At the end of a mostly forgettable Verizon IndyCar Series season, Michael Andretti was put on the spot about the significance of winning the most important race in the world.
Would Andretti trade Alexander Rossi’s triumph in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in exchange for Andretti Autosport’s four fulltime rides enjoying a strong season and contending for a series title?
As expected, considering Andretti’s well-known driving history for leading the most Indy 500 laps without winning, his answer didn’t require much deliberation.
“Probably not. Indy is still the Super Bowl,” he said. “Up until that time, that’s the only thing you want. Then you get to the rest of the year, and it’s a downer.”
Andretti’s top performers — Carlos Munoz, Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay — finished 10th, 11th and 12th in the season championship, respectively. Andretti’s son, Marco, ended up 16th, which tied for the worst season in his 11-year career. In addition to Rossi’s win, Munoz finished second in the Indy 500. Beyond that, Andretti’s best race results were just four third places, three of them by Hunter-Reay.
All things considered, the team was fortunate that rookie Rossi was able to pedal his No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian Honda to an unforgettable fuel-mileage May triumph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hunter-Reay led 52 laps in the first half of the race and was a clear threat to win, until he and Townsend Bell – running with the Andretti team for the Indy 500 only and matching Hunter-Reay’s early race pace – collided in pit lane, knocking both out of contention.
“All five of our cars had a shot at winning that race,” said Andretti, 53. “We take our two quickest ones out and we still finish 1-2. It was really special, and to win the 100th obviously just makes it that much more special. Now you’re a part of history.
“It saved our year, for sure. I’m hoping we’re just as competitive there next year, but we’ve still got to make ourselves that competitive on the other tracks as well.”
Some of the pieces are already in place for 2017. The team announced a driver sponsorship extension before the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma that will lock up Hunter-Reay with sponsor DHL through 2020. Marco Andretti also has a multiyear contract and will ride with sponsorship from electronics retailer hhgregg.
Just this week, Rossi was named to return to the No. 98 Honda under the continued combined ownership of Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta. The future of Munoz – the highest championship finisher of the team’s cars this season – is up in the air. Michael Andretti has said he would like to have Munoz, a two-time Indy 500 runner-up, back if sponsorship can be secured.
“Our goal is to be four (cars) and, if everything goes perfect, we’d be five,” he said, “but we’re not there yet.”
Regardless of the final driver lineup, changes are being discussed behind the scenes. Rumors have surfaced about Andretti Autosport trying to lure top engineers away from other teams to help trim the on-track deficit the four entries were faced with too often in 2016.
Michael Andretti acknowledged his cars were usually off the pace in the more technically demanding road/street races. Instead of contending for race wins at each event, Andretti cars were reduced to having a realistic chance in just some of the races.
“It’s been frustrating because we’ve been really competitive on the high-speed ovals, but on the regular road courses and some of the street courses, we just seemed to miss it,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. We’ve just got to figure it out. We’ve got a lot of ideas. We’re going to sit down in the offseason and assess what we did wrong.
“We’ve just got to put it all together. We’re more than capable of doing it. Sometimes you go down a wrong direction and it just takes a while to get yourselves turned around again. We’ll get there. We’ve been here before. We’ve been where we’ve had troubles and turned it around the next year and dominated. There’s no reason why we can’t do that again.”
Hunter-Reay and his boss reiterated after the DHL announcement that they haven’t lost confidence in being able to turn the team around. The team enjoyed modest success at Sonoma, as Hunter-Reay finished fourth, Rossi fifth and Marco Andretti eighth.
“You don’t lose it,” said Michael Andretti, whose team has delivered four season champions in the last 12 years – the most recent being Hunter-Reay in 2012. “OK, you lose some of your confidence, so getting it back is tough. You have one good race and you’ve got it back again. That’s what we need.
“It’s a funny business. They didn’t lose it. They have it. They’re just as hungry as ever.”
Hunter-Reay had the pace at times to race for the lead, particularly on the superspeedway ovals at Indianapolis and Pocono. Inevitably, he encountered enough misfortune to deny a victory. The 35-year-old Floridian assured he’s a fighter who learned the importance of determination after almost walking away from the series early in his career.
“I’m a passionate person because I’m so competitive,” Hunter-Reay said. “If I was more casual about it and didn’t have that fire, I mentioned that fighting mentality that I have, that’s what is coming out there. I know when we get this program sorted across the board, we’ll be contending for the championship.”