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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2006

Young Andretti coming of age

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Marco Andretti, left, talks with his father, Michael, prior to qualifying in Brooklyn, Mich. Marco Andretti, left, talks with his father, Michael, prior to qualifying in Brooklyn, Mich.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Although he is only 19 years old and a rookie on the IndyCar Series Circuit, Marco Andretti has dealt with constant media attention and raised expectations for 10 years.

Marco Andretti is the son of legendary open-wheel racing champion Michael Andretti and is the grandson of the equally famous driver Mario Andretti. Young Marco experienced the by-product of sharing one of the most famous family names in racing from a very early age.

Marco Andretti, who will start from the back of the pack at the Firestone Indy 400 today at Michigan International Speedway, took second place in his first go-kart race when he was just nine years old in 1997.

"The first time I ever drove a go-kart, there were so many cameras around me, I couldn't even see the track ahead of me," Andretti said. "It was all of this media attention at age 9."

Young Marco won twice and had six podium finishes that first year, but he had trouble dealing with the attention and expectations.

"At nine years old, you look at your famous father and grandfather and say, 'I have to be like them if not better.' That is how I went into it," Andretti said. "When I'd win a race, I'd just felt like I did what I had to do that day rather than enjoying it.

"I just had to take two steps back, and they supported me when I stopped. But then I basically couldn't live without the sport. The day I quit I missed it. But at the same time it was a relief being away from it.

"Now I do it just for the passion of the sport and the joy of winning rather than the fear of losing. I'd drive a car everyday if I could."

After taking a year off, Andretti got back into racing in 1999 and moved into open-wheel cars in 2003.

After winning nearly 30 races in various junior formula series, the third-generation racer joined his father's Andretti Green Racing team this season.

"We both agreed I was ready," Andretti said. "He wouldn't have put me in if he didn't think I was ready. Things are working out very good."

Driving the No. 26 car, Andretti started the season off slowly with two 15th-place finishes and followed that with a 12th-place finish.

But Andretti made a huge statement when he nearly won the biggest open-wheeling racing event, the Indy 500, in May.

Andretti was passed by eventual champion and Defiance native Sam Hornish Jr. in the waning moments of the Indy 500, but he still took second place in just his fourth race on the IndyCar Series.

"I didn't know how I would stack up when I first signed up. But fortunately I've been right in there. I've been a contender for more than one win this year," Andretti said. "As funny as it sounds, I think we can go for a championship next year. And after we contended for the win at Indy, I think we opened some people's eyes."

Andretti, who has four straight top 10 finishes, currently sits in eighth place in the IndyCar Series points race. After his son placed fifth last week at the Milwaukee Mile, Michael Andretti said his son has been driving very well.

"I'm really proud of the job Marco has done," Michael Andretti said. "He drove very, very well [in Milwaukee]."

At yesterday's Firestone Indy 400 qualifying, however, Andretti had the slowest car, with an average speed of 209.9 miles per hour. He will start in the 19th spot on row 10 after an average lap time of 34.3 seconds.

But the Andrettis have a good history at MIS. Mario and Michael Andretti combined for five victories here.

The addition of rising star Danica Patrick to the Andretti Green Racing team next season could take some of the media glare away from Marco.

Patrick, last year's rookie of the year, announced earlier this week that she will join the Andretti team.

"I'm definitely a Danica fan," Andretti said. "I think she'll bring a lot to the team. She brings a lot of attention, but she also is a good driver."

The highlight of Marco's young career was his runner-up finish at the Indy 500, where he also got the chance to race against his father, who finished third.

"It was priceless. Awesome," Marco Andretti said. "I've learned so much from him."

But he also had a lap on the field with 10 to go before succumbing to Hornish.

"I just watched my on-board [camera] the other day from Indy, and I was just quiet the rest of the day. It was a bummer," he said. "But I wouldn't have changed anything. For a rookie, we showed what we had."

Overall, Andretti said he isn't surprised with all the interest he has generated.

"I saw how my dad attracted the media attention, and you would think that the next generation would as well," he said. "I can't complain. I love my life. I'm 19 years old, and I'm happy to be where I'm at right now. If I didn't have a famous last name, I'd still want to win everything like I do now."

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.


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