Mario Andretti is ecstatic his grandson is on the pole for Sunday’s Indy 500

Mario Andretti would normally have been in Indianapolis Sunday for qualifying for this weekend’s Indianapolis 500.

Instead, he watched it unfold from his lake house in Wayne County in part because of the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

No matter because when his grandson, Marco, earned the pole for the 104th edition of the so-called “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Mario was so happy that he might have been heard 680 miles away in Indianapolis.

Mario Andretti, the winner of the 1969 Indy 500 and the pole-sitter in 1987, was thrilled for Marco, who earned the top pre-race spot for the first time at Indy and for the sixth time in his IndyCar career. The hope is that it will lead to his first Indy 500 win, the third of his career and first since Iowa midway through the 2011 season.

The pole position alone was enough to bring lots of emotion for the family, especially considering that Marco is coming off a brutal 2019 season in which he led just four laps and finished 16th in the series standings, tied for the lowest of his career.

Through it all, 80-year-old Mario Andretti has been his grandson’s biggest supporter. He can’t wait to see him in person at Indy when he arrives in the middle of the week.

“I told people I jumped up so high that I hit my head on the ceiling and it’s a 9-foot ceiling,” Mario laughed when recounting Sunday’s celebration. “It’s so exciting to see Marco do this and really come into his own. He really showed us all something Sunday and the whole weekend. He proved it was no fluke and he had his stuff together and not under the best conditions either.”

Andretti won the pole with a four-lap average of 231.068 mph on Sunday during the Fast Nine Shootout. That followed Saturday’s 231.315 mph set during the first day of qualifying and also followed Friday’s stunningly fast lap of 233.491, the fastest t the track since Arie Luyendyk went 239.260 mph for an unofficial record during practice in May of 1996.

However, Sunday’s battle for the pole came with an extra element from Mother Nature — wind.

“A [cold] front went by and made it windy and that’s always something that concerns a driver,” Mario Andretti said. “It changes the characteristics of the track immensely. Watching his three [Andretti-Autosport] teammates go out before him, all three had a rough time and I thought ‘Oh wow.’ And then Scott Dixon, absolutely the best guy out there right now, puts on a show. I just thought ‘Oh my goodness’ what’s going to happen?”

What happened was one of the best moments Mario Andretti said he ever experienced. Marco edged Dixon by 0.017 mph to put himself in the best position possible to get his first Indy 500 win and end the so-called Andretti Curse at the Brickyard.

“All I told him was the wind will scare you, but it won’t crash you. … that’s all I could say,” Mario Andretti said. “He took it on. He wasn’t shy. Looking at the steering trace on his runs, he fought it, but he never lifted. That tells me a lot. He was determined. He had the confidence in the team and the car and that’s what it takes, the whole package.”

Being on the pole will bring a lot of attention and perhaps an ample amount of pressure as the race approaches 1/8 2:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC].

“You could say it’s a lot of pressure, but that’s the kind of pressure I always loved,” Mario Andretti said. “I always loved being in that situation. It was just a great lift for all of us.”

Marco Andretti’s big moment was popular with many of his fellow drivers, including Dixon.

“Yeah, I’m super happy for Marco,” Dixon said. “They’ve been really good all week. He’s such a great guy and a good friend for so many years. I know what that means to him and especially his family.”

Close friend and fellow Lehigh Valley native Sage Karam, who qualified 31st, said: “I’m really, really happy Marco got on the pole. He’s one of my best friends. He’s actually more like a brother to me. For him to bring the pole position back to the Lehigh Valley is awesome. If it’s not me, I root for him. If we can’t get it done on Sunday, I’m praying and hoping that my buddy Marco can.”

Marco Andretti has special inspiration. He was very close is first cousin John Andretti, who died on Jan. 30 at the age of 56 after a lengthy battle with colon cancer.

“Marco’s qualities as a family man are beyond reproach,” his grandfather said. “That’s the way he has been from an early age and it’s real. He loves his family and we have a very tight family. We text each other group messaging and we call it the Crazy Andrettis. We chit-chat every day and everybody knows what everybody is doing. It’s a beautiful thing and Marco is right in there.”

Mario said Marco has John’s colors on his racing helmet.

“Obviously, my cousin John is riding with me, my grandfather from home,’ Marco said during Sunday’s press conference. “We know family is pulling for us. We live and breathe this sport, this race in particular.”

Marco Andretti admitted that his struggles last year, including Indy where he finished 26th — the worst finish of his toughest season. The tough times continued into an abbreviated and drastically altered 2020 schedule with nothing better than a 10-place finish in six races.

“Coming off how bad last year was for me in this race made this feel so much better,” he said. “That’s what this place is all about, high and hows, and it brings that out in you.”

No matter what happens, his grandfather will be there to support him. Mario said he always believed Marco had it inside himself to shine. He just needed that confidence to get over the top with pure performance and not leave anything to chance.

His advice for him is to enjoy the moment and take it day-by-day as the race approaches.

“It’s the only race where you enjoy being on the pole for an entire week,” he said.

Mario Andretti believes this was the accomplishment that could turn around Marco’s career.

“It’s momentous for his career and it was a long time coming,” he said. “We knew it was there and we were right. He went out there and showed he can be better than the best. The sport can be so cruel in so many ways but at the same time the rewards are better than you can express.”

In 2020, we’ve all learned to expect the unexpected, Mario said.

“This 2020 has been so trying for everyone, but this was such an uplift,” he said.

Keith Groller can be reached at 610-820-6740 or at [email protected]

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