Marco Andretti on Indy 500 car: ‘They put together a masterpiece for me’

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INDIANAPOLIS — Marco Andretti stopped paying attention long ago to what people say about him on social media.

As a third-generation driver whose 15 NTT IndyCar Series seasons have yielded two victories (the most recent in 2011) over 240 starts, the withering criticism and comparisons to the success of his legendary grandfather, Mario, and his father and team owner, Michael, are inevitable.

But the Andretti Autosport driver soaked in the feedback Sunday when his pole position in the 104th Indy 500 brought a wave of congratulations from his IndyCar peers. On Twitter, Team Penske posted video of its drivers reacting to the pole. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles shared the cheers of fans watching from outside the track across 16th Street.

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“That was so cool,” Marco Andretti, who retweeted all of the posts, told NBC Sports in a Monday interview, a day after he became the first member of his famous racing family to win the Indy 500 pole in 33 years. “It felt super special for sure. Just rolling down pit lane, you could see everybody coming out to greet me, and that was so cool.

“When you have respect from your peers that means so much more to you about what you do, and I think a lot of them have witnessed my heartbreaks in the sport. My times when I’ve been so close and missed. So it was really cool to see. So I was really humbled by it.”

Among the most vocally supportive was the driver he dethroned by 0.017 mph for the top spot in the Fast Nine qualifying session. Scott Dixon said if he didn’t win the pole position, “honestly Marco was the guy I was hoping for because I think he deserved it.

“I know what this place means to his family and him especially, and it’s good to see him even under this pressure to make it work,” Dixon said. “Marco can get some bad rap from some people, but he’s such a nice person and a good friend for so many years, and he’s also a big talent. … I think it’s hard when you drive for a team that’s owned by your dad.”

Andretti said he still wants to see the interview with Dixon, but hearing the words touched him.

“That guy is just a pure stud,” Andretti said of the five-time IndyCar champion. “He’s a racer through and through, so to be able to hear that from him is pretty awesome.

“I have a lot of friends in the sport down the paddock. Scott and I are good friends and been competing for 15 years together, so a lot of my people I’ve competed against know what I can do on a given day, and that means a lot to me. They don’t necessarily judge me by my actual results, they judge me by capability, which is pretty cool.”

Indy 500 Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti and his wife, Marta, enjoy a moment Monday in his pole-winning No. 98 Dallara-Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

History ultimately will judge Andretti for how he performs in Sunday’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing (1 p.m. ET, NBC). As a rookie in 2006, Andretti lost to Sam Hornish Jr. by inches, the latest chapter of what is known to some as the “Andretti Curse” at Indy. Mario Andretti won only once in 1969 despite leading nearly 20% of his laps in 29 starts, and Michael Andretti went winless in 16 stars at the Brickyard.

All of those starts came in May, and with Indy delayed three months for the first time because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Marco (who had led more Indy 500 laps than 32 winners of the race) has joked that perhaps the curse doesn’t apply in August.

During a Monday interview with NBC Sports, Marco Andretti discussed his magical run at Indy last week, his connection with grandfather and his family’s history at IMS:

Q: For three consecutive days, your car was the fastest in practice and qualifying, but you didn’t get to the top of the board until near the end of Sunday’s session. Was that important to stay first and keep the momentum going into this break before the Carb Day final practice Friday?

MA: “Yeah, the team did a great job going back on a change that we started with so we knew yesterday was the last practice to make a big swing at something if you’re going to, and we did, and it was the wrong way, so they had to go back and change it back, and thank God we got out in time, because I don’t think I would have slept until Carb Day otherwise, so that last run was very important to reconfirm the car came back, and it was still good.

Q: You said Saturday you were “one change away from being really good” in race setup. Did you get there in Sunday’s practice?

MA: “I actually do feel like we’re there. Yeah. Carb Day, we call it “Panic Day,” because the only thing you can do is dial yourself out if you’re good. We’re just going to take it lightly and run through some downforce things and some gearing stuff and hopefully we aren’t throwing the kitchen sink at it like last year last minute so, hopefully we just roll out Carb Day, and the car is just as good, and if it is, I’ll be even more confident.

Q: This is your 15th Indy 500. How many times have you had a car this good at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

MA: “I mean, as far as like raw horsepower and dominance through the month, it’s been a whirlwind of a start for me. It’s like almost every time we go out on track, we can almost go to the top when we want. It’s almost too good to be true. So from that standpoint, 2012 we were gone in the lead. 2013, we were fast, but as far as horsepower, Honda really brought it.

“So it’s one of those things that in 15 years, there are only three really dominant shots. (In) ’06, we almost won the race, but we were slow, but that’s what 500 miles gives you the chance to do, you could still win it. But if you’re able to have both, if the stars align, we’re going to be really tough to beat.”

Q: You hadn’t finished higher than 10th in the first six races this season. Did getting up to speed so quickly last week sneak up on you?

MA: “Not really. Last year, we had an engineer change this year, and Garrett (Mothershead), the guy I’m with now, has so much experience, and so I knew the pair of us, we both get around this place really well, and I think the pair of us together was going to be a good combination here. That in combination with, I want to say, a surprise from Honda. I can’t believe how dominant they were. I mean, I believe it, but it’s so cool to see eight of the top nine (in qualifying), and the way our team rolled off.

“They’ve been rubbing on this car. They put together a masterpiece for me, and so the thing has just been on rails and flying. I’m not going to try to assess it too much! I’m going to just try to keep it rolling (laughs).”

Q: Did you have the chance to talk to Mario yet?

MA: “Actually not on the phone, but we were in like 15 different group texts (Sunday) with people, but yeah, you can tell he’s over the moon, and he’s sending me support texts here and there. I’m actually going to PA this evening, and I’m going to bring him back on Thursday, so it’ll be good to see him.”

Q: You naturally are close because he’s your grandfather, but it seems you have a deeper connection. What forms that bond?

MA: “I think the connection is motorsport, man. We just love to drive. And I think when you look at passion, he’s unmatched in our sport. You talk to a lot of competitors and they’ll tell you the same thing. Him and John Andretti was the same way. You could sit there and talk about every nut and bolt as long as you wanted to with them.

“They just live and breathe the sport, and that was so special about (late cousin) John, too. That’s what we’re able to bond on. I feel bad for the girls in our family, we always say, because we’re at Christmas dinner, talking about race cars (laughs).”

Q: With the laps you put together under some difficult conditions Saturday and Sunday, has this been some of the best driving of your career?

MA:”I feel that I am doing some of my best driving now. It’s kind of all coming together at the right time. And actually, my dad said that when it starts to click, you won’t be able to understand why. It just will. And that’s kind of what’s happened. Because I think it’s easy when it goes right. And when it’s gone wrong for me, it’s made me a better driver. It’s made me dig way deeper. And I think it’s paying off.”

Indy 500 Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti was congratulated by Andretti Autosport teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay after winning the pole position for the 104th Indy 500 (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Q: Not to dwell on the negative, but did you learn then from finishing 26th and five laps down while being extraordinarily slow in last year’s Indy 500?

MA: “Yeah, I mean don’t worry bringing it up. I always bring it up. Because that’s what this place is always all about. It brings out the highs and lows. It just happens. You look at (James) Hinchcliffe, he almost loses his life, he comes back, he’s on pole. And you look at us last year, and it was my most embarrassing performance ever. But what did we learn? We threw the kitchen sink at it last minute, and we have a month of practice here.

“We put something out for the Indy 500 that we never even ran, which is like the biggest no-no that you could do. I’m not putting any blame, but I think myself and my engineer weren’t a good match last year. So I think having Garrett this year, he is a wealth of experience around this place. He gets around it really good. I knew the combination of us would be really strong here. I really did.”

Q: You told us that you were so angry after losing in 2006 because you knew that 15 years later, you still might be talking about not having a win …

MA: “And here we are.”

Q: Here we are indeed. Did you know that because you grew up around Indy and saw what your father and grandfather went through, or is it more you’re just a realist who knows you have to capitalize on every opportunity?

MA: “It’s definitely both of those things. I think more the first one. Because do you know how many plane rides with them talking about how they could have won the race? And so the three of us have been super-dominant at this place and been short so many times. And so yeah, that’s why I was mad.

“It was a great performance for a rookie, but I knew what I’d missed out on, and I knew those opportunities to lead out of Turn 4 don’t grow on trees. We’ve been on the podium a lot here, but I think we’ve been dominant here probably three or four times.”

Q: On those plane rides, what’s the Indy 500 you heard your dad talk the most about that got away?

MA: “Probably ’92. All he wanted to do was win it for Jeff. He didn’t even know during the race if he was alive or not after his big crash, his brother, and my grandfather crashed and broke his legs. It was just a horror race up until that point, and he was just gone in the lead, a lap on second place and 10 to go, the engine lets go. That’s one that when you have almost a lap on second place, that’s tough to take. If you lose it like me, that’s a bummer, too, but if you’re a lap up, that’s a little different.”

Q: Many drivers would grow up dreaming of winning the Indy 500. Is it different for you having grown up at the track and watching your family’s history there, do you block out what it would be like to win it?

MA: “Yeah, I have to stop myself from thinking about what it would be like because we really have to stay focused on the task at hand and take it corner by corner. There’s a long 500 miles standing in my way, but the stars really do need to align if you want to win that race, and we just need to do everything in our power to the best that we can and the stuff out of our power hope that it goes the right way.”

Indy 500 Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti is trying to become the second Indy 500 winner in his family (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”