Since he first drove an IndyCar, Marco Andretti has had way more brickbats than bouquets thrown his way by the media. At times he's been described as miserable, lucky to have the surname, lucky to have a dad who's a team owner, a party animal, cocky, a hot-head, and so on. Then these terms have been repeated and embellished by those who don't know him. Thus an image was born.
On the basis of speak as you find, I'd say that image is distorted. I know a Marco who's professional, insightful and brutally honest about everything and everyone – including himself. Sure, I've seen him uncomfortable with fans, largely because he's poor at small talk. And, on occasion, he can be surly with journalists because he's useless at hiding his feelings – such as boredom at banal questions. But what most counts against him is that he never appears to care what's written about him, and that tends to prick writers' egos.
Andretti admits he did himself no favors when he first reached this level, back in 2006. “As a rookie, you have a big wall up,” he says, “a ‘No one's gonna mess with me'-type deal, and you miss the big picture. People read what the media writes and it helps form their opinions. You guys portray how we are, and perception becomes reality. Whatever people think of you, that's what you are. Except it's not…
“Anyway, I'm here on merit. I won in everything I drove coming through the ranks, I earned my way. Now I'm here to win races and that's it. So…love me or hate me.”
The public perception issue Andretti has encountered is exacerbated by the contrast in image of fellow son-of-an-IndyCar-legend, Graham Rahal. Marco is like his father, Michael, so can appear irritated when dealing with anything that distracts him from making his car go faster. He also tells it as he sees it, which can aggravate certain rivals and their fans. And Marco clearly enjoys a free-spirited approach to girls who are attracted to a good-looking guy with a glamorous job.
Rahal, on the other hand, not only possesses the driving talent of his father Bobby, but also his ambassadorial demeanor and ease with the media. The charming long-term girlfriend and the choice of golf as his relaxation method further compound young Rahal's wholesome image.
“I wish I could be more like Graham and play golf,” smiles Marco, “but golf's supposed to be relaxing, right? Well, it isn't when you suck at it as bad as I do! But I'm not a crazy party guy, either: I like to hang out with friends and be a normal 24-year-old but I'm only known as a playboy because I'm single. Do I find it a distraction? Absolutely not. Is it what I care about? Ab-so-lute-ly not. We have way too much off-time and I wish we were in the car a lot more – more testing and more racing. I show up at the track every day physically and mentally ready, with nothing else on my mind but the car. You better believe that.”
But it's too late to change the minds of those who've long been resentful of this kid who apparently has it all, and who was fast-tracked toward his dad's team at a time when it was a championship winner. Yet that golden opportunity tarnished quickly. What was then Andretti Green Racing imploded in the space of two years as Bryan Herta retired from open-wheel racing, Dario Franchitti went on his NASCAR adventure, and Allen McDonald, who had engineered the Scot to the title in '07, departed in '08 having failed to recapture the same magic with Tony Kanaan. Three of the most technically astute AGR team members were gone.
McDonald, who's been back with Andretti Autosport since June, recalls: “Until the party was over, I don't think we realized the great thing we had going. Dario and Bryan had a lot of technical feel and experience; they added direction to the team and provided a solid foundation. You need a driver who can tell you, ‘This setup is close, we just need to do a little bit on X, Y or Z,' or, ‘This is terrible, let's start again.' Well it's not fair on Marco to expect that in his second or even third year because he didn't have that experience.”