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Andretti Bouncing Back With Fantastic Start, Show Of Strength At Indy

For most of Michael Andretti’s career as a driver, the Indianapolis 500 has meant tremendous heartbreak. He holds the record for most laps led by a driver who never won the race, with 431.

But as a team owner, Andretti has experienced the thrill of victory at Indy as two of his drivers have won the world’s biggest race, including Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.

“It seems like we love going there, but then it seems like when we leave it’s never fun,” Andretti said. “It’s a special place. It’s been a brutal place for our family, but we realize what it’s all about. It’s our whole sport. It’s the biggest event in the world, and we always look forward to going there.

“As a driver, we’ve had some tough luck there, but as a team we have done really well there. I think we have a really good shot with one of our five drivers there this year. It’s a great feeling to win as a team owner, for sure. It’s not the same as winning it as a driver, but at least I’ve had some luck as a team owner.”

It’s been 10 years since Andretti saw his future in racing was as a team owner and it was time to climb out of the cockpit. So he purchased Barry Green’s CART team, made the then-controversial decision to leave that series and join the rival IndyCar Series. The blueprint for future success was about to be implemented.

Andretti’s decision to join the IndyCar Series coincided with fellow team owner Chip Ganassi’s decision to pull out of CART just one year after legendary team owner Roger Penske had abandoned the organization he once started in the late 1970s.

The last 10 years have been quite a ride for Andretti featuring the pinnacle of success, the depths of despair and more than its share of controversy. As the IZOD IndyCar Series teams prepare for the 97th Indianapolis 500 Andretti’s championship-defending team featuring drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and E.J. Viso is prepared to back up 2012’s season of success. Throw in talented rookie driver Carlos Munoz, a Firestone Indy Lights driver who is preparing to start his first IZOD IndyCar Series race, and Andretti Autosport has a great chance to land one of its five drivers in Victory Lane at the “500.”

“It feels really good, especially with all the things we had to come through to get back here,” Andretti said of last year’s series championship, its first since winning titles in 2004, 2005 and 2007. “We were very lucky when we first got started in ownership that things fell in pretty quick where we were able to win a championship our second year out.”

“Then we ran into a little bit of a lull there (after 2007). To dig yourself back out of it, it took a lot of hard work and dedication from a lot of people. We were able to get back up on top.

“This one feels really, really sweet.”

When Andretti arrived to this series in 2003, his drivers were Tony Kanaan and a third car that featured himself behind the wheel through the 2003 Indianapolis 500, when he retired for the first time as a driver (he would later return to the 2006 Indianapolis 500 as a driver). Wheldon took his place after the 2003 Indianapolis 500, and Bryan Herta took over Franchitti’s ride after Franchitti suffered injuries in 2003 in a motorcycle crash in Scotland.

In 2004, Andretti Autosport had an impressive four-driver collection including Kanaan, Franchitti, Wheldon and Herta, creating the right formula for success. Kanaan won the title completing every lap of every race that season. Wheldon took Andretti to Victory Lane in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career in 2005 and went on to win the season championship with six victories.

Franchitti would give Andretti a third IndyCar Series title in five seasons when he scored a dramatic victory in the 2007 season finale, where the championship was not decided until the last turn of the last lap when Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon ran out of fuel.

Danica Patrick achieved history in an Andretti car when she became the first female driver to win a race in a major closed-course racing series with a win in 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi.

Andretti’s IndyCar Series team made success look easy. But the 2008 season began a slide into mediocrity that culminated on Bump Day in the 2011 Indianapolis 500, when Andretti’s cars were awful in qualifying and Hunter-Reay was bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup.

Hunter-Reay made the race after Andretti and sponsor DHL struck a deal with team owner A.J. Foyt where Hunter-Reay took over the car qualified by Bruno Junqueira. That was the low point in Andretti Autosport’s history. But it also planted the seeds of rejuvenation, culminating with Hunter-Reay winning the championship in 2012.

“This one feels that much better because we had to dig ourselves out of a real hole,” Andretti said. “When you do that and you work as hard as we worked to get back here, you appreciate it that much more and feel that much better about it. This one is the sweetest of all.”

After suffering some disharmony within the group of drivers over the years, Andretti wanted to make some major changes after the 2011 season. He had signed Wheldon to a contract to take over Patrick’s ride in 2012 the morning of the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011. A few hours later, Wheldon died in a crash early in the race.

Through this dark moment, Andretti found light. He hired Hinchcliffe, and the popular Canadian performed very well in 2012 and is prepared for greater success in 2013. Hinchcliffe already has two victories in the first four races this season. Add the team owner’s son, Marco Andretti, and this trio of drivers gets along as well as any group since the days of Kanaan, Franchitti, Herta and Wheldon.

“Way back when we were doing it and were lucky enough to have that with those four drivers, I tried to tell them how special this was, the chemistry we all had together with those four drivers,” Andretti said. “I was not kidding myself. I knew eventually it would not be there, and it would be a struggle to get it back. I think we finally did it. This last year, those three guys we had on this team really enjoy each other and work together. They get together outside of the track on their own.

“It’s something you can’t force; it either happens or it doesn’t, and we were fortunate enough for it to happen again.”

The lead driver on this team is Hunter-Reay. He came of age in 2012 with four victories, including wins on ovals and street courses. By winning the championship, he is carrying the prestigious car No. 1 in 2013. Andretti Autosport is not only hopeful but confident for another title as the team celebrates its 10th anniversary in this series.

The trail of success is much different for the top three teams at the Indianapolis 500. Team Penske has won a record 15 Indy 500s, including five since returning to the Speedway in 2001. Helio Castroneves won the Indy 500 in 2001, 2002 and 2009, Gil de Ferran won in 2003, and Sam Hornish Jr. took the checkered flag in 2006. Target Chip Ganassi Racing has four Indy 500 victories since returning with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Vasser in 2000. Montoya drove to victory that year, Scott Dixon won in 2008 and Dario Franchitti has been victorious in 2010 and 2012.

Andretti Autosport has Indy 500 wins with Wheldon in 2005 and Franchitti in 2007.

But while Penske is the “King of the Indianapolis 500” the team has won just one IZOD IndyCar Series championship since its return in 2002 and that was Hornish’s 2006 championship. Ganassi has five IZOD IndyCar Series titles since 2002, with Dixon winning in 2003 and 2008 and Franchitti winning three-straight from 2009-11. Andretti has four series titles, with Kanaan in 2004, Wheldon in 2005, Franchitti in 2007 and Hunter-Reay last year.

When asked about how his team has been unable to turn Indianapolis 500 success into multiple IZOD IndyCar Series championships since his return in 2002, it’s a question that team owner Roger Penske does not like to answer.

“That is a statistic I don’t even think about,” Penske said earlier this season. “I think about where are we today and where are we going, to be honest with you.

“It was a tremendous run by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Obviously, we wanted to win and Ganassi did. We won a lot of races. Ganassi won the big race at Indianapolis. We won a lot of races, and Andretti won the championship, so at the end of the day all three teams are stronger based on what they did last year. If that helps strengthen the series, that is important.

“I take my hat off to young Andretti. He has done a good job.”

Penske remains a master at the Indianapolis 500. But teams such as Andretti Autosport are prepared to knock him off at this year’s Indy 500. Drivers such as Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Munoz have taken turns on top of the timing sheets throughout the opening days of practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they are simulating race runs.

Andretti Autosport has produced a tremendous start to the IZOD IndyCar Series season, with three wins in the first four races this season. Hinchcliffe won at St. Petersburg and Sao Paulo, while Hunter-Reay won at Barber Motorsports Park. Three Andretti drivers are in the top six in the standings, with Andretti second, Hinchcliffe fourth and Hunter-Reay sixth.

“We are building on the momentum we started off with last year winning the championship,” Andretti said. “There were a lot of areas on our team where I thought we could improve, and we were able to do that in the offseason. So far, so good.

“What makes you feel good is it’s not just one car doing it. Last year most of the results were coming from one car. It’s nice that it is getting spread around a bit more. James has really improved, and Marco is much more competitive. That makes us feel good, and we needed to up our game. I’m also impressed with E.J. Viso. You can’t teach speed, and he has always been fast. I expect big things out of E.J. and expect him to win a race this year.

“We felt it was important to come out strong this year. I think momentum helps. Momentum is more confidence, and we were able to build on that. Most of the confidence was coming from Ryan’s team, but over the winter we have been able to spread that confidence out, and that seems to be working. When you are down is when you have to work your hardest and believe in yourself, and there were some really tough times there, including failing to qualifying two cars for the Indianapolis 500 in 2011. The changes we made on the team immediately took hold. We were able to start building on that.

“Things are meant to happen in life, and you just have to accept that.”
 

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