By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – In the run-up to the Indianapolis 500 the spotlight has been on Mario Andretti but come Sunday it is grandson Marco in the crosshairs as he attempts to lift a family curse by returning a member of the clan to Victory Lane at the famed Brickyard.
As usual there are no shortage of high-octane storylines at the sprawling 2.5-mile oval but Marco Andretti’s bid to end a 50-year Brickyard barren stretch for American motor racing’s first family has dominated conversation.
In over a century of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), it is doubtful there has ever been a more popular winner of what is unapologetically billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” than Mario Andretti.
On that Memorial Day holiday weekend in 1969 a dashing Andretti powered across the finish line to deliver a victory that still resonates today.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The win was expected to be just the first of many at the famed Brickyard but a half-century later it stands alone.
Mario would never again reach Victory Lane and chug from the winner’s quart of milk.
Neither would his sons Michael or Jeff. Nor has his nephew John or grandson Marco, who will again carry the Andretti colours into Sunday’s race.
“Pressure? This is the biggest race in the world, with or without what’s going on,” said Marco, who qualified 10th and will start on the inside of Row Four. “I can’t even imagine if we were to book end it 50 years, it would be incredible.
“I think pressure is a good thing. I think you should be honored to carry pressure. It means you’re playing for something awesome.
“It’s almost 80 tries, we’re all still here and we’re able come back and keep trying to win it.”
Fernando Alonso’s attempt to complete motor racing’s Triple Crown of wins at Monaco, Le Mans and Indianapolis had taken some of the focus and pressure off of Andretti until the Spaniard’s qualifying flop last Sunday left the twice Formula One champion out of the race.
Charismatic Brazilian Helio Castroneves’s bid to claim a record-equalling fourth Indy 500 victory that would gain him entry in the Brickyard’s most exclusive club has been swept aside by a wave of Andretti nostalgia.
The possibility of Roger Penske adding an 18th win to his collection has also taken a back seat despite the captain rolling out an all-star stable including Castroneves, 2017 IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, reigning Indy 500 winner Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, who will start Sunday’s race from pole position.
Such has been their cruel misfortune that the thinking is there could be no other explanation for the Andretti heartbreak than a curse (there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the jinx).
Exactly what it is that so angered the racing gods is uncertain but the entire Andretti clan rejects the idea that there are malevolent forces at work.
Scoffing at any idea of a curse, Andretti, whose best Indy 500 finish came in his rookie year crossing second in 2006, will pay tribute to his grandfather by driving a car with the same day-glow red livery he used when winning in 1969.
Michael Andretti, winless at the Brickyard in 16 attempts as driver but five-times winner as a team owner, will put five cars on the grid including Marco and two former Indy 500 champions in Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I’ve had good shots to win the biggest race in the world and its eluded me numerous times,” said Marco, who has also had three third-place results. “I’m not going to change too much on the driver’s side for this race.
“Hopefully, our number is picked this year.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)