The skeptics have followed Marco Andretti ever since he was old enough to drive a go-kart.
Just as the offspring and siblings of stars in other sports often struggle to live up to the family name, Andretti's accomplishments in his eight-year IndyCar Series career have paled in comparison to his father, Michael, whose own career fell in the shadow of legendary family patriarch Mario Andretti.
Initially, Marco quieted the whispers when he finished a close second in his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2006 and three months later won his first IndyCar race as a 19-year-old rookie. Andretti remains the youngest driver to have ever won an IndyCar event.
He seemed to do just enough to keep the doubters at a safe distance the next few years by staying in the top 10, but when he tumbled to 16th on the points list last year, the questions surfaced about whether he was merely being kept on the powerful Andretti Autosport team because of who he was rather than because of what he had done.
Asked recently whether he has a "lifetime contract" driving for his father, the now 26-year-old Andretti laughed, saying, "That's the perception that goes against me driving for Dad. I need to hold my weight or I won't be there."
Heading into this weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore, Andretti's performance has improved significantly this season. On a team that now features reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion and defending Grand Prix of Baltimore champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti is currently fourth in the overall standings.
His fourth-place finish last week at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma was his sixth in the top 5 this season.
"As far as the overall big picture goes, we're a lot more competitive," said Andretti, who has been out of the top 10 only twice this season. "I'm close to where I want to be, but I'm not exactly there yet. I'm the kind of guy who's not going to be smiling until I'm a champion."
His father sees a different driver, and not just because the younger Andretti radically altered his approach from what he called a "grab the coat by the throat" kind of style to one that pays closer attention to the data being spewed out by the car's computers.
"I think his approach has changed a lot from last year. He's looking inside himself a lot more," Michael Andretti said Wednesday. "He's improved in a lot of areas in his driving that he worked really hard in over the winter. What he did was a very difficult thing, to change your driving style. It's still not totally natural to him, but he's done a wonderful job and he's still got room to improve. When he does, he's going to be up front in all the races."
Marco Andretti, whose only other IndyCar Series victory to date was at Iowa in 2011, said he spent hours last winter in a simulator, and watching tapes of his races and going over over the printouts that could help him better assess what he was doing wrong.
Even without those sessions, Andretti said, "I always knew I was overdriving the car and pushing too much."
An epiphany of sorts came in Baltimore last summer.
After having one of the faster cars in practice, Andretti fell to 18th in qualifying and wound up 14th in the race. Andretti recalled getting out of the car after qualifying "drenched with sweat and the guy who's on pole [Will Power] is fine. I'm doing something wrong. I was asking something from the car that it wasn't going to give me."
Michael Andretti compares the way his son has changed his approach to a golfer overhauling his swing, or perhaps like Phil Mickelson altering his philosophy in the way he attacks courses.
"Ask any golfer how hard that is and how easy it is to fall back on your old swing," said Michael Andretti, an avid golfer himself who once built a six-hole course on his property in Nazareth, Pa. "It's a work in progress."
Mario Andretti said he has also noticed a change in his grandson's maturity about racing this season.
"He's applied himself a lot more this year, and he needed to," Mario Andretti said Wednesday. "I've seen him communicate and describe the behavior of the car better than ever. When he's talking, I can understand clearly what the car was doing and where. He was a little more vague before. He's looking in the right places to where he's falling short."
When teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay won in Baltimore and eventually took the overall championship, Marco Andretti's legendary grandfather gave him a piece of advice.
"My grandfather said it best: 'Nobody performs magic'. If it's working for him [Hunter-Reay], figure out what he's doing and do it," Marco said. "If you're looking back at what went wrong, you're probably in the wrong mindset. It's probably going to frustrate you. You can't drive when you're frustrated. You've got to have fun."
Michael Andretti said his son should have more wins on his resume, including possibly a couple of Indy 500 victories. If anything, the difference this season "is that he's been able to handle the tough luck a lot better, licking his wounds and looking forward to the next week instead of sitting and dwelling on it."
Marco Andretti said he is a more "well-rounded" driver but added that the outside pressure to perform is no greater than what he has put on himself since he first entered the family business as a child.
"I'd like to say I got a hold of that pressure at a very young age," Andretti said. "I went into it because I thought I had to do it. When I'd leave the track, I'd think, ‘That’s what I have to do' rather than enjoy it. … I put an immense amount of pressure on myself in wanting to have success like they did. I found myself not enjoying it."
Michael Andretti might have had a little more empathy for his son when he was younger and trying to live up to the family name. But as unfair as it seemed at the time, Michael says "that's the way it is. That's life. I went through the same pressures as well. It's something he inherited unfortunately."
Said Mario Andretti: "Obviously you're going to be judged on your performance no matter what your name is and that's the way it should be. We've seen other situations where individuals create a lot of buzz without having a true performance under him, but in this case he must carve his own niche in the business."
Mario Andretti said that his grandson "is a bit of a late bloomer," and Michael Andretti compares him to Hunter-Reay, who raced on the IndyCar circuit for nearly a decade before winning the championship last season.
"I just have all the faith in the world that when it's click, it's really going to click," Michael Andretti said. "He does have the talent and he has to have some luck as well. When he does, it's going to be fun to watch." Baltimore Sun