The Legacy of a 45-Year Drought

There are moments in an athlete’s life that define their legacy. For some, it’s a game-winning catch in the Super Bowl or a home run in the World Series, but for an IndyCar driver it’s about leading the final lap of the Indianapolis 500.

Unlike any other racing series in the world, the legacy of an IndyCar driver is more greatly defined by an Indy 500 win than a series championship. The enormous 2.5-mile oval is the grand stage of speed and history, with modern-day IndyCars exceeding 230 mph. The legendary track has seen everything racing has to offer – broken hearts, tears of joy, lives forever changed. Generations of families taking the long walk down Gasoline Alley moments before their 200 lap pursuit of a lifelong dream, the dream of winning the Indy 500. Unser, Foyt, Mears, names synonymous with Indy, but no family has experienced “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” quite like the name Andretti.

Mario Andretti, regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the history of motorsport, won the famed event in 1969, his only victory in 29 career starts. Michael Andretti, son of Mario, led 431 laps in 16 attempts and never had the chance to taste the milk in Victory Lane. For Michael, there may not be a more gut-wrenching feeling than what he experienced 1992 running of the Indianapolis 500, having led 160 laps on the day until suddenly with 11 laps to go and leading by half a lap the fuel pump failed, leaving him with a 13th place finish. The motorsports world witnessed continued heartbreak year after year, leading many to utter the words “Andretti Curse”. Michael never won the Indy 500, and currently holds the record for most laps led all-time without victory.

Perhaps no one has witnessed more than third-generation IndyCar driver Marco Andretti. The grandson of Mario and son of Michael, Marco shared in his father’s pain. Each year came and passed, bringing with it a new experience of heartache to the Andretti family.

After years of witnessing crushing defeats, Marco finally came of age to pilot an IndyCar of his own in the 2006 season. The 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 brought out the best in the Andretti family, including Michael, who came out of retirement to run alongside his son and one last shot at greatness.

While Jim Nabors sang his traditional “Back Home Again in Indiana” an electricity filled the air, fans filled grandstands to the brim, and drivers were given one last glimpse of the famous Borg-Warner Trophy moments before stepping into their cars. There was a calming presence to the Andretti family, most notably Marco, who even as a rookie showed the poise of a 10-year veteran.

After starting the race from the 9th position, Marco pushed his No. 26 Andretti Green Racing Honda towards the front, and remained there for a majority of the race. Michael hung around the top ten after starting from the 13th spot. In the closing stages Felipe Gioffone crashed entering turn two, and brought out the final yellow flag and jumbled up the field.

Coming to the green flag with four laps to go, Michael Andretti led son Marco in second, with two lap cars between them. Scott Dixon lined up third, with Sam Hornish Jr. in fourth. As the cars dove into turn one, Marco began to move through the lapped traffic to run down his father, while Hornish made quick work of Dixon to snatch third. As Michael crossed the start/finish line with three laps to go, his son moved to the outside and dove into turn one in an aggressive pass to take his first ever Indy 500 lead.

The 43-year-old saw his hopes of finally winning the Borg-Warner Trophy dashed, this time by family. The reality was he, along with the rest of the world, were witnessing the birth of a rising star. Moments after seeing his son drive away with the lead, Michael had a mirror full of a hard-charging Hornish. Any attempt to block the three-time IndyCar Series champion failed as Hornish swept under Michael down the backstretch and moved into second. All a father could do was watch defenselessly as his son battled IndyCar’s version of Goliath for the greatest prize in all of racing. The stage was set, it was down to the rookie and the veteran champion.

The pair crossed the line with two laps to go, Hornish just over half a second back. The veteran drew closer to Marco down the backstretch, as they approached turn three Hornish dove to the bottom. The attempt to pass the 19-year-old rookie failed and Hornish lost all his momentum and fell nearly a full second back. The white flag waved as the No. 26 Honda flew under, this was it, the final lap. Only 2.5-miles separated Marco from joining his grandfather as a champion of the Indianapolis 500.

The final lap appeared to go on for an eternity. The rookie paced the veteran, but once again as turn three approached, so did the hard-charging Hornish. This time the veteran stuck behind, waiting in anticipation to make his move. With his mirrors full of the Team Penske machine, Marco did all he could to keep Hornish behind. The duo roared out of turn four and onto the front straightaway, the grandstands echoed the excitement they were witnessing. The third-generation racer stuck to the middle of the track, with hands tight on the wheel, fighting with everything to keep the veteran at bay. With less than 100-yards from the famous yard of bricks, Hornish made his move, diving to the inside of the No. 26 Honda. Both cars surged forward wheel-to-wheel, drag racing to the finish. As the checkered flag waved, fans witnessed the second-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history. A 19-year-old Marco Andretti fell just .0635 seconds short of victory on the grandest stage in all of motorsports.

It was the first time in the events history that a last lap pass for the win had ever been made. The loss infected every Andretti family member, team member, and fan like the flu. A father, just 10-miles from breaking a career long curse at a track he had historically dominated. A son, driving with the poise and fearlessness of a champion, only to fall short at the line.

Marco’s father finished 5th in his very first “500” back in 1984, his grandfather, a 3rd in 1965. The third-generation racer bettered both, but no amount of praise or cheers could pull him away from the gut-wrenching defeat.

I do not want to wait until next year. I have to take advantage of everything because second’s nothing.Marco Andretti

In the years since, Marco has backed up his rookie performance with several strong runs at the Brickyard. Always a force to be reckoned with during the Month of May, Marco now has three podiums and five top 10’s to his credit in eight career starts there. Unfortunately he now also holds a statistic no one wants, among active drivers he has the most laps led in the Indy 500 without a win with 121. Between Mario, Michael, and Marco, the trio has amassed 1,108 laps led at the 2.5-mile oval.

Last season after changing his driving number to 25, Marco drove like a championship caliber driver for the first half of the season, only to fade in the second half. For over a year he has looked poised to become a breakout star that can dominate to the level his father and grandfather did before him. Perhaps the only thing keeping him from it is the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Indy 500 has been like a wall of bricks to the Andretti family, and for Marco, he may very well be bringing a sledgehammer this Sunday to knock it down.

During the month of May this year, Marco is currently one of only two drivers to eclipse the 232 mph mark. He will start 6th in his 9th career appearance in the “500”, this year also marks the 45-year anniversary since an Andretti has visited Victory Lane. Among fans and competitors, everyone can see Marco raise his game to another level every time he steps inside the walls of Indy. There is no driver that wants this win more than him, and to win at Indy, all the drivers know they will have to go through him.

Can Marco drive through a field of former Indy 500 champions such as Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, and Scott Dixon? Will he break the curse? Could this be the year we see an Andretti drinking milk in Victory Lane with the famous wreath hanging over his shoulders?

Yes. Why? “Because second’s nothing.”

Image: IndyCar

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Joey Barnes is the Founder of Motorsports Tribune. He has covered auto racing since 2013 that has spanned from Formula 1 to NASCAR, with coverage on IndyCar. Additionally, his work has appeared on Racer, and Autoweek magazine. In 2017, he was recognized with an award in Spot News Writing by the National Motorsports Press Association.

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