The calming influence starts on the team radio, when understated race strategist Bryan Herta usually knows how to simmer down expressive driver Marco Andretti.
“I think his counter to me blowing a gasket on a radio is ‘10-4,’” Andretti said. “When his counter is just so bland, it’s hilarious to me. I’m almost laughing.
“I used to listen to my dad (Michael) on the radio. He was a lunatic on the radio. But I’d watch the crew guys and they would have that smile and say, ‘That’s Mikey. He wants to win.’ I want to be perceived the same way, but my dad was way worse on the radio than me.”
Marco admits too often he’s immersed himself in perception or cared too much about what others said or thought of him. It’s easy to get caught up in negatives when you’re an Andretti, so much is always expected, but you finish 12th in the Verizon IndyCar Series points last year and 16th the year before that.
Not surprisingly, Michael’s 30-year-old son is known for having an internal motor that runs rather hot, so Herta is most helpful in relaying Marco’s messages to Michael. Specifically, Herta the former driver can appreciate what the younger Andretti needs from the team.
“He knows the pressure I’m under,” Marco said before the series’ open test at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix on Feb. 9-10. “I know the pressure I’m under. He does a big part for me of taking that off. That in itself is bringing the fun back into it for me. I think that’s how I’m going to extract the most from myself.”
An offseason team adjustment drives home the significance of this Herta-Andretti union. Herta started calling Marco Andretti’s races from the pit stand last season, so it made sense to have Marco in the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian stable this year. That meant a number switch with Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi. Marco now drives the No. 98 Honda that will see rotating primary sponsorship from U.S. Concrete, Ruoff Home Mortgage and others.
For what it’s worth, Herta doesn’t care the least bit about Andretti perception.
“I don’t know what anybody else thinks,” he said. “I believe in Marco 100 percent. I asked if we could have him make the switch and have him drive the (No.) 98 car this year. I’m enthused working with him. I know what he’s capable of and I hope we can accomplish some great things together.”
Andretti’s goal for 2018 is to have more fun and enjoy being a race car driver. Do that and he anticipates the positive results will come. The Phoenix open test proved a starting point, as Andretti logged the sixth-fastest lap of 23 drivers (189.008 mph) over the two days and 12 hours of on-track time.
His best 2017 finish and only top-five run was a fourth at Toronto. Two years ago, when he tied for the worst points standing of a series career that began in 2006, his best finish was eighth at Sonoma Raceway.
Andretti’s two career wins came in 2006 at Sonoma and 2011 at Iowa Speedway, although he is probably known most for the race he didn’t win. He had the Indianapolis 500 won in his rookie debut in 2006, but was overtaken in the homestretch by Sam Hornish Jr.
In recent years, Andretti has been known as much for raising his voice as anything. That prompts others to think he's a moody malcontent.
“I call it passion, but maybe I’m not perceived that way sometimes on the team because I drive for Dad," Andretti said. "Being in the Herta stable now, I deal directly with him on everything. I don’t have to go to anybody else. He relays the message in a way that they hear him. He has Dad’s ear, which is good. I want to be looked at as a hungry racing driver, not that I’m complaining all the time, you know what I mean?
“A lot of times this does happen to me. If my teammate pushes the team and does exactly what I do, ‘Man, he’s really relentless, he’s tough on us.’ I’m doing the same thing. What’s been tough on me is the perception is quite opposite. The way Bryan described it, when I’m at 100 percent all the time, it’s hard to deliver the points I need. Where Bryan is good, he’s very calm, anybody who knows him knows he’s very calm. If I’m at 100 percent, he’s at 60. But when he goes to 75, people listen. He has a way of delivering my points, like, ‘Hey, this is wrong. We need to change this.’ He can say it without sounding like the son.”
Andretti will look to make a point, but Herta will interject, “It’s my battle to fight for you.” Then he does. Whereas Andretti was used to fighting for himself, Herta would ask how that worked for him in the past. It usually didn’t. Point taken.
“The guys that do this, it’s a constant evolution and a constant search for improvement,” Herta said. “That’s every single car on the grid, every single driver, every single team. That’s been our process, too, over the winter. I feel like last year we came out of the box really, really strong. It’s such a momentum-driven sport. We were running well. Marco was really driving well. And we really had a lot of problems. A lot of stuff was out of his control, out of our control. I think it took the wind out of our sails a little bit.
“I was looking forward to this offseason this winter. It’s a good chance to kind of have a reset and kind of start over. That’s what everybody is doing now with the universal aero kits. It’s a new ball of wax for us. Last year really doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to focus forward on what we’re doing for this season. Crew-wise, engineering-wise, driver-wise, we’re in a really good place on the (No.) 98. I’m excited about this season and looking forward to what we can accomplish.”
Marco Andretti’s priorities are still the same as they’ve ever been. He wants to win the Indianapolis 500 – he’s finished fourth or better in five of his 12 starts. And he wants to contend for a series championship – he was a career-best fifth in 2013.
As he sets sights on both, don’t listen so much to the outside noise.
“I’m my toughest critic as well,” Andretti said. “One of my lines is, ‘If I’m going to impress myself, other people will be impressed.’ We just need to have more fun with it and let things flow on a natural level.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series season kicks off in less than three weeks with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11 in the Tampa Bay city. The race on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET March 11 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.