Three and a half months before Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for a month of May that would include honoring one of his greatest racing accomplishments, Mario Andretti was thinking ahead as much as looking back.
How often did he think about what it would mean for grandson Marco to win the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on the 50th anniversary of Mario’s only Indy 500 triumph?
“Every day. Every minute, you know?” Mario said.
Marco’s No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda sports the same day-glo red livery that Mario had in 1969. The Andretti Herta with Marco & Curb-Agajanian entry has been fast, qualifying 10th for Sunday’s race on the famed 2.5-mile oval.
“This is not out of the question,” Mario said of his grandson’s chances of victory. “Marco is capable of winning this race. He’s shown that before. Can we realistically hope? Yes. Will we pray? Yes. All of the above. Could this be one of the greatest joys of our careers? Yes.”
Marco, 32, came within a couple hundred yards of winning in his memorable 2006 debut as Sam Hornish Jr. sling-shotted around the rookie at the very end of the final lap.
Since then, Marco has admittedly been obsessed with winning this race.
“Tell me about it,” Marco said, when told of Mario’s comments. “It would be incredible. It would be absolutely incredible. I’ll take any Indy 500, but if this could be the one, incredible.”
Marco’s father Michael never won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver and still holds the dubious distinction of having led the most laps, 431, of any non-winner. But Michael, as a team owner, has celebrated five Indy 500 wins. And Marco has been there watching teammates celebrate for the last four of those victories.
Marco couldn’t resist cracking a joke when told how the question was posed to Mario: How often did he think about who he would like to see win?
“Did he say Rossi?” Marco said, referring to teammate Alexander Rossi, who on the 2016 Indy 500.
“As far as the pressure thing goes, that’s something that you should be honored to carry because I think you’re playing for something big. That’s what it means. I always welcome the pressure. I love playing under pressure. I think that’s fun.”
This will be Marco’s 14th Indy 500 start. In addition to finishing second in his debut, he’s been third three times, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth.
His hunger to win this race goes beyond just being a family pursuit that began with Mario. Marco reminds he hasn’t won an NTT IndyCar Series race since Iowa Speedway in 2011.
“It would take the 2,000-pound gorilla off my back, and I’d be able to just drive race cars,” Marco said. “It has nothing to do with the last name. It’s just the win drought, right? That part is really tough.”
Mario is confident Marco can live up to the challenge. In a month where Mario has had a street renamed after him and an Indy 500 program cover honoring his 1969 win, the 79-year-old Andretti won’t apologize for wishing for more.
“Marco loves that pressure,” Mario said. “I know how much it would mean to him. He’s tasted it, almost. He was close enough in the very beginning. He knows how good this could be, and he’ll do his job, believe me. You know what? You never know. A little help from upstairs and it could happen.”
There was a time in Mario’s life where he was surrounded by hype about his misfortune in being unable to win another Indy 500. At times, he would lament situations, many of them beyond his control, that cost him another win.
At some point, Mario stopped looking back and dwelling on what could have been.
“I led more laps here than all but one of the four-time winners,” Mario said of his 556 laps led, third on the all-time list behind Al Unser (644) and Ralph DePalma (612). “I was there. From a driver standpoint, I’m OK with that. I look at that positive. I had more positives than negatives.
“There was no such thing as a curse. Don’t talk to me about a curse. Just the opposite. Look at what I got away with in 2003 with a flip up in the air and I walked away. Was that a curse? No, that was a blessing.”
Mario miraculously escaped serious injury after that Indy 500 testing crash in which his car flipped into the air in the south chute between Turns 1 and 2.
These days, when he’s not driving a two-seater car to provide thrills for fans, Mario is still a visible presence in the Andretti Autosport pits.
“I’ve had bonuses thrown at me, that’s all I can say,” Mario said. “I could not ask for anything more than what has happened. If it comes our way with Marco, that would be another bonus.”
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Tickets remain available at IMS.com.