Second Place Is Nothing

Posted by Iannucci | 5/30/2006 | 0 comments »
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It isn’t too difficult to see my name and location on the right of this page and determine that I am of Italian-American descent. And as such, perhaps I was predisposed to cheer for certain racing family of similar lineage. The family is of course “Andretti,” a name which usually comes with the added surname “Curse” at Indianapolis.

Mario Andretti teamed with Andy Granatelli to win the Indy 500 in 1969, the year of my birth. I don’t recall watching the race when I was but a few months old, but for every Memorial Day weekend I can recall I have witnessed Mario, Michael, Jeff and John race to varying degrees of defeat. Always defeat, always the “curse”.

When the split occurred, Michael stopped driving at Indianapolis. Like many fans, I kept alive the hope that he would return and take another crack at the brickyard. He had the most wins of any CART driver ever, so surely he could eek out one win in Indianapolis. He finally returned, making quality but not victorious appearances in 2001 and 2002 then retired from racing after a dismal 27th in 2003.

For the last few years I could watch the race as an emotionally divested fan. I appreciated Helio Castroneves persistence, Dan Wheldon’s guile, Buddy Rice’s luck, and Gil de Ferran’s class. I watched last year as my 5-year-old daughter struggled through the race as she really really really wanted Danica! to win.

And so this year with the introduction of Marco Andretti and the return of Michael Andretti I found myself…ambivalent. Sure, it would be great to see them win, I’d say, but Marco has only finished one race and Michael hasn’t driven in 3 years. Beside, the AGR team was getting pounded by Penske and Ganassi, so it’s not like they have a chance.

And then, with 5 laps to go and many of the leading teams needing to pit for fuel, I found myself back again. Thinking of 1992 where Michael was cruising but lost the engine with 10 laps to go, just as Mario had lost his car after similar dominance in 1987. And with 5 laps to go one Andretti was leading and another was in second place! Marco was standing by at the ready in case fate stepped in, and as I sat there wide-eyed in my living room my children would no longer recognize me.

I have long been passed the point of needing another Andretti so that I may die in peace. Sports has taken a backseat to parenthood many times, and when the Diamondbacks finally delivered a championship to my hometown in 2001 my championship jones was at last satiated. But with 5 laps to go…that meant nothing.

I was just as involved and just as worried about what would go wrong. Mario was being interviewed during the yellow and asked who was more nervous. His reply was “We’ll just wait and see.” Mario knew what I knew, and he might have well have said “race, what race?” There was always something at the 500, and he was wearing his earned apprehension on his sleeve.

As the green flag flew I thought Marco should spin out on the restart and buy Michael a cheap yellow flag victory. I wouldn’t care, and winning would mean that much. It was so rare, the though had to have passed by the Andretti braintrust. Instead, I found myself staring at Marco passing his father. Staring, then yelling at the precocious ingrate. How could he do this?

Soon I saw Michael slow down and I realized this was clearly and authorized move. Michael was in the same boat as Danica! last year – leading, but unable to compete without running out of fuel. And just like that, the odds were reduced. Marco was forging ahead – 3 laps, 2 laps – with only Sam Hornish Jr mounting a charge.

Before the race, Boulder Sam was my pick to win. I thought it would be great to see him win since he’s a fantastic driver that passive fans have no idea about. He’s an American driver race fans could get behind, and when Marco Andretti was clinging to the lead I could not have hated Sam any more. Marco made a great move to stop a pass attempt by Hornish on lap 199, but just as he had all season, Hornish had the better car. And after the last of 800 turns the better car finally moved past Marco and into Victory Lane.

And the “curse” continued.

After the race, Mario somberly said he was proud, Michael somberly said he was proud, and Marco, the 19-year-old who has spent all month – if not all of his life – hearing about the “Andretti Curse” at Indianapolis said the truth. “Second place is nothing,” the rookie uttered, and for any driver at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing with the Andretti surname it is defined by what it is not. Second place (or third, or fourth, tec.) is not first place.

Another year, another spectacular defeat. So goes the experience at Indy not just for the Andretti’s but also for their suffering fans like me. Maybe I should just cheer for Danica! like my daughter.