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Indy 500 Andretti curse? Mario Andretti calls it a hoax

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 5/22/2019 Gregg Doyel
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INDIANAPOLIS — Don’t talk to Mario Andretti about the Indianapolis 500 “Andretti Curse.”

“Yeah,” he says, “don’t talk to me about a curse.”

See?

But he’s such a good guy, Mario Andretti, that of course he’ll talk about it. If you’re asking IndyCar questions, he’s providing answers. It’s part of who he is outside of that car he rocketed around the world for the better part of a quarter-century, the most famous driver on the planet for his breathtaking speed, yes, but also his beautiful personality.

a vintage photo of a man riding a motorcycle © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

But this topic … ugh. He’s not loving it.

“I will never endorse the idea of a curse. Actually, I want to put that away forever. “Maybe,” he tells me, “you can to be the one to do it.”

Wouldn’t that be great? To be the one to end this thing, this stupid “Andretti Curse,” once and for all? To make a man as marvelous as Mario Andretti happy? So enticing.

But alas, so impossible.

We spoke for the better part of a half-hour during the run-up to the 2019 Indianapolis 500 — every minute about the so-called Andretti Curse — and Mario Andretti was insistent. He was adamant.

But the more he said, the more I wondered.

'Things just kept happening'

“Yes,” Mario is saying, “we feel like we could hypothetically have won more races — not just myself, but (my son) Michael as well. Things just kept happening.”

See??? That’s what he does, that right there. Mario doesn’t shy away from the absurd run of bad luck that has befallen not just him, but his entire family, over five decades at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He talks about it pleasantly, bluntly, but he says things that make you wonder. Even as he’s trying to debunk the whole myth of the Andretti Curse.

He says: “Looking at the number of laps that I led and Michael led, the times we have dominated this race and came really close and it didn’t happen, all of these things are positives, not negatives. Yes, you know, we dropped out of many (500s) — but the positives way, way outweigh the negative here.”

He says: “If it was 400 miles, I think I would have won it many times. I just couldn’t finish the last 100 miles. We were dropping engines even at 200 miles. It was just that kind of thing.”

And he says: “Look at Michael, the way he’s getting his revenge as an owner. He never won as a driver, and he should have — you know, more than once certainly — but now he’s a five-time winner as an owner, including the 100th anniversary.”

No question about it, the history of the Indianapolis 500 could not be written without a long chapter on the triumphs of the Andretti family. It’s not as if Mario was shut out here; he won this race in 1969. Michael Andretti-owned teams have won five Indy 500’s with five different drivers: Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (’07), Ryan Hunter-Reay (’14), Alexander Rossi (’16) and Takuma Sato (’17). See those years? An Andretti driver has won three of the last five Indy 500s.

What kind of curse is that?

This kind: The kind that has produced inexplicable outcomes, yanking defeat from the jaws of victory, and doing it year after year.

After year after year.

After year.

To Father. To Son.

To Grandson.

Mario Andretti at abandoned Nazareth Speedway: ‘It’s not a happy reunion’

The legends of 1969: Mario Andretti’s unlikely Indy 500 victory filled with racing lore

Two cars, two DNF's, one Andretti

a vintage photo of a man riding a motorcycle: For a little while in 298, Mario Andretti was the winner of the Indianapolis 500, his second victory in the race. He posed for the winner's portrait, but Bobby Unser later was declared the winner. © IndyStar file photo For a little while in 298, Mario Andretti was the winner of the Indianapolis 500, his second victory in the race. He posed for the winner's portrait, but Bobby Unser later was declared the winner.

We talk about 1981. That one was weird, I say.

“Well, it was very weird,” he says.

That was the year Mario Andretti actually won the race, sort of, finishing second in real time to Bobby Unser but being declared the winner the next day after Unser was disqualified for exiting pit row illegally on Lap 149. For five months Andretti was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Until Unser’s appeal was heard by three outside judges at a USAC hearing, and by a 2-1 vote they returned the victory to Unser.

We talk about 1992. That was just awful, I say.

“Yes,” he says, “it was.”

That was the year something went wrong for every Andretti. Mario qualified third but crashed and went to the hospital with broken toes. One son, Jeff, crashed and suffered broken legs. His other son, Michael, was leading with 11 laps to go when his car quit. Another Unser, Al Jr., won.

We don’t talk about 1966, when Mario led 11 laps but had to drop out with a valve issue. We don’t talk about 1968 when he had to drop out with a bad piston and finished last, then replaced teammate Ed Dickson, and had to drop out of that car. Another bad piston.

a group of people standing in a parking lot: Mario Andretti raced out of the pits during the 1966 Indianapolis 500. He led 11 laps but a valve problem forced him out. © Nick Longworth/The Indianapolis News Mario Andretti raced out of the pits during the 1966 Indianapolis 500. He led 11 laps but a valve problem forced him out.

We don’t talk about 1988, when he had the fastest car all week but inexplicably lost his pace during qualifying. The race was even weirder, with Andretti having to pit several times with a rocketship that was a lemon: bad gearbox, leaky engine, electrical issues. After 118 laps he trailed by nearly 50 laps, but wasn’t going to quit.

Then his engine died.

We don’t talk about 1993, when he led more laps than anyone (73) and was in the lead on Lap 134, when Andretti — the most experienced driver in the field — entered the pits while they were closed, drawing a penalty that dropped him to second. Not like he’d have won anyway; his car lost some of its handling near Lap 150, and he finished fifth.

We don't talk about that 1970s and '80s verse from the Indianapolis 500 soundtrack, longtime IMS public address announcer Tom Carnegie shouting the words: "Mario is slowing down!"

But we do talk about the curse. Because Mario wants me to know — and he wants you to know — it’s nonsense.

“I’ve always shut it down whenever I’ve been asked,” he says. “I’ve been disappointed at times of course — many, many times — but I never believe in that sort of thing. But it got legs.”

Those legs, this gene, seems to have been passed down from generation to generation.

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'I had the race won'

Michael Andretti could have won in 1986. He had the strongest car in the field, became the first driver to exceed 200 mph for Lap 1, and led 42 laps. Questionable calls from his team led to a late pit stop on Lap 193, knocking him out of the running.

Michael could have won in 1989, when he dominated the second half of the race until blowing an engine on Lap 160.

Michael could have won in 1991, when he led 97 laps. He was 15 seconds ahead of the field when another pit-stop strategy error removed him from the lead. No, wait: That car of his was so strong, he reclaimed the lead on Lap 187! No, wait: Rick Mears passed him on a restart and took the race.

Rick Mears passing Michael Andretti for the last time in turn one in the 1991 Indianapolis 500. © Jerry Clark/Indianapolis Star Rick Mears passing Michael Andretti for the last time in turn one in the 1991 Indianapolis 500.

And Michael almost did win in 2001, when the skies opened as he was in the lead. Stewards considered calling the race, which would have made him the winner, but they decided to wait. The rain went away, and then this happened: Michael blew a tire, was slowed further on pit row when he collided with Helio Castroneves, and finished third.

Michael’s son, Marco Andretti could have won in 2006. The 19-year-old rookie led on Lap 198 — he passed his dad for first — but Sam Hornish Jr. caught Marco less than 500 feet from the finish line, winning by .0635 seconds. It was the second-closest finish in race history and the first time that a driver made a successful pass on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Of course that happened to an Andretti.

Mario and I, we don’t talk about the run of bad luck here by Michael, who ranks 11th all-time in Indy 500 laps led, the only driver among the top 21 on that list without a win. We don’t talk about Marco, who ranks 41st all-time with 141 laps led. Of the top 41 drivers on that list, 36 won the race at least once. Of the five who did not, two are named Andretti.

Mario and I, we don’t talk about any of that. But we do talk about 1987.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, spoke to driver Mario Andretti in the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 16, 1987. © Gary Moore/Indianapolis News Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, spoke to driver Mario Andretti in the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 16, 1987.

You were doing so well, I say.

“I had the race won,” he says.

That was the year Andretti won the pole, won the pit-stop competition, posted the fastest car almost every day in practice. Sure enough he led 170 of the first 177 laps, and was way out front on Lap 177.

“At that point I had a lap-and-a-half lead,” he says. “I was just bringing it home on Al Unser Jr.”

Andretti was so far ahead, his crew told him to back off and cruise home, protect the engine by changing gears and reducing the revs. Somehow that threw the engine out of whack. "Harmonic imbalance," you call that. Unless you prefer this: "Andretti Curse."

“You can’t win for losing,” he says. “I’m always being blamed on being hard on the engine, so sometimes I get punished for driving too hard. Other times I get punished for easing it up. What do I have to do? Sometimes if it’s your day, it’s your day. And if it’s not …”

It's an Andretti at the Indianapolis 500.

Find Star columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500 Andretti curse? Mario Andretti calls it a hoax

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