INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has long been labeled “The Racing Capital of the World.” It is also the nostalgia capital of the world.
This is where souvenir stands sell T-shirts of today’s millennial, reality-show-starring racers alongside gear that features images of 1950s roadsters. It’s where the annual Saturday autograph session places the men who will start Sunday’s 102nd running of the Indy 500 shoulder-to-shoulder with those who won this race decades ago.
“I can’t remember a time in my life when we weren’t either at the Indy 500 or racing in the Indy 500, and even when we weren’t, here we were talking about the Indy 500,” said Marco Andretti, son of Michael Andretti and grandson of Mario Andretti, during Thursday’s Indy 500 media day. He’ll start Sunday’s race 12th, right smack in the middle of the 33-car field.
“If you have my last name, people always want to talk about racing, and they also want to talk about our family not winning this race since my grandfather in 1969.”
“Growing up, there were always people coming up to us at dinner and asking for dad’s autograph,” said Graham Rahal, son of Bobby Rahal, 1986 Indy 500 winner and three-time Champ Car champion. Graham rolls off near the back of Sunday’s grid, starting 30th.
“A lot of times, that would end with them turning to me and asking when I was going to join dad as an Indy 500 winner. I would be like, 8 years old.”
Now Graham Rahal is 29. Marco Andretti is 31. But the questions, comments and criticisms that come with the blood that pumps through their veins is still the same. Over the years they have become much louder. On Sunday, Rahal will make his 11th Indy 500 start and Andretti will make his 13th. They have both won IndyCar races. They have both had chances to win the biggest race in the world. But both are still a combined 0-fer in the only race in their world that really matters.
“Anyone who doubts how big this race is only needs to look at what my family has done,” Andretti said. “My grandfather won in every major racing series in the world and every major race in the world, including this one. My father owns a long list of records in IndyCar racing, including here at the 500. But what do you hear about? The curse.”
Mario Andretti’s success came quickly at Indy. In his 1965 debut he finished third and won Rookie of the Year. In ’69 he won the race. Then he went 0-for-24, failing to finish 17 of those races. Michael Andretti finished fifth in his Indy 500 debut in 1984 and finished in the top 10 in his first three starts. But he finished 0-for-16 in the race in his career, including a heartbreaking loss to Rick Mears in 1991.
In 2006, Marco seemed destined to end that slump in his 500 debut, carrying the lead all the way onto the front stretch of the final lap before being passed by Sam Hornish Jr. at the finish line. He lost by 0.064 seconds. He was 19. Throw in Mario’s son Jeff, nephew John, and twin brother Aldo, who never raced at Indy because injuries forced him out of the cockpit, and the Andretti family is nearing 80 combined starts with only Mario’s win to show for it.
“I laugh about that word ‘only,'” said Marco, smiling. “We ‘only’ won the Indianapolis 500 once. And our team has added a lot more than that, right?”
It has. Andretti Autosport, owned by Michael, has experienced one of the greatest decades in Indy 500 history, racking up five victories, including last year’s stunning win by Takuma Sato. Watching his father celebrate with his teammates created a mixed bag for Marco.
“It’s a double-edge sword, right?” Andretti admitted on Thursday, cutting his eyes to see if anyone from the team was listening. “I feel happy for dad. But no, it doesn’t feel good for me at all.”
Rahal can relate. He can relate to it all, from the name to the pressure to even the unique pain of watching your father celebrate with someone else. In 2004, Rahal Letterman Racing won the Indy 500, but with driver Buddy Rice three years before Graham moved into the big leagues. Rahal made his Indianapolis 500 debut in ’08, shortly after winning in his IndyCar Series debut, on the St. Petersburg, Florida, street course. He was also 19. Unlike Andretti, he finished last in his first try at the 500 but has twice since finished in the top five.
During Thursday’s Indy 500 media day session, both drivers were relaxed. They are no longer the Brickyard’s wonder boys; they are men. Both are married and both are as comfortable in their own famous skin as they’ve ever been, proven by the ease with which they now handled a topic they once tried to avoid.
“I worried about that pressure of my name. I’ve thought about it over the years,” Rahal confessed. “If I’m being honest, it did probably defeat me at times. But as I’ve gotten older and had some success, especially over the last few years, I feel like I don’t really need to spend a lot time worrying about what my last name is. I’m proud of my name. I’m proud of what I inherited from my father. Especially that drive to win. Not just that, but not wanting to see other people win. I hate seeing other people win.”
Especially Andretti. That’s nothing personal, it’s genetics. As a kid, Graham Rahal watched his father pick a target, something that would fuel him to keep racing as hard as possible. It was a poster of his biggest championship rival during the 1980s and ’90s glory days of Champ Car racing.
A poster of Michael Andretti.
“I think if you are a fan of mine because of my father or a fan of Marco’s because of his father, then you probably find it pretty easy to root for and against him, or vice-versa.” said Rahal as he looked over to his left to the man at the podium next to his at Indy 500 media day. It was Andretti.
“Can he hear me? Go ask him — he’ll tell you the same thing,” Rahal said.
Rahal can’t match Andretti’s success at Indy, but elsewhere he owns the edge in career wins, six to two. Andretti’s last win came seven years ago. Rahal has won five times since 2015. Neither driver has won an IndyCar Series title. So someone has to win one of those first, be it the series, the 500, or both.
“For me, the pressure of breaking the ‘Andretti Curse’ isn’t about breaking a curse,” Marco said. “The curse talk doesn’t bother me. It’s a great media story. If anything, when I do win this race, it just means that these people in the stands, they are just going to go crazy.”
Added Rahal: “I think that if I were to finally win this race or if Marco did, yes, the crowd that has watched us grow up, they would lose their minds. But our favorite part would be the same. Celebrating with our fathers.”