This story appears in the May 30th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
LOOKING BACK, Marco Andretti admits it was all a bit much: his face splashed across billboards from Japan to Chicago and on the cover of racing magazines from Europe to Brazil, his name ricocheting around the Internet with every Formula One opening. But that's what you sign up for when you're the son of Michael, grandson of Mario and owner of the most famous last name in motorsports history.
It's certainly what happens when you come within .0635 of a second of winning the Indianapolis 500 on your first try, as Marco did in 2006 at the age of 19. Later that year, when he won at the Infineon Raceway, he became the then-youngest winner in IndyCar history. That was 74 races and nearly five years ago. He hasn't won since.
"Thanks for bringing that up," he says with a laugh. "All of that hype and promotion -- at the time it really did feel like a lot to handle. It was like, man, no pressure, right? But it's funny -- when you don't win for a while, you wake up one day and realize you miss it. You say, 'Hey, where did everybody go?'"
He knows where they'll be May 29 -- packed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and all eyes will be on the newly matured 24-year-old. Fans of the 500 always ache for connections to the race's century-old roots. They cheer Andretti because they consider him part of the Indy family. They don't care about his sag in performance. "I live for the month of May," he says. "My whole year revolves around it. Indy's my second home. I definitely get a boost from being there and feeling the support. I think the numbers [three top threes, 31 laps led in five starts] prove that out."
It's not as if he hasn't come close to winning other races. He's finished on the podium eight times, including two seconds. And while his struggles are personal, they're also a result of issues within Andretti Autosport, the four-car team owned by his dad. After winning the 2007 IndyCar championship with Dario Franchitti, the team has failed to finish higher than third in the points standings, earning just four wins with seven drivers in three seasons. Over the off-season, senior driver Tony Kanaan departed in a bit of a nasty divorce, and Danica Patrick already had one foot out the door and into NASCAR.
Still, the first four races of this IndyCar season brought reasons to be cheerful. New teammate Mike Conway, who survived a frightening crash in last year's 500, won at Long Beach on April 17. Andretti finished fourth at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama a week earlier in a race he dominated but ultimately lost after being forced to make a late stop for fuel. This year, too, Michael moved to his son's pit to take a more direct role in race-day strategy. The effect has been immediate.
"You've got the family name on the team," says Tom Anderson, VP of operations, "and you've got three Andrettis on the radio at once. Because of that there's been a reluctance to take chances in races. But now, Marco is mature enough to handle criticism and Michael is more comfortable making those calls."
For the first time, Marco's in-race radio communication includes hints of levity. And when a race goes wrong, he no longer emerges from the cockpit "mad at the world." In the first turn of the season's first race, an ill-advised move by Helio Castroneves crashed Andretti's car and left him upside down. But instead of hammering Castroneves publicly, he offered a few tempered verbal jabs and moved on. In the past, such a moment would have sparked rants on TV, radio, Twitter and in his once-infamous blog.
When the team announced Kanaan's departure, those who follow open-wheel immediately recognized AA's need for a new leader. Few thought Marco was ready to step into those shoes. But they hadn't yet met the person he calls "the new me."
"This year I've pledged not to feel so bad for myself anymore," Andretti says. "I'm done pointing fingers. I'm done worrying about things I can't control. I got bad at letting myself lose focus on the goals: winning races, working with my teammates, doing what we can to get the team better and gain some ground on those red teams [Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske]. You can't let the other stuff get in the way."
After living the past three years in Miami, he's decided that too much of the other stuff was rooted in South Beach and beyond (his friendship with Paris Hilton, for example, whom he met at the Playboy Mansion). He purchased his childhood home in Nazareth, Pa., moved back in and invited his little sister, Marissa, to do the same. The sprawling home is part of a family oasis, on property shared with Mario. "My grandfather comes over on his scooter all the time," Marco says. "We just sit and talk. We talk racing, but we also talk about life. In this family, they are one and the same."
As mid-May arrived, the family made its annual 700-mile westward migration to Speedway, Ind., for 500 prep. The Second Coming billboards and hype may have faded elsewhere, but not there. The promise and the pressure of that first near win is as strong now as it was in 2006. "I don't know how he's done it," says Patrick, who knows something about unreal expectations. "I'm fortunate to have a great fan base, but the fans at Indy have been following Marco since he was an 8-year-old racing karts. No matter what he does, if he doesn't win the Indianapolis 500 they are going to view it as a failure."
For Andrettis, great expectations are what you grow up with. And Marco finally looks as if he's grown into them.
Ryan McGee is senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.