By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published March 29, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - The jumble of emotions that this city has come to symbolize for Marco Andretti could seize upon him as he walks down pit road for the first time Friday, to the spot where he climbed from his car last year after winning in his first-ever race in the Indy Racing League's developmental circuit.
Or it could be the spot where his family told him that his friend, 18-year-old William Riehl, had died in a car accident in Melbourne the night before his victory. Riehl, whose family has known the Andrettis for three decades, was supposed to drive to St. Petersburg to see him race.
A year later, Andretti hopes this city will be just another stop on a long-anticipated odyssey, when the 19-year-old rookie makes his second IRL start in Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
"The only thing I can do is look at it like I'm going to go to the racetrack and I'm going to go drive a race car," said Andretti, the son of former driver Michael, and the grandson of legend, Mario. "That's all you can do, and there's going to be bad and good memories. That was one crazy memory last year."
Passing Wade Cunningham and holding on for the win in the Pro Series race last year was instinctive. It's what he does. But the surreal part came, he said, when he stepped out of the car, when the joy in his family members' faces mixed with emotion of the previous night's events. There was sadness, release, vindication. Andretti had proved he could do this, after being scrutinized since driving a go-cart as a 9-year-old.
"It was unique," he remembered. "I've won a lot of races and I'd come in after the race and I'd say, "Okay, how do we go win the next one?' but that to me, was bittersweet and it was even better because of the circumstances of the weekend. If that hadn't have happened, it would have been one of the worst weekends ever. Seeing their faces ... after a normal weekend, we get out and say "good job,' this was a unique deal where they were like, "This kid has it."'
Michael Andretti always hoped his kid had it, just as his father had wished the same for him. But his experience growing up the son of one of racing's most successful and iconic figures made him determined to let Marco guide the way. Whereas Mario Andretti was often too hands-on, unwittingly adding pressure, Michael has taken care to guide with a soft hand from the shadows.
"Dad was in an unfair situation," said Michael, whose 42 CART wins trail only A.J. Foyt (67) and his father (52). "He hadn't been in the shoes and I have the advantage where I was in Marco's shoes. Dad didn't know."
Marco won immediately as a child, but said he felt so much pressure that he was constantly squabbling with his family or competitors. He wasn't having any fun.
"So I just stopped," he said, "and me quitting, and them supporting me out of the seat, saying I could do whatever I wanted, told me it was for me. And then I couldn't stand not driving a race car, so I came back for my own reasons."
Next comes the hard part: living up to the expectations of a famous last name. Some sons and grandsons of legends have made it. Michael Andretti, 43, had a fruitful open-wheel career and will come out of a two-year retirement to run this year's Indianapolis 500. Al Unser Jr. won two CART titles and two Indy 500s. But A.J. Foyt's son, Larry, and grandson, A.J. IV, have never established themselves in open-wheel racing or "There are people who don't know about Marco Andretti but know about Andretti," Marco said. "And as for the people who are expecting me to fail, I'm going to put the pressure on me tougher than what anyone else can."
Marco seemed very much in a hurry to impress Sunday in his IRL debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway, jumping the start by passing several cars before reaching the flag stand and being penalized. His day ended early with a mechanical problem.
Mario Andretti thinks his grandson is ready.
"He's quite young and for all intents and purposes you might think - what's the rush? - and we've heard all that," Mario said. "But he's been going through the ranks and going about it in a way that me and Michael both felt it would actually be a waste of time almost to keep him in the same series, the same level he did last year."
Marco was originally scheduled to run another full season in the Pro Series and some Grand-Am sports car races until Dan Wheldon left Andretti Green Racing, which Michael co-owns, for Ganassi Racing in the offseason. After AGR swept the top four in the Grand Prix last year, Wheldon quipped that Marco was so good he would one day take his job. After considering outside candidates, the Andrettis decided Marco was ready to expedite the time table. Marco doesn't consider his promotion a favor.
"If I was just his son and did not have that talent," Marco said, grinning, "he would not make that move, trust me."
Now part of the big team, and in for the same level of hazing as everyone else, Andretti tries to fit in and absorb as much as possible.
"He'll be fine," teammate Tony Kanaan said. "He doesn't ask us a lot, but he listens a lot, pays attention a lot when we talk. And sometimes he does ask. The kid is good."