'Profile of a Champion: Michael Andretti' by Frank Santoroski

AndrettiStill healing from the open-wheel series split that lasted from 1996-2008, IndyCar continues to struggle to build an audience.  The on-track product is fantastic, but there still seems to be a large gap to fill when it comes to bringing new fans on board.

I was reading some fan-submitted questions recently, and I came across the following question: “How much worse-off would IndyCar be without Michael Andretti?”

I had to let that one sink in for a moment because I don’t feel that IndyCar is actually that bad-off.  Realistically, things could be better.  While teams like Penske and Ganassi bring their best to the track week in and week out, their contribution to the sport actually pales in comparison to what Michael Andretti puts into it.

Consider the following facts: The Andretti Autosport Team fields four full-time entries in the Izod IndyCar Series.  The team brought a five-car effort to the Indianapolis 500.  They also field two-car entries in all three of the IndyCar ladder series;  Firestone Indy Lights, The Pro Mazda Championship, and the US F2000 Championship.

On top of this, Andretti Sports Marketing, Inc. serves as promoter for The Indy Toronto, The Milwaukee IndyFest and The Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Indeed, how much worse-off would Indycar be without Michael Andretti?  Let’s take a look back at the career of this driver-turned business mogul.

MikeThe first time I became aware of Michael Andretti was in 1979.  I was at Watkins Glen for the Grand Prix, and there was a go-kart race as a supporting event.  On the entry list, I noticed the name Mike Andretti.  I asked my uncle if that would happen to be Mario’s son, and he told me that indeed, it was.

The Andretti’s live in Nazareth, PA, just an hour away from where my extended family’s home is in Freeland.  While Mario Andretti was a household name world-wide, he possessed a hero-like status amongst Pennsylvanians.

Mario had been racing for many years, but I had just started watching racing.  The idea of a younger Andretti in motor racing was intriguing to me.  Seventeen years of age at the time, Michael was only five years older than I was.  I wondered if his career would reach the heights that his father’s had?

Pocono1981My path would cross again with Michael Andretti in 1981.  It was at Pocono Raceway.   Since my uncle was  was a member and volunteer for the SCCA, we spent Thursday evening laying communications cables around the track for the SCCA Auto World June Sprints.  For our efforts, we had unlimited access all weekend long.

Michael Andretti was entered in the Formula Ford Race.  His blue and yellow car was prepared by Bertil Roos, who ran a well known racing school at the time.  Logos for Star-Brite, a company that made car-care products, adorned the sides of his car.  In the program, I noticed a full-page ad for Star-Brite featuring Mario Andretti.  Michael’s famous racing heritage certainly helped open a few doors doors for him during his early racing career.

StarBriteUnfortunately, I didn’t get to see the younger Andretti race that weekend.  A large bank of fog rolled in over the track, cancelling several of the scheduled races, including the Formula Ford event.

I did, however, get to meet Michael Andretti for the first time that day.  I got an autograph, but It’s funny, because the only other thing I can remember about that meeting is how absolutely stunning his girlfriend was.  I was a fourteen year-old boy at the time, I’m sure you can forgive me.

I followed Andretti’s SCCA career with great interest through Formula Vee, Formula Ford, Super Vee, and Atlantics.  Some said that he was the most talented young driver to come up the ladder.  Others said that he was privileged and only won because he had the best equipment and largest budget.  Either way, the results speak for themselves.  Andretti won a regional championship in Formula Ford, and National Championships in both Super Vee and Formula Atlantic.

AndrettiKracoDuring this time, the elder Andretti insisted that his son get an education as a fallback in case a career in racing didn’t work out.  In between racing, Michael cracked the books and obtained an Associate Degree in Business Administration from Pennsylvania’s Northhampton Community College.  This sparked an interest in the business side of the sport that would prove to be instrumental in his later transition to entrepreneur and businessman.

In 1983, at the age of 21 years and three days, Andretti debuted in the CART PPG IndyCar Series driving for Team Kraco at the Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix.  He would sign on full-time with the team for 1984. He took Rookie of the Year honors at Indianapolis that year.

His first win in the series came at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1986.  He followed that up with two more wins and the runner-up spot in the Championship.  He would take second spot in the championship again in 1987, adding four more wins to his total.

NewmanHaasIn 1989, Michael signed on with the Newman-Haas team with his father as his teammate.  It was here that his career really took off.  31 of Andretti’s 42 career wins  would come in a Newman-Haas car.

During this era, the CART series was strong, and Andretti had epic battles with on-track rivals like Al Unser Jr. and later, Paul Tracy.  Al Unser Jr., also the son of a racing legend, and Michael maintained a friendship off-track that seemed to contrast the rivalry on the circuit.  Having known one another since childhood, Little Al is the only person that I know of that casually refers to Michael Andretti as ‘Mikey’ and gets away with it.

Michael won a record eight races in 1991 and took the CART Championship. While he won routinely at nearly every track on the circuit, success on the biggest stage in racing eluded him.  In 1989, he dropped out of the Indianapolis 500 while leading.  In 1991, he had a legendary duel with Rick Mears at the Brickyard, coming up short at the end.  In 1992, he dominated the entire race until a mechanical failure left him high and dry with 11 laps remaining.  He would drop out while leading in 1995, and again in 2003.

910720-15164473-317-238Looking to follow in his father’s footsteps, Michael accepted an offer to move to Formula One driving for McLaren alongside Ayrton Senna in 1993.   His first three Grands Prix were complete disasters with a series of crashes resulting in him only being able to complete three total laps over the course of those three races.

The team struggled with an uncompetitive engine package and electronic gremlins throughout the season.  Despite this, Senna still managed to win five races with the car.  Some within the team doubted Andretti’s commitment pointing to the fact that he commuted from America for races and test sessions rather than relocating to Europe.  Later in the season, Andretti did manage a podium finish in Italy, but it was perceived as too little-too late.  He was released from the team with three races remaining in the season.

With a bruised ego, Michael returned to the CART Series in 1994 with Chip Ganassi Racing.  He picked up right where he left off, winning in his first race with the team.  In 1995, he returned to his home at Newman-Haas Racing.  He continued with the team through 2000 adding eleven more race wins to his total.

During this era, I began my sports-writing career and spoke with Michael several times.  While I noticed that he wasn’t particularity engaging or fan-friendly, I always enjoyed an interview with him.  There was the fact that I grew up being a fan of his, but he also had this unique ability to see the big picture; to step back at look at things from 20,000 feet above.

TeamMotorolaIn 2001, he signed on with Team Green for reasons that were unknown to me at the time.  A third team would be added to the stable, built around Andretti,  with backing from Motorola.  It didn’t seem to make much sense to me at the time.  After all, things were going pretty well at Newman-Haas.  This move would also make Andretti a teammate to Paul Tracy.  Their prior teaming up at Newman Haas in 1995 wasn’t exactly amicable.   On the outside, something didn’t look right to me.  There was more to this story, I just didn’t know what it was.

A year and a half later, the reason for this move became crystal-clear as Andretti announced his intent to purchase a majority share of the team, and move it to the Indy Racing League.  Initially, this frustrated me, as I was very much a CART loyalist at the time.  In retrospect, it was Andretti’s big-picture forward-thinking that made this the right move at the right time.

andretti-green-racingIn 2003, Andretti-Green Racing debuted in the IndyCar series.  The initial driver lineup consisted of Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, and Dan Wheldon.  Michael contested the first four races of the season, with the plan to step away from the cockpit following the Indy 500.  The four Andretti-Green drivers shared a camaraderie and collaborative attitude that was unprecedented in motor racing.  Perhaps Michael fostered this, having grown up in racing, seeing how teammate issues can destroy a team.  Perhaps, Andretti’s choice of pairing these four individuals was akin to ‘catching lightning in a bottle.”

WheldonIndyWhatever the reasons were, the on-track results told the story.  In 2004, Tony Kanaan brought the team it’s first Series Championship.  In 2005, Dan Wheldon took the win at the Indianapolis 500.  While Michael was never able to win this one as a driver, a win as a car owner was very satisfying indeed.  Wheldon finished off 2005 by giving the team it’s second Championship.  In 2007, Dario Franchitti added a second Indy 500 win and a third Championship for the team.

The initial Andretti-Green drivers have all now gone their separate ways.  To this day, the surviving members of that super-team (Sadly, Dan Wheldon passed away in 2011),  still maintain a friendship akin to brotherhood.

The third-generation chapter for Andrettis in IndyCar opened up in 2006 when Michael added his son, Marco, to the lineup.  Danica Patrick, Mike Conway, Hideki Mutoh, Sebastian Savaadra and Ana Beatriz all raced for the Andretti team in the ensuing years.

andretti-autosportIn 2009, Michael Andretti bought out his business partners and re-branded the Team as Andretti Autosport.  Ryan Hunter-Reay joined the driver lineup and brought the team a fourth Championship in 2012.

The current Andretti Autosport lineup consists of Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and E.J. Viso.  They plan to add a fifth full-time entry for Indy Lights standout Carlos Munoz in 2014.

The team continues to field cars in ALMS, Indy Lights, USF2000, and the Star Mazda Series.  They have recently announced their intention to enter a car in the new Formula E series, for electric powered race cars.

Andretti owns 42 wins and one championship as a driver.  He finished top-five in the points in eleven different seasons.  As a team owner, he currently has 48 wins, four championships and two Indy 500′s to his credit.  He also has two Indy Lights titles and one US F2000 Championship.

Despite some disappointments along the way, there is no doubt that the sport has been good to Michael Andretti.  And, on the flip side, Michael Andretti has been very good for the sport.  How much worse-off would IndyCar be without Michael Andretti?