INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The cruel Twitter posts came fast and furious Friday as Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal participated in their final practice session for the Indianapolis 500.
“Would Graham Rahal have a ride in the series if his last name wasn’t Rahal?” read one.
“You mean to tell me, that Marco Andretti is being a cry-baby on the radio?!” read another, along with a sarcastic #surprised and #spoiledbrat.
It’s May, which means the faults and failures of Andretti and Rahal are in the spotlight at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where their famous fathers shined. Like royal watchers anxiously awaiting a wedding or a baby, open-wheel racing fans obsesses over when these two young crown princes of IndyCar will step up their games and fulfill their destiny as the American stars the series desperately needs.
Andretti is burdened by his last name. Mario Andretti, his grandfather, won 52 races and ranks second on the all-time list. Michael, his father, ranks third at 42 career victories.
Marco, in his ninth season in IndyCar, has two wins.
It’s no easier for Rahal. His father, Bobby, has 24 career victories, won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and is a three-time series champion.
Graham has one win in 100 starts since 2007.
Rahal, who won his only race in 2008, points out that he just turned 25 this year and his father didn’t win his first race until he was 30.
“A lot of people don’t think about that, though, they just look at me and go, ‘Oh, well you won your first one at 19 and haven’t won since,'” he said. “I’m still one of the youngest guys in the series. That’s no excuse, and I hope I have a long, long career ahead of me. When you look at my dad’s success that he had — Indy wins, championships, race wins — he didn’t even get into an Indy car until he was 30.”
Rahal notes that the successful drivers in IndyCar right now are all in their 30s. Tony Kanaan, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner, was 38 when he scored his breakthrough win. Ryan Hunter-Reay was 31 when he won the 2012 title in his 10th season at the top level.
“At my age, he was in the same boat as me,” Rahal said. “He wasn’t really winning all the time. He was struggling, bouncing around between teams and stuff and all of a sudden, it’s all come together.”
Andretti was 19 when he made his IndyCar debut driving for his father at Andretti Autosport. He won as a rookie, then went four more years before he made his way back to Victory Lane. Now 27, he hasn’t won since 2011 and is mired in a 46-race losing streak.
His father thinks age may very well be the problem for both Andretti and Rahal.
“Part of it is they started so young and, in hindsight, maybe they were too young,” Michael Andretti said. “You look at it, they are 25 and 27? Geez, Louise. I think I was in my third year of racing at that age. But the pressure they are under? That comes with the territory.”
Marco, so weary of the public perception that he’s been given his ride, hasn’t earned it and wouldn’t be with one of the top teams in IndyCar if not for nepotism, refuses to offer an excuse for his performance. If he points to age or offers a reason, fans will call it an excuse and accuse him of whining.
“Definitely, I know I’ve been in the game along time, I’ve led almost a thousand laps, but only two wins — I wish I had more to show for it,” he said. “I’m in my critics’ corner. I agree with them. I’m just as frustrated. All I can do is keep working. We do have the luxury of starting younger nowadays, but you’re never going to hear any excuses from me.”
Among his critics is Graham Rahal, who actively engages in the notorious Andretti-Rahal rivalry. While Marco has driven for a top organization for his entire career, Rahal is now driving for his third owner — his father — and the results have yet to come.
“The last few years have been tough, and Andretti has been the dominant team, how he hasn’t won more races kind of surprises me,” Graham said.
They both get their chance to silence their critics on Sunday in the Indianapolis 500. Marco, who has come so close to winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway multiple times, starts sixth. Rahal, who has struggled to find speed for two weeks, is 20th.
Rahal understands clearly what a win by either driver could do for the series, which needs its two young drivers with the famous last names to put up the results that will move them into a transcendent spotlight.
“It would do more for this race than anybody else in this race,” Graham said. “Those two names around here — to have those two names fighting it out at the end of this thing, I guarantee you there’d be a lot of people out there on their feet.”
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