When Marco Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge pole during the Fast Nine Shootout on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Grandpa Mario Andretti was so excited back in Pennsylvania that he pounded his fist on the table.
“I slammed my fist down so hard on the table, I think I broke it,” Mario told INDYCAR just moments after his grandson edged Scott Dixon for the top spot in qualifying. “And I have to drive the two-seater next week when I come out there to Indianapolis.”
By winning the pole for the Aug. 23 race, Marco restored the Andretti name to the top of the Scoring Pylon after qualifying for the first time in 33 years. The last Andretti to win the pole at IMS was Mario in 1987. Marco was just 2 months old.
“They were here because Michael was driving and Sandy (Michael’s wife at the time) was always here with the kids,” Mario said of his home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “My kids, when they were that age, they were always here with us.
“They were ‘Racetrack Little,’ that’s what we called them.”
Marco may have been “Racetrack Little’ in 1987, but on Sunday he drove like a superhero. In fact, it was the second straight day when the third-generation driver came out in the heat of the moment and delivered like a champion.
Just 24 hours earlier in Saturday’s opening round of qualifications, Andretti went out at 1:30 p.m. in the heat of the day and put down the fastest four-lap average of any of the 33 drivers that made qualification attempts on Day 1.
As the fastest driver entering Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout, Andretti was the last driver on the 2.5-mile oval to make his qualification attempt.
The weather was hot and windy, with wind gusts creating a strong tailwind into Turn 1 and a headwind entering Turn 3.
That created havoc for the other Andretti drivers in the session. On Saturday, Andretti drivers swept the top four positions, with Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe. But on Sunday, the other Andretti Autosport drivers did not have enough downforce in their cars to compensate for the gusty wind conditions.
Hunter-Reay qualified fifth, Hinchcliffe sixth and Rossi ninth.
Dixon, the five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, was on the pole after a brilliant four-lap run at 231.051 mph as the fourth driver to make an attempt. The speed on Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda had held up throughout the last session until Marco was set to make his attempt.
“That was it, that was my concern,” Mario Andretti said. “That’s why I figured: ‘Oh my God. Who does he have to beat?’ He had to beat the best, and that is Scott Dixon.
“I figured, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ Leading up to that, three of his teammates must have overreacted to the setups. But I have to credit the team for not getting over-engineered. Sometimes, it’s easy to over-engineer to compensate for conditions.”
As Mario watched closely on television, he admitted to being worried.
For the second straight day, Marco met the challenge, driving a perfectly executed four-lap run that averaged 231.068 miles per hour in the No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda.
“I was as emotional as I’ve ever been,” Mario said. “I’ve never been so nervous in my life, especially after I saw his teammates go out there and somehow, they lost speed. I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ But he did a spectacular drive. He really drove beautifully. He kept his composure all the way.
“Old Marco really showed something to me today. Yesterday and today. Look at the conditions Saturday when he went out. Nobody was close to his speed when he went out yesterday. They were dropping off. Then, he cranks one to put it on top.
“He did the same thing today. He really showed me something.”
When Marco walked out of Gasoline Alley to make his qualification attempt, he remembered some famous words that his grandfather often told him.
“The wind may scare you, but the wind will never crash you,” he said.
Marco recalled those words as he prepared for his qualification attempt.
“Since Day 1, I’ve always said that,” Mario said. “You have to adjust and everything else, but to be honest with you, the wind will scare you but, you have to know how to compensate and get on with it.
“He did his job, but the team also gave him a piece of equipment that is capable. It’s a whole team effort, but I commend Marco for getting every ounce out of that that the car has to give. It’s a great day for us, for the team and for the family. I love it, and I love it for Michael, as well.
Because of COVID-19, fans are not allowed inside the massive IMS, but some extremely loyal fans have been lining up outside the Speedway all week on 16th Street. There is a gap in the grandstands between Turns 1 and 2 where fans can see into the racing facility and watch a video board showing the action of the track while hearing the engines.
They were back Sunday to watch qualifications.
When Andretti won the pole, the fans roared. Inside many of the garages in Gasoline Alley, rival teams and drivers cheered, including all four drivers at Team Penske.
“(IMS President) Doug Boles just sent me a video of the fans outside on 16th Street when Marco won the pole and it was amazing -- I couldn’t believe it,” Mario said. “It was so heartwarming it got that kind of reaction from them. It all comes back.”
The Andretti legacy continues.
“We’re proud of the opportunity and thankful for the opportunity,” Mario said. “We’ve been there for half the life of this race, really. My first experience was there in 1958 as a fan, three years after I arrived in the United States. I attended there as a spectator. We’ve been there a long time and look at what it’s done for our family, overall.
“The Speedway has been very good to us, no question about it.”
Mario will return to Indianapolis next Thursday. On Friday, he gets to run practice laps in the INDYCAR two-seater and will run the parade laps for next Sunday’s race.
He can’t wait to see old racing rival A.J. Foyt wearing a face mask in Gasoline Alley. But he is most proud of the way his grandson delivered this weekend in qualifying.
It’s not that Marco won the pole; it’s how he did it.
“I love that,” Mario said. “I’ve said that is the mark of a champion. He really showed me something, not just doing it yesterday, but here again, today. He didn’t flinch. He did his job.
“That is what it takes.”