Is Marco Andretti America's next hope?

  Newly crowned 2004 Formula Dodge champion, Marco Andretti, seems on the fast track to live up to his family’s legacy. But the perennial turmoil in USA’s open-wheel scene might jeopardize it.

 by Cássio Côrtes
August 9, 2004

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Editor's Note: Cássio Côrtes is a young Brazilian journalist who writes for AutoRacing1.com.  Multilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish and French), Mr. Cortes brings a fresh South American perspective to our staff.

Marco Andretti waits to start Sunday's race
Mark Scheuern

It’s hard to believe this beardless kid in front of me is only 17. Sitting by a table of fruits under Skip Barber’s large tent at Road America, Marco Andretti’s attitude is so down-to-Earth, so unpretentious and mature, it’s almost annoying. Though this certainly does not apply to everybody, I can only imagine what kind of over-the-top brat I would be at 17, if my granddad was one of racing’s living legends, his son one of the most successful American open-wheel drivers of the 90’s, and their combined annual income tax payments could buy small islands in South America.

But then, I’m not Marco Andretti, the 2004 Formula Dodge champion. Less than a couple of hours before the tumultuous race that will give him the title, Marco looks unfazed, almost blasé – but not in an arrogant way. “Winning this thing would be huge”, he quips. “The money would really help dad for next year.”

I think of making a sarcastic remark about how the $100,000 purse paid to the series champion is probably what his father spends every time Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti or Dan Wheldon have a tête-à-tête with the IRL’s concrete walls, but keep it to myself. Where exactly would that cool 100k be sparing Michael’s bank account?


“Things are changing dramatically”, Michael proceeds. “Only the strongest series will survive. And from the size of the crowd I see here at Road America, I can tell you it won’t be Champ Car”.
- Michael Andretti-

“We want to do Formula Mazda next year”, Marco says, giving away how much of the decision process still lies with his dad. Then he lets out his only juvenile moment of the afternoon, evidently enthusiastic as he states: “Those cars have 250 horsepower!”

This is bound to be the biggest weekend of Marco’s career so far. Eating a banana with gusto, the Michael Andretti that hops off the Skip Barber trailer is not a former superstar driver or an already successful team owner. He’s just a father, willing to be a dad on his son’s moment of glory. And unashamed to feel proud: “Marco’s way ahead of where I was on his age”, he admits. “He’s showing a lot of speed and skill, under a lot of pressure.”

After they look together at the warm-up timesheets, Michael gives an unnecessary justification to have shown up this weekend: “Conquering this championship would be one of those things that stay forever with you.” The optimism is well-founded, since the young Andretti only needs a second place to edge Florida’s Gerardo Bonilla for the crown. “Going out there and keeping my nose clean” is Marco’s strategy.

Of course, racing’s a sport where nothing can ever be taken for granted. When the green flag drops, pole sitter Bonilla holds on to the lead, while third-place starter Andretti settles for second. That’s how they go for five long Road America laps, until when, after a restart, Marco shockingly spins all by himself on the tricky turn five. For a precise 4.048 miles, it looks like Michael will have to pony up a thousand portraits of Franklin for next season. But then we are reminded that kids like Marco and Gerardo Bonilla are just that, kids, being asked to handle tons of pressure in an early stage of their lives.


Lonely moments in front of timesheets are de rigueur when your last name’s Andretti.  Marco Andretti  goes over race setups with father Michael - Click to enlarge
Cassio Cortes

On the same spot, on the immediately following lap, Bonilla goes off-course and gets stuck in the gravel trap, making the Andrettis’ sorrow last for less than three minutes. Climbing to the pinnacles of racing is a game that demands talent and luck, and apparently, both were all over Alvise Andretti’s genes when he made the long haul from Italy half a century ago.

Marco’s title is secure, and so are his plans for next year, it seems. But what about ’06 and on? Does he dream of making fairy-tale history by becoming the first American World Champion since his own grandfather?

“That’s every kid’s dream”, he concedes. “But driving for my dad [in the IRL] would be amazing.”

Yet dad’s thoughts are more business-minded. “We’re not looking at Europe [in the future]. It’s not what our sponsors want.” Taking that as a statement that Michael sees his son driving one of Andretti Green Racing’s IRL cars in a few years, I proceed to an obvious trick question: “But you were such an accomplished road racer. Don’t you want your son to also be one?”

Suddenly, this conversation is no longer about Marco Andretti’s future. It’s about what will happen to a sport that has been living its hardest years for almost a decade already. Michael brushes off my question with ease as he states his “vision” for American open-wheel racing: “Absolutely. The IRL will be road racing next year, and increasingly more in years to come.” It is clear that he believes Tony George’s league will eventually erode Champ Car’s fan base as it begins to turn both sides.

“Things are changing dramatically”, Michael proceeds. “Only the strongest series will survive. And from the size of the crowd I see here at Road America, I can tell you it won’t be Champ Car”.

But even Michael recognizes that it isn’t all black-and-white. He doesn’t even speculate on where Marco might be racing two years from now: “We don’t know what kind of ladder system there will be [in 2006].”

Marco doesn’t seem to worry about it. And if his father’s backers don’t want him to follow into his grandfather’s footsteps, fine. He can dream stateside, too. “Maybe all the luck dad didn’t have at Indy is stored in there for me.”

The exact day when we might finally see a second Andretti face on the Borg-Warner trophy is not costing Marco any sleep, though: “Hey, I’m 17. There’s no rush”.

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