Marco Andretti's first memories of the Indianapolis 500 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET) were not made inside the walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They come from the parking lot outside Turn 2. That's where the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel, better known simply as the "Speedway Motel," stood from 1963 to 2009. Every May, the old-school, 96-room motor lodge was the residency of the greatest names in 500 history.
When Mario Andretti started racing there in 1965, his little boy Michael would play on the balcony of the family's room at the Speedway Motel and swim in the courtyard pool that was lined with those balconies, all while the motel was shaken with the roar of his father laying down hot laps on the 2.5-mile rectangular racetrack only a few hundred yards away.
In the late 1980s, it was Michael's son who was on the balcony and in the pool, while Dad and Granddad whined by in their Newman-Haas racing machines.
"I had my toy race car out at the motel, playing while I could hear and feel them going by during practice," recalled Marco Andretti, laughing. "I guess I had my car to play with and they had theirs."
Back then, Marco Andretti was 3 years old. Now he is 33 and the family roles have been reversed. When he leads the field of the 104th Indianapolis 500 to the green flag on Sunday, it is his dad and granddad who will be doing the watching. Michael Andretti, owner of superpower IndyCar team Andretti Autosport, is Marco's boss. Mario Andretti is Marco's Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise old sage with the voice that never wanders too far off level, always there to whisper in his grandson's ear when he needs it. In fact, it was the guidance of the man Marco calls "Nonno" that he says helped him win the pole position one week ago. It is the first for the family since Mario's third and final 500 pole in 1987, when Marco was only 2 months old.
"We had been up front in practice all week and had the provisional pole, so Pole Day was ours to lose and I was feeling that a little," Marco said of the lead-in to Sunday's nail-biting qualifying run. "But my grandfather gave me the best advice. He said, 'Let them beat you. Don't dial yourself out. You already know what you have, so do it again. Let them dial themselves out chasing you.'"
The grandson laid down a four-lap average of 231.068 mph, edging Scott Dixon by a scant 0.017 mph to grab the top spot. Dixon, seeking his second Indy 500 win, was understandably heartbroken. But he also couldn't stop smiling when asked about Andretti snatching away the top starting spot and the weeklong accolades that come with it. In fact, everyone in Gasoline Alley was smiling as Andretti celebrated the moment. Video of the Team Penske drivers watching and cheering as he completed his pole run went viral among auto racing fans. Penske vs. Andretti vs. Ganassi Racing, Dixon's employer, is the three-way rivalry that has dominated Indianapolis for the past two decades. Imagine seeing video of the Boston Red Sox clubhouse erupting in giddy applause as the players watch Aaron Judge hit a game-winning home run for the Yankees. That's essentially what you're seeing here.
"The reaction of my peers, that means so much to me," Andretti said of the Penske video, as well as the endless congratulations from Dixon and others.
"I've been in this series since I was 19 years old. And there are a lot of these guys that I raced against in other series before that. We've all grown up together. This sport is like a traveling circus, and we all travel together. We're real friends who have real bonds. That doesn't mean we don't want to beat the other guy on Sunday. We do. We'll do anything to make that happen. But when those same people who want to beat you so badly also celebrate for you, because they know about your heartbreak, about what you've battled over the years, that really means so much."
Andretti has battled more than most, maybe more than anyone who has ever strode beneath the Gasoline Alley sign with a helmet in his hand. His last name came with instant expectations, unreasonable by any measure. Michael Andretti is arguably the greatest open-wheel racer of his generation. His 42 wins are the most during the CART era, the highest-dollar chapter in the history of American open-wheel racing, and he ranks fourth all time among all Indy car racers in victories. Mario Andretti is, well, he's Mario Andretti, considered by many to be the greatest race car driver who has ever lived, no matter what the discipline.
"I'm not sure anyone has ever walked into this racetrack with more immediate pressure on their shoulders as Marco did," explained Dixon. "I know that he hasn't won as much as he would have wanted [two wins in 15 seasons], but I don't know even had he won 50 races and a bunch of championships, if that would have been enough to satisfy expectations. The way he has handled it all, I think that's earned the respect of everyone in this sport."
The extra wrinkle that comes with Andretti's last name is also the question that comes up during every Indy 500 month, be it May or August.
"OK, let's get to the real question here," he joked during an interview the morning after his pole run. "What's that thing everyone always asks about ... um ... some sort of curse or something?"
Ah, yes, the Andretti Curse. It's what has always ensured that the family has remained as infamous as it has been famous. Mario won the 1969 Indy 500, only his fifth try, and never won again. The victory was followed by an 0-for-24 streak that included the most bizarre losses, including a 1981 controversy that rages to this day. Michael posted an 0-for-16 record and lost another five chances at the 500 during the height of his career thanks to the political rift that tore IndyCar racing in half in 1996.
In 2006, teenager Marco Andretti's very first 500 start seemed destined to end the curse once and for all. He was leading the race in sight of the checkered flag but was passed by Sam Hornish only a few hundred feet from the finish line and lost by .0635 seconds. Forgotten now is that Michael also had a chance in 1992 to win that race before his fuel strategy was undone by a late caution flag.
But since 2005, cars fielded under the Andretti Autosport banner have also won five Indy 500s. And despite criticism that Marco has kept his ride only because it's owned by his father, the family has once again rallied to stand at the cusp of finally getting an Andretti driver back into Indy's winner's circle for the first time since 1969.
"People always focus on what this place has cost us, but the reality is that Indy has given my family everything," Marco Andretti explained, pointing to the entire family experience.
In addition to himself, Mario and Michael, his uncle Jeff also made five Indy 500 starts and cousin John Andretti, who died of cancer earlier this year, started 12 500s and was the first driver to attempt the Indy/Charlotte IndyCar/NASCAR "Double Duty" stunt in 1994.
"You can't imagine my family without Indy, and I think a lot of people can't imagine Indy without my family. That is a blessing, not a curse," Marco added.
And if he were to finally win this race, even with no fans in the stands?
"There will still be plenty of celebrating being done," he said. "I know there won't be fans in the track, but I also know that there a lot of people out there rooting for my family. I hope they know I don't take that for granted."
Last weekend, as he took the checkered flag to secure the pole position, a smattering of those fans were positioned outside the track, socially distanced in lawn chairs, sitting where they could catch a small glimpse of the racing surface and a Jumbotron screen alongside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. When that TV screen showed that Andretti had won the pole, those fans let out a cheer that could be heard inside the track. On Friday, as Andretti and his rivals-turned-friends completed their final Carb Day practice laps, those fans were back, pressed against the fence.
"Some of them are right where the motel used to be," Marco said. "I haven't been able to get out there to see them yet. But I know exactly what that spot feels like."