Marco Andretti Explains How the Indy 500 Pole Was His to Lose

We chat with Andretti ahead of the race's 104th running, which—like everything else—is vastly different in 2020.

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If you've been following this year's Indianapolis 500 drama on television—obviously not in person—you'll know that Marco Andretti is on pole for the race's 104th running. It's been 33 years since Mario Andretti qualified first for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, when Marco was just two months old. Since then, the third-gen racer has been expected to make a hero of himself while simultaneously carrying a last name that's been common vernacular since the '60s.

At least for now, the pressure is off.

Marco Andretti had probably the best outing a teenager could hope for in his Indianapolis debut some 14 years ago. His runner-up effort to this day marks the Indy 500's second-closest finish ever, introducing the Nazareth, Pennsylvania native as a fitting successor for the two generations before him. It stung at the time and it has to still today, but four laps at an average of 231.068 miles per hour can change anyone's outlook.

Of course, he hasn't won the Indy 500 yet. That's something he made clear during a phone conversation him and I had earlier this week. But in the time since Pole Day, given the unusual circumstances that involve Month of May festivities in August, he's been allowed a different approach than past P1 starters.

“It’s been a whirlwind," Andretti admitted of the days following his fifth and undoubtedly most important IndyCar pole position. "It’s been an incredible week so far—almost too good to be true. I’m trying not to assess it too much."

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With a full week between qualifying and the race, there's plenty of time to psych yourself out, especially when you don't have the wall-to-wall PR appearances that normally precede the 500.

“It’s all virtual now, right? We’re still busy. I just don’t have to be in a thousand places at once," Andretti continued. He's talking about the rigmarole that normally packs drivers' schedules in the week leading up to Indy, like speaking at elementary schools and attending one parade after another. It's a busy time for anyone, but again, being an Andretti makes it even more hectic.

Marco mentioned during our call that he's taking advantage of the relatively laid back schedule, though he confessed he'd been doing phone interviews ever since he stepped off the track on Sunday. He remains positive and level-headed which was clear in his tone, something I imagine isn't easy for someone days from potentially the biggest moment of their life. But after struggling for several years—this is his first pole since 2011—Andretti seems to have a refreshing and collected demeanor about him.

Instead of discussing his family's exhaustive legacy and what this race means to him (surprise, the answer is "a lot"), we were able to chat about driving. While 2020 marks the third season for IndyCar's current UAK18 body kit, it's the first year with the Aeroscreen cockpit safety device. Love it or hate it, the screen provides vastly improved protection and, yes, a new challenge for drivers flying around the 2.5-mile speedway.

What's better is that to make up for the Aeroscreen's added drag, IndyCar allowed for both Honda and Chevrolet to crank up the boost on their twin-turbo V6s. This made an already low-downforce Indy car even more of a handful driving from one turn and short chute to the next, but Andretti was happy with it.

After hugging his father and team owner Michael following his mega run to pole, Marco said in his TV interview, "Man, horsepower's so cool, isn't it?"

The difference between Andretti's pole lap and Simon Pagenaud's from 2019 was slightly more than 1 mph, and while it might not sound like much, there were less than two-hundredths separating Andretti and second-place starter Scott Dixon.

Not only is Dixon a five-time IndyCar champion in his own right and a tough cookie to beat in any scenario, but the wind was blustery on Sunday, especially during Marco's run. Andretti's friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe said in an interview that it was probably the toughest Indy qualifying he'd ever experienced due to the strong gusts. Andretti told me that while he had a great race car, it was a matter of chance and fate—had he missed a single gear change, he would've lost that two-hundredths and we'd be writing a story about Dixon's fourth 500 pole instead.

The front three rows for Sunday's race consist of eight Hondas and precisely one Chevrolet—Ed Carpenter Racing rookie Rinus VeeKay. Honda has been strong in every practice and kept up the pace in qualifying, though Andretti fully expects the Chevrolets to show up when the green flag flies.

“They’re gonna show back up in race trim because it’s a lot more balance-dependent in traffic," Andretti reckoned. There certainly are Chevy-powered teams out there who know how to set up a race car, Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing chief among them. Still, Andretti likes his chances and the polesitter has capitalized on their grid position to win the Indy 500 in five of the last 20 contests, including Pagenaud last year.

Without fans in attendance at this year's 500, Roger Penske's first as owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series, it desperately needs viewership on NBC. That wasn't a problem for last year's race as 5.41 million fans tuned in, a 10-percent increase year-over-year, and the outlook is good once again in 2020. Restrictions have been lifted to allow local channels broadcasting access to the race, a weirdly uncommon exception to a longstanding practice meant to drive ticket sales. And with the name "Andretti" appearing in smalltown papers across the States once again, it just might give casual fans reason enough to tune in.

Marco seems cool, calm and committed to adding his family's name to the BorgWarner trophy a second time, though more importantly, he wants his face on the historic piece of hardware for the first time. It's anyone's guess as to who might drink the milk come Sunday, but a lot can happen over 200 laps. Vegas has Andretti slotted immediately behind Dixon as the second favorite to win at +700 odds. After seeing his form so far, he seems like a solid bet to me.

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