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BILL DWYRE

Marco Andretti carries name's weight into Long Beach Grand Prix

Marco Andretti, son of Michael Andretti and grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti, knows expectations are high heading into the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. That's why he's so eager to win.

April 13, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Marco Andretti, with his grandfather Mario at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, races for Andretti Autosport, a team run by Marco's father, Michael.
Marco Andretti, with his grandfather Mario at Indianapolis Motor Speedway,… (Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire )

Friday in Long Beach was a day better suited for ducks than drivers.

That was not a good thing, because this is the weekend of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Plenty of drivers are on hand, all itching to exercise their right foot, none seeing much positive in the rain.

Except for one, the driver with the surname so famous that his every touch of the clutch is scrutinized. In sports, it is one thing being "the son of," but try being "the son of and the grandson of."

Marco Andretti is 25. He drives for Andretti Autosport, owned by his father, Michael Andretti, 49, a highly successful IndyCar driver, who started in 1984 and drove his last race in 2007. An advisor on the team is his grandfather, Mario Andretti, 72. You don't have to know how to change your oil to know that Mario Andretti is among the best ever to drive a race car, any race car.

So it has been left to young Marco — smart, driven, talented and weighed down by 50 pounds of expectations that no others have in his chosen pursuit — to make his own way, his own mark.

The IndyCar drivers practice Friday morning in light rain. On a road course such as downtown Long Beach, they run in the rain but stop if it puddles. Marco Andretti goes out, and, along with the others, runs laps on rain tires. Soon it stops raining but remains wet. Marco, with the impatience of youth and the guts of a lion trainer, decides to go back out, this time on slick tires.

Soon, he has raced the quickest time, prompting several competitors to try their own slick tires. Soon, two crash.

Andretti likes being asked about that later.

"I prefer treacherous conditions," he says. "That makes it about pure car control."

The Long Beach race will be his 102nd IndyCar race. That makes him a veteran. It also puts the expectations through the roof. He knows it, deals with it and wants to silence it by winning.

"Looking back," he says, "with 100-some races already, I know I should have won more."

This weekend's Indy race through the streets of Long Beach would be a significant start, if for no other reason than family history. His father won his first Indy race there in 1986 and his last one, in 2002. His grandfather, who probably could have won in a tractor, took the 1978 Long Beach Grand Prix when it was a Formula One race in need of an image boost, and also won in 1984, '85 and '87.

A victory by Marco would be a family milestone of sorts, because, no matter how quick he is in qualifying, he will be shuffled back in the pack for Sunday's start. That's because, last Monday during testing in Northern California, the Chevy engine in teammate James Hinchcliffe's car malfunctioned and Chevy officials decided to put new engines in all their Indy cars.

The rules, however, mandate a set amount of time before a race when engines can be changed — so teams don't install one engine for qualifying and another for racing. To the credit of Chevy officials, who will have their engines in 11 of the Long Beach starters, they knew the consequences of their decision and still made it for safety reasons.

"I am enthusiastic about the race," Marco Andretti says, "but it is also a little demoralizing. I'm prepared to fight hard."

He can feel a season of success within his grasp. In testing April 4 at the cathedral of Indy racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he turned in the quickest lap there to date this year.

For the Andretti family, Marco's success at Indy would go a long way toward removing the black cat that always seems to be in their path there. Mario ran there from 1965 to 1994 and won once, in 1969. Michael began in 1984, raced every year until '95 and then went back again for five more races, 2001, '02, '03, '06 and '07. Marco raced as a 19-year-old rookie there in 2006 and has made the field every time since. Since 1965, there has been no Andretti in the Indy 500 field just three times, 1979, '04 and '05. That's 52 starts and one win.

Interestingly, Marco's 2006 rookie start was perhaps the biggest family racing heartbreak. He led on the last lap, even had his dad doing some blocking for him against hard-charging Sam Hornish Jr., and was passed in the final 500 yards to lose by .0635 of a second.

Afterward, his proud father pointed to an amazing achievement by a rookie driver. Marco, however, told the press, "Second's nothing."

Clearly, the disappointment hasn't softened.

"I took a lot of criticism for my reaction then," he says. "But I don't see much value in second place.

"I'm still bothered by it. I never lifted. If I had put my foot down any more, it would have gone through the floorboard. It was all about speed at the end, and I have no idea how they [Hornish's team] could have put up the numbers they did on that last lap. It's still fishy."

He is asked what the Hornish team could have done. "There are things," he says.

With that, the topic, still obviously a bad memory, is closed.

It wasn't clear whether Mario Andretti would be in Long Beach to see his grandson race.

Does it matter? "It matters a lot," Marco says.

What's the best advice he got from his grandfather?

"Respect the speed," Marco says, "especially at Indy."

Ah, Indy. Where the driving is always in treacherous conditions and the hope for the end of lousy luck for the Andretti family rests with a 25-year-old, who likes it like that.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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