his Hall of Fame career loaded with more than 100 victories.
The Andretti name has long been known at Indy as much for a curse than for championships.
The Andretti Curse is one of the most infamous curses in sports, up on the leaderboard with The Curse of The Bambino and Chicago’s billy goat. The so-called curse is as much a part of Indy’s lore as the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” and a pork tenderloin sandwich.
Must be tough coming to Indy with that kind of legacy, right Mario?
“We always look forward to it like you cannot imagine,” he said.
The Andrettis brush aside talk of curses or bad luck, even though Mario’s 1969 victory is the lone one for a family driver. There have been crashes, mechanical ills and just about every kind of fateful twist to keep either from winning the world’s richest and most prestigious race.
Mario’s son, Michael, had it the worst, leading 431 laps in 16 career starts without ever getting the chance to swig that championship milk.
Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver, is 0 for 9 in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“I think we’ve been blessed, man,” Marco said. “We’ve had a ton of podiums, a ton of runner-up finishes as a family and we’re not done. I don’t think we’re cursed.”
And Michael Andretti has reaped the spoils of team ownership, winning with Dan Wheldon (2005) and Dario Franchitti (2007). He’s the reigning series owner champion after Ryan Hunter-Reay captured the checkered flag last season for Andretti Autosport.
Really now, that’s a curse?
“Sounds like he’s struggling,” Marco cracked.
With IndyCar starved for attention outside of May for something more than misfortune, an Andretti in Victory Lane could help ignite casual fan interest. Danicamania is so 2005. How does Marcomania sound?
“It would mean the world to me and the family,” Marco said. “I think it would be great for the fans as well to bring an Andretti back. And an American.”
Hunter-Reay’s victory was the first for an American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
The Hornish win – and Marco loss – still stings for Andretti.
Marco was a rookie in 2006 and nearly needed just one chance to win the race his father couldn’t during a lengthy career. He surged to the lead in the closing laps – passing his father, of all people.
Hornish got around Michael and quickly closed Marco’s seemingly insurmountable gap. Hornish roared back on the final trip around the 2 1/2-mile oval, putting himself in perfect position off the final turn to blow by Andretti coming down the long straightaway.
Hornish won by a little more than a car length – just 0.064 seconds, and Marco and Michael settled for second and third.
Curses that day likely only came out of their mouths for being foiled again.
“My rookie year, I was criticized for being mad about second,” Marco said.
Michael’s best finish was second. Mario, who retired after the 1994 season, won just once in 28 starts.
The Andretti curse always reminds racing aficionados of an Indy 500 joke: The four most famous words in racing aren’t “Gentlemen, start your engines.” They are “Andretti is slowing down.”
In 1992, Michael had the best car but fell out of contention when he inexplicably lost fuel pressure late in the race. In 1995, he bumped into a wall even though nobody was near him.
Jeff Andretti, Mario’s youngest son, suffered a violent head-on crash in the 1992 race and broke both legs. Marco said it was hard not to think of that wreck after the frightening crash last week at practice that ended James Hinchcliffe’s season.
“I look at the Hinch thing, I don’t look at our careers as being cursed,” Marco said. “My uncle took a huge hit, don’t get me wrong and ended his career, but he’s alive and he’s with us.”
The family refuses to dwell on the negatives and all the times they’ve come tantalizingly close to tasting that milk.
“We’re very vested in what’s going on here,” Mario said. “We’re honored to have that opportunity. This place has meant so much to our family in general. As far as we’re concerned, it couldn’t be any better.”