A handful of drivers are synonymous with bad luck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Michael Andretti is certainly a preeminent member of that group.
The second-generation star led nine of his sixteen Indianapolis 500 starts for a total of 431 laps, tenth on the all-time list. But the oldest son of auto racing legend Mario Andretti never made it to Indy’s Victory Lane as a driver.
Although he never won the Indianapolis 500, Michael Andretti ranks as one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time. He ranks fifth in terms of starts (317), third in wins (42), top-three finishes (100) and laps led (6,607) and sixth in poles (32).
Later in life, Michael got to taste the Indianapolis winner’s milk as a team owner. But the bitterness of his close calls behind the wheel - most notably, 1992 - remain fresh in his memory.
“I should have won it so many times, but Indianapolis was a race track where everything seemed to go wrong for me,” Andretti said.
With plenty of support from Mario, Michael Andretti quickly advanced through the road racing ranks to make his Indy car debut at age 20 in 1983. His early years at Indianapolis gave no indication of the heartache that would follow; he qualified fourth and finished fifth to earn rookie of the year honors in 1984, and he started an Indy career best third and led the first 41 laps on the 1986 race on the way to sixth place.
Andretti claimed fourth place at Indianapolis in 1988 and was leading the 1989 edition of the ‘500’ when he lost an engine on the 163rd lap. But the events of 1991 were perhaps even more difficult for Michael to digest. He led the race six times for ’97 laps, memorably passing Rick Mears for the lead on the outside on a Lap 187 restart. But Mears duplicated Andretti’s outside move in Turn 1 a lap later and pulled away to win by 3.149 seconds.
“I had all the respect in the world for Rick and we knew we would give each other room,” Andretti recalled. “I really didn’t think anyone had anything for me and I was ready to put Rick a lap down. But I got a flat tire and had to come into the pits and that was the thing that changed the race.
“I really thought that we had it because we had dominated the race and I still to this day don’t quite understand where Rick got that speed. He was just too fast in clear air today. I thought my car was faster in traffic, but there was no traffic for him at the end. I guess he had to out-do me and paid me back when I didn’t expect it.”
The 1992 Indianapolis 500 brought Andretti a different kind of pain. It was one of the coldest 500s in the history of the race, and many drivers crashed in the unusual conditions, including Mario Andretti and Michael’s brother Jeff. Both Andrettis were transported to the hospital with leg injuries - Jeff’s more serious - all while Michael led the race.
Newman/Haas Racing had switched to a new Ford-Cosworth engine for the 1992 season, and while it proved very fast, it was still somewhat unreliable. After leading nine times for 160 laps, Michael’s car suffered a broken fuel pump and he coasted to a stop in the North Chute with just ten laps to go.
“The worst moment of my life was Indianapolis in 1992,” Andretti said. “It was that close to being the greatest moment in my life and it turned out to be the worst moment. Between Dad and Jeff’s accidents and me breaking down with 10 laps to go with a totally dominant car, it was a killer.”
Andretti missed the 1993 race while competing in Formula 1 and finished sixth while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 1994. He returned to Newman/Haas in 1995 and was once again in position to challenge for victory at Indianapolis when he crashed while leading on the 77th lap.
Michael’s next appearance at Indianapolis came in 2001, resulting in a third place finish. He finished seventh a year later and announced he would retire from driving after the 2003 Indianapolis 500 to concentrate on his new role as co-owner of Andretti Green Racing. A broken throttle linkage ended Andretti’s day just short of half distance.
Unhappy with the way his Indianapolis career ended and eager to compete against his son Marco, who was then a rookie in the IndyCar Series, Andretti came out of retirement to drive in the 2006 ‘500.’ A fuel stretching strategy put Michael into the lead from laps 194-97, but he had to back off to make the finish, which he did in third place, just behind Marco.
“The yellow comes out, and the next thing you know we're in the lead, and we’re running 1-2,” Michael recalled. “And then there’s a restart, and then all of a sudden, I’m getting passed for the lead by my son. And then all of a sudden, I get passed by Hornish. Then all of a sudden, I see Hornish and Marco going at it, and Marco does a beautiful move in 3 and thinks he won the race. And then one lap later, I get a big letdown because Hornish passed him at the line. So it was an unbelievable amount of emotions, those last 10 laps.”
Andretti made his final Indianapolis start in 2007 and was running 13th when rain ended the race after 166 laps. His disappointment was tempered by the fact the one of his Andretti Green Racing cars won the race for the second time in three years - with driver Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in ’07.
“Is it the same?” Andretti wondered. “Not exactly. But it still makes you feel really good to be a part of it. When we won Indianapolis the first time with Dan, it felt like I won it as a driver. It was just such a great day for us."
“Obviously it wasn’t meant to be, to win it as a driver,” he added. “We won it as an owner and two out of three years isn’t too bad. Maybe I’m just meant to win 15 of these things as an owner.”
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