'Santa Marco' makes holidays a little brighter for hospital patients

Updated: 

A special guest appropriately dressed in a red-and-white suit visited Indianapolis’ Riley Hospital for Children patients Tuesday in The Child Life Zone.

Merry Christmas from Santa Marco.

Longtime Verizon IndyCar Series driver Marco Andretti had on his Andretti Autosport racing attire and came bearing a gift, hence his new nickname in the spirit of the season. He delivered a 40-inch TV donated by team sponsor hhgregg, and it will be put to immediate use in replacing a broken TV on the Microsoft Video Game Wall.

“I had the red suit,” Andretti said with a smile. “I need my beard.”

On a picturesque day with snow flurries falling on Indianapolis, what mattered most were the warm smiles from 20 appreciative children aged 2 to 12 when they met Andretti, a veteran of 11 Verizon IndyCar Series seasons.

“Perspective. It grounds you and puts you in touch with what’s important in life, and just gratitude for our health and everything we have because it’s so sad to see what these kids go through,” said Andretti, 29. “But they’re as tough as nails. It’s admirable actually, what they endure.

“I’m just very fortunate to be in a position to make somebody’s day if I can. I definitely don’t do enough of it; I’ll be doing more of this. I’m glad hhgregg had me come out and do this, especially during the holidays, the time of giving. I’m fortunate to do that in a city that’s given me so much.”

Many of the children were shy and didn’t talk much. Almost all of them knew who he was and enjoyed making a new friend.

Andretti lost a game of air hockey, interacted with others in the photo booth and played video games with the children.

“You see these kids hooked up to machines, little girls, it’s extremely tough to see,” he said. “I’m not good at this sort of thing, but as long as they are benefitting from it, I’ll be here. I’m going to try to make them feel comfortable because they’re shy, and I’m shy myself.”

Andretti has won two races in his 169-start series career. He’s trying to decompress from a humbling season in which he finished 16th in the points, which tied for his lowest career finish.

“I’m trying to,” he said. “It’s hard to really unwind after that season.”

He came to cheer up children. In turn, they did the same for him.

“I’m going to try to come back every year,” Andretti said. “I was here last May as well.”

Teammates for Kids Foundation chose this Child Life Zone as the 11th in the country, and donations have made it the largest such zone where patients and families can play in a hospital. An Indianapolis theme provides an opportunity for visitors to take a lap around their speedway and cross their “yard of bricks,” in the tradition of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Marco Andretti“Today’s visit with Marco was really neat because he came in here in his red-and-white driver suit in the holidays,” said Melissa Sexton, Child Life Zone coordinator. “We had Santa Marco, who came in with a TV to replace our broken TV on the Microsoft Video Game Wall, but really he came in to spend time with patients and their families.

“He took the time to get to know each of the patients, a little bit about their story, sign some autographs and kind of help distract them from the fact they’re in the hospital during the holiday season. We’re really grateful to Marco and to anyone who visits and takes time out of their busy holiday season to make our days a little more special here at Riley.”

A boy named Braden provided a memorable moment. He knew statistics from Andretti’s career and was prepared for the visit. But he was also engrossed in an NBA video game, so Andretti watched him play and they talked about Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.

They took a picture together during a break from the video game action.

“He knew my cousin John,” Andretti said of his older relative, who raced extensively in NASCAR and Indy cars, including 12 Indianapolis 500 starts.

“He’s going to send the picture to John. I told him, ‘Make sure you tell ‘em Marco is faster than John.’”

Marco Andretti

From the fans