INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — His car so far is just OK and he could use a lot more speed ahead of Indianapolis 500 qualifying. That might normally send Marco Andretti into a tailspin, but his mindset is a whole lot different these days.
Andretti is at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a part-time racer for the first time in his career. He decided in January he no longer had the heart for a full-time IndyCar season and made the Indy 500 his only race on the schedule.
As he readied for his third day of practice Thursday, the 34-year-old Andretti found himself “super happy, relieved and relaxed” for perhaps the first time in 16 trips to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“I think the thing I love about it is now I can form it into more of my own baby and not just what everybody else wants me to do,” Andretti said. “I’m able to say yea or nay on different opportunities and do it for fun and for the purity of driving, which is why I love this sport.”
Andretti is a third-generation racer in the most famous family in motorsports. His grandfather Mario Andretti is considered one of the greatest ever and a winner in IndyCar, Formula One and NASCAR. His 1969 Indianapolis 500 victory is the only race win for seven different Andretti racers and he ranks second on IndyCar’s all-time wins list.
Michael Andretti also made it to Formula One — just one underwhelming season — but ranked third on IndyCar’s all-time wins list when he retired. He turned his focus to the business of racing with Andretti Autosport, which fields 15 cars across seven different series around the globe.
The IndyCar team is the Andretti baby and Marco’s decision to step away took an Andretti off the track for the first time since his 2006 debut. He said Thursday choosing a limited schedule wasn’t difficult and although his father thinks his son struggled to inform him he wanted out, Marco thinks he made it easier on an Andretti organization struggling to find funding for his car.
“Honestly, it was more of a relief to him because we would have had to find more money,” Marco Andretti said. “You know, even my close friends, they’ll be like, ‘Are you OK with everything?’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, yes. I really am.”
His career has never come easy despite his dazzling debut as a 19-year-old in his first Indy 500. He passed his father to take the lead with two laps remaining and the win was within reach until Sam Hornish Jr. passed Andretti 100 yards from the finish line.
It was the closest Marco Andretti ever came to Indy success and he won just two races in a 15-year career. The pressure became so intense that any joy in the job was gone.
His new approach is perfect.
“I can still win the crown jewel, I know we can, and it’s the one that matters,” he said of the Indy 500. “And I’m free to do other things and I’m able to push myself, make myself by really uncomfortable to see if I can adapt to different types of cars and do it with friends and hang out with my cousin and drive with whoever I want. It’s been really nice.”
He’s slated next month to compete in Tony Stewart’s six-race Superstar All-Star Racing Experience at dirt tracks across the country and later this year team with cousin Jarett Andretti on the Andretti Autosport sports car team.
So for this week he is relaxed at Indy for the first time he can remember. He doesn’t think he’s got a shot at the pole — Andretti won the pole last year but was then the first driver since 2001 not to lead a single lap — so he’s already thinking about strategy that could help him get to the front in the May 30 race.
And when that’s over, his schedule is his to do what he chooses.
For now, that includes returning to Indianapolis every year.
“I want to just keep coming back here as long as I know I can be competitive and I think as long as I can keep coming back and just being annoying, hopefully one day I can win this thing,” he said. “That’s my bucket list. Everything else is just pure fun. Not that this isn’t, this is the real business, but this is my main focus.”
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