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Motivation, work ethic runs deep for a Marco Andretti turnaround in ’17

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The last time Marco Andretti finished 16th in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings, after the 2012 campaign, he went into the offseason entirely motivated to work harder, dig deeper, and look at the ways to improve to re-establish himself in the series’ upper echelon.

What followed in 2013 was something of a tour de force and massive turnaround, with two podiums and three additional top-seven finishes in the first five races, to where he was leading the points after the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti ultimately ended a career-best fifth in points with at least two (Milwaukee and Pocono) and probably more potential wins that went begging through no fault of his own, but still had completed one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in recent history.

So with that as the blueprint, Andretti’s 2016 season saw him again finish 16th in points. This stands out because in 11 full-time seasons, and 183 starts, Andretti has finished in the top-10 in points in eight of them.

And the goal now is that Andretti won’t – can’t – look back at what went wrong and must channel the same ability to recapture that title-contending and race-winning form.

The introspection and belief that he can be better, and has to forget the bad of 2016, is what will drive the driver of the No. 27 hhgregg Honda for Andretti Autosport next season.

Marco Andretti's visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)
Marco Andretti’s visit to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health on Dec. 13, 2016. (Photos by IU Health/Mike Dickbernd)

“I’m not running from the season I just had. I’m staring it in the face to be better,” Andretti told NBC Sports, following an event at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where he presented mini helmets to sick children.

“From driving coaches to simulators, to everything I could do on the mental side to be sharp. To show up ready at St. Petersburg. It’s been extremely productive.

“From the team side, testing and development. Our new hires are awesome. They’re really listening to drivers… and addressing the complaints. There are some things I need to deal with better. We have to get the cars working better. We’re all doing our part. I think the gains can be huge because of that. If every one of us makes a gain, it will be big.”

In looking ahead to the offseason, Andretti said he needs to put in more physical work and readapt his driving style slightly.

“A lot of what I did between ’12 and ’13, I need to go back to,” he explained. “I’m not gonna be outworked this offseason by any single driver. Physically – the physical training – is putting in the work.”

Andretti’s month-long miss at the Indianapolis 500 sticks out. At a race that he’s usually a win contender all month, the No. 27 crew didn’t match the remaining four entries under the Andretti Autosport stable this year, and he admitted that stuck with him the rest of the year. After qualifying 14th, a 13th place marked his worst finish in the nine times he’s finished the race of the 11 times he’s started.

“From the mental side, I let Indianapolis ruin the rest of my season. I was extremely frustrated, and drove that way,” he explained.

“For me to go fast, I have to pull back a little. I was overdriving the car. I’m sure people think, if you’re slow, go faster… when in fact it may be the opposite.

“Bad as it all looked this year, I can’t wait to get to work to make it better.”

The changes coming to Andretti Autosport for next year includes the hire of Eric Bretzman as new technical director, while Bryan Herta – Andretti’s past teammate in his first full IndyCar season of 2006 – is set to replace Michael Andretti on the strategist box. Nathan O’Rourke continues as Andretti’s lead race engineer.

On the commercial side, hhgregg has stepped up in a multi-year agreement. Events like Tuesday’s at the Riley Hospital were put together by hhgregg, who plan to activate around both driver and team, which is something Marco Andretti says he likes.

Suffice to say the younger Andretti is bullish on both fronts.

“I’m thankful to hhgregg who set this up for me. I plan on doing more of this,” Andretti explained.

“Any chance you get to give back to the city that’s given me so much, means a lot to me. It’s a tough thing to see, because these kids are pretty admirable with what they go through. The pleasure was all mine.

“I want to start with saying I have a great respect for Bryan. It’s hard to smile when you’re not winning races,” he added.

“But still, I have to express how grateful I am to be in this position. You’re only going to get back up front if you don’t let the negatives compound, and to be honest, it’d be easy to let it spiral out of control.

“I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented.”

Andretti said keeping his mental focus sharp will be key next season.

“You don’t want to look back, because then you drive frustrated,” he said. “My whole career there’s been races I was in command to win. I only have two wins, but (almost) 1,000 laps led (he has 990 in his career, going without leading one for first time ever in 2016).

“It’s frustrating to think of those things. But my goal is to only look forward.

“A buddy of mine put it good the other day. He goes, ‘If you win Indy, is it worth it?’ You’re darn right it is.

“Workout training is what helps me the best. I’m still only thinking about the sport. There are times you need to unwind to extract the best. That’s easier said than done.

“But I know how I’m looked at. So I’m going to work harder, and I’m gonna take a ‘Me against the world’ approach. Once I can prevail, it’ll feel better.”

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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