The words were stunning as they flew out of announcer Paul Page’s mouth in the waning laps of the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
“Michael is slowing! Michael is slowing!” Page declared. “The rest of the field is coming past. Michael Andretti is slowing down.”
Andretti was within 20 miles of earning a coveted Indianapolis 500 victory. He’d dominated the race, led 160 laps, had the field covered. Then just like that, his car slowed to a crawl because of a broken fuel pump and his heartbreak was complete.
“It was that close to being the greatest moment in my life and it turned out to be the worst moment,” he later told Indianapolis Motor Speedway historians. “Me breaking down with 10 laps to go with a totally dominant car, it was a killer.”
In the lead-up to the 100th running of the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” The Associated Press interviewed the 27 living race winners on topics ranging from the greatest driver to most memorable moment. Their answers to the best driver to never win the Indianapolis 500 gave Andretti a distinction he’d rather go to anyone else.
Andretti received 17 of the 27 votes, while Lloyd Ruby received four. Others mentioned were Tony Stewart, Jim Clark – who actually won the race in 1965 – Roberto Guerrero and Alex Zanardi.
“Being the best driver to have not won Indy is an unfortunate honor,” Andretti told the AP. “I think I’d much rather be one of the winners and not be honored in this category at all. But a lot of great drivers have raced here and never did win, so to be picked among those names is a real honor.”
Andretti built one of the most impressive careers in American open-wheel racing history. He ranks fifth in starts (317), third in wins (42) and laps led (6,607). But his career is widely defined by his oh-so-close moments at Indy that added to the lore of the “Andretti curse.”
Michael’s father, Mario, won the Indy 500 just once, in 1969. Since then, Mario, his sons Michael and Jeff, nephew John and grandson Marco have come up empty time and time again.
“All this stuff about the Andretti curse is nonsense, I never, ever dwelled on the negative,” Mario Andretti told AP. “You have to look at the positive. Michael controlled this race better than some of the four-time winners. In `92, he had a 1 1/2-lap lead and he could have pushed the car back to win the race. You look at things like that, and that’s how some people judge you.
“But the other thing you look at is this: Was he capable of winning it? You’re darn right he was. So he can be proud of what he’s done here. He did pretty damn well here.”
Michael Andretti led 421 laps in 16 starts. His career-best finish was second to four-time winner Rick Mears in 1991, and victory was snatched from him in the cruelest fashion the next season.
Another near miss came in 2006 when Andretti had come out of retirement for the chance to run the 500 against son Marco, a rookie that year. Using fuel strategy, Andretti found himself out front with three laps remaining but he had to back off the gas to make it to the finish.
That gave Marco the chance to slide past his father into the lead, and Sam Hornish Jr. followed to put Andretti in third. Excited that his son might put an Andretti in victory lane, he was crushed when Hornish snatched the win away at the line.
“He led laps. He was fast. He made mistakes at times and at times, the car let him down,” said Hornish, who noted Andretti also could have won in 1991 until he “just got out-dueled by one of the best guys to ever race there.”
“The heartbreak that Michael had for the Indianapolis 500, for how good he was, what he did outside out of that, I don’t think you can dispute that he’s the guy,” Hornish said. “It was cruel to him in a lot of ways.”
There is an upside to Andretti’s time at Indy. He’s won three times as a car owner, most recently in 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay. He will try for a fourth victory on Sunday in the historic centennial race, and he’d love any of his drivers to get the win, including his son.
Mario Andretti doesn’t think never winning hangs over his son, but it certainly stings.
“It hurts, but there are things you just cannot control – what do we have, what we drive,” Mario Andretti said. “But he loves being an IndyCar owner and he’s won three times as a car owner, so I think he feels he’s been compensated for that. You know, I think sooner or later, the luck factor is going to give us a win.”
Updated May 25, 2016
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