Marco Andretti portrait

INDIANAPOLIS – In a time when Indianapolis 500 fans need to be uplifted the most, Marco Andretti has delivered with one of the most positive storylines in recent NTT INDYCAR SERIES history. He will start “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” from the pole Sunday.

“It’s been a dream week so far,” Andretti said.

For the first time in the history of the race, spectators will not be allowed to attend the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NBC will broadcast the race beginning at 1 p.m. (ET), with WTHR-13 airing the race live in Central Indiana. The action also can be heard live on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network.

Andretti gave those fans something to cheer about last Sunday when the third-generation driver was the fastest qualifier for the world’s most famous race.

“I keep saying, the ‘Andretti Curse’ doesn’t exist during August,” Andretti said. “I think it would be cool to have an Andretti back in Victory Lane, considering all the circumstances.”

In addition to all that’s happened in 2020, the Andretti family lost John Andretti to colon cancer in January. On the track, it had been 33 years since Mario Andretti won the last of his “500” poles, and since 1969 since he won the race.

Marco Andretti’s four-lap average of 231.068 mph in the No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda knocked five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon off the pole.

Dixon’s four-lap average was 231.051 mph in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. According to Andretti’s engineers, that calculated to a difference of 66 inches over a 10-mile run.

That gave Andretti his first pole at IMS and sets up an interesting lineup. Eight former “500” winners are in the field, along with two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso and five rookies.

Marco Andretti has been the toast of Gasoline Alley, congratulated by nearly every one of his fellow competitors.

“I’m not sure I expected that,” Andretti said. “I’m super humbled by it. It felt so amazing. I have a lot of friends in the sport, and a lot of them know what I go through when it doesn’t go right. A lot of them know how hard I work at it and how much I care.

“A lot of times, the perception is not that, and they know that. It was cool to see them say, ‘It was for Marco.’ That means a lot to me. I have a lot of great friends in this sport.”

Marco was 2 months old when Mario last won Indy’s pole. This career highlight gives him the confidence he can win Sunday’s race.

“The roll-off speed was awesome, the car has speed, the car feels good in race traffic,” Andretti said. “I’m not going to sit here and figure out why that is the case, but I’m going to keep it going.

“This month I have done my best driving ever. When things don’t go right, it makes you a better driver. You reach deep and you dig. When you go through struggles, it makes you a tougher person. Tough times has made me stronger. I’ve worked on the mental game more than anything.”

Andretti credits Honda with a fast engine and his team with providing him the right setup on the Dallara chassis.

Many of his competitors admit if they can’t win the Indy 500, they would be happy to see Andretti win.

“They are still going to be trying like hell to kick my butt on Sunday, but I think it would be great for the sport,” Andretti said. “It would be the same if Graham Rahal, another great name in this sport that has been around. It’s another great name in the sport.

“I don’t think they are going to let me win, though.”

Andretti realizes he must earn the race victory because every driver in the field is attempting to win this historic race, one that immediately and permanently changes a race driver’s career and life.

Mario and Marco had dinner earlier this week at Marco’s home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Although Marco drives for his father, Michael, at Andretti Autosport, Mario has been his biggest fan.

“He has been on ‘Cloud 98,’” Marco said, referring to his car number in Sunday’s race. “He knows what I can do, as well. He keeps reiterating to me that I beat the benchmark in this sport, and that is Scotty (Dixon). The way it went down is pretty sweet from that standpoint.

“To be there with the likes of Scott and the other great drivers in the sport like my teammates is great. Mario is hoping this is just the start.”

The start of greater things to come for Marco, now 33, would be a true late-bloomer story. That’s in contrast to the fast start Andretti made when he was just a teenager competing in his first Indy 500 in 2006.

On that day, Andretti raced out of Turn 4 on the final lap with the checkered flag in sight. He was going to break the “Andretti Curse” by winning the “500” in his first attempt, putting his likeness on Borg-Warner Trophy.

But Sam Hornish Jr. crushed that dream when he zoomed his Team Penske machine past Andretti’s car about 100 or so yards from the finish line to win the race.

In 2008 and 2010, Andretti finished third. He was fourth in 2013 and third again in 2014.

“When things don’t go right, it feels better when it does go right,” Andretti said. “It makes all those times worth it when it doesn’t go right. All the heartaches, plane rides home, the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda,’ it makes those worth it when it does go right.

“A lot of people are cheering for me, having witnessed my heartache in the sport, and the near-misses.”

After 15 seasons, Andretti has become an overnight sensation.

“This happened right on time for me and for my career,” Andretti said. “We needed this. It’s hard to not look back at the near-misses and where my career would be if that (win in 2006) happened.

“We have to look forward and hope this is the start of something better.”