Marco! Polo? No, Andretti!

Adam AmickSenior Writer IAugust 27, 2006

Sometimes it's just in the genes.  For professional football fans, the name Manning comes to mind (father Archie, and sons Peyton and Ely) with a history of being top-notch NFL quarterbacks.  Success seems to have a "family tradition".  In no other sport is this more evident than racing.  If you drive cars faster than the speed limit for a living, and your name is Petty, Earnhardt, Unser, or Andretti, you've probably got the gene for winning. 


The Petty name is synonomous with winning in NASCAR.  Lee Petty was at the vanguard of the new organization, winning the first Daytona 500 and three championships.  Second generation driver Richard is one of the most recognizable names in sports, even to those unfamiliar to NASCAR.  "King" Richard won 200 races and seven championships in his illustrious career.  Kyle Petty hasn't been as successful on track, 8 wins and 51 top-fives in 25 years, but has been the most philanthrophic member of the NASCAR community.  Then there was the late Adam Petty, who was showing the promise to return the Petty name, and Petty Enterprises, back to the level of prominience it had held through the 1970's and early 80's.  Adam's tragic death at New Hampshire in 2001 ended those hopes and dreams, but resulted in the founding of the Victory Junction Gang Camp - a place for children with life-threatening illnesses to enjoy themselves while receiving top-notch medical care.  His death also pressed the need for improved safety on the racetrack, saving many drivers from injury since.


Many will also recognize the name Earnhardt, with Dale, Sr. or Junior are the names most widely known.  Ralph Earnhardt was the family patriarch, and was the reason Dale, Sr. became a racer.  He drove for several years before dying at the tender age of 45 of a heart attack.  Dale Earnhardt was known as "The Intimidator" and won 76 races and seven championships in NASCAR's senior series.  Love him or hate him, Senior was a major influence on the series, transitioning it from the Petty era into what we know today - a money and marketing machine.  Junior has been successful, and has a huge following thanks to his name, but has yet to break through with a championship and doesn't show his father's aggressive nature that resulted in so many victories.  Junior's half-brother Kerry Earnhardt races in the NASCAR Busch series, but hasn't shown that the gene transferred into his DNA.


In open-wheel racing there is the Unser family.  Al Unser, Sr. and brother Bobby both led successful careers in the CART (now Champ Car) series, with seven Indianapolis 500 wins between them.  Al Unser, Jr. won two Indy 500s, 31 races, and two championships in CART, and tacked on another three wins in the Indy Racing League. Alfred Unser, son of Little Al, is working his way onto the scene, and look for him to uphold the family name on the fast track for years to come.


Today another chapter in the family success story was written for arguably to most recognized name in auto racing - Andretti.  Mario Andretti has the most diverse success story in the sport.  He won in Formula One, with the 1978 world driving championship, took the checkers at Daytona in the 1967 500, scored four CART Championships, was the International Race Of Champions (IROC) winner in 1979, and finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995.  The only place that was unkind to Mario was Indy, where he won in 1969, but otherwise managed to finish all 500 miles only five times.  He is the only driver to win the F1, Daytona, and Indy 500 titles.


Mario's racing prowess was passed along to son Michael who participated in the CART series and Indy 500 in the 1980s and 1990s, winning a number of races and the 1991 season title, but bad luck would keep him from victory lane at Indianapolis.  Michael helped form Andretti-Green Racing in the Indy Racing League in 2001.  Michael achieved victory as a car owner at the 2005 Indy 500 with driver Dan Wheldon.


Perhaps the Andretti family's greatest moment at Indianapolis was this year, when third-generation driver Marco finished second to Sam Hornish, Jr. after a last-lap pass.  Father Michael was looking on from third - his second best finish at the "Brickyard." 


Marco is showing great talent in the car, and that talent came to fruition today at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.  Marco led from lap 51 on and held off IRL veteran and teammate Dario Franchitti for his first career victory - and on a difficult road course at that.  Marco is the youngest winner on such a high level in open-wheel racing, just shy of 19 and a half years of age.  They couldn't even celebrate with the traditional champagne in victory lane...


But I'd raise a glass to the newest winner in racing's first family - even though I don't drink.  Here's to you, Marco!  It must be in the genes...