Andretti Autosport sets standard, investing in drivers to create careers

Andretti Autosport switched things up quite a bit since last season – with reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato exiting the team for a ride at RLL Racing, and Zach Veach taking over responsibilities of the No. 26 Honda.

Veach, who got his first Indy car racing experience last year, did so with multiple teams. After three non-consecutive seasons in the Indy Lights program of the Mazda Road to Indy, the Ohio-native was asked to drive in place of JR Hildebrand for Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber Motorsports Park last season, after Hildebrand was injured at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. This substitution request came just after Veach and A.J. Foyt Racing announced that they’d be running in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 together.

His focus, talent, and ability to bring sponsorship to the table helped him earn a spot on the 2018 roster. The fact that his first full-time ride in IndyCar comes with Andretti Autosport is poetic, as he started his open-wheel journey with them and ran with Andretti at every level of the ladder system. My favorite part about this is the fact that it’s a three-year agreement. As I mentioned this week in my Conor Daly profile, I feel that part of the reason we see so many young drivers just making a blip on the IndyCar radar is because too many team owners don’t legitimately invest in their drivers, specifically those without a ton of experience.

They need time to learn the sport from a first-person perspective. They need time to learn how to be part of a cohesive team. They need time to figure out how they communicate with key members of their team like their crew chief, engineer, and the guys on their pit crew. The point is, they need time. Period.

Andretti is one of the few teams that is helping to pave that ‘Road to Indy’ – they are invested in the ladder system, working with graduates that show promise from that system, and allowing them that precious time to learn within the top level series. A team being fully invested in it’s drivers, leads to drivers who are fully invested in the series. When you take a look at the overall Andretti Autosport picture, you will notice this distinct pattern of investment in action.

Marco Andretti has been with his family team throughout his open-wheel career, including in 2005 when he ran in the Indy Lights program and won three races. He moved up to Indy cars in 2006 and earned his first win during that rookie year, in Sonoma. He had to wait 5 years before that sweet taste of victory would come again, this time at the fastest short-track in the world, Iowa Speedway. Andretti has earned numerous Top 5 finishes since 2011, his best overall season coming in 2013 when he finished P7 or better in more than half the events and ended the year 5th in the points championship.

It’s hard to say if the pressure has gotten to him over trying to live up to his name or if there is another factor under the surface keeping him from producing the results that his father and grandfather earned over their careers. But what we do know for sure is what he’s admitted, and that’s the fact he can be too analytical. He gets in his own head too often, sometimes during the race itself, and it can ruin his day. Sometimes, it can even ruin a season.

Maybe change is good in his case, giving the chance to switch things up and start with a clean slate. This season, that change comes in the form of a new car number – Andretti has switched with Alexander Rossi, and will now compete behind the wheel of the No. 98.  Will this be the catalyst of more changes for Marco Andretti in 2018? We’ll know soon enough, with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg only 16 days away.

One car number and driver that hasn’t changed in recent years is the No. 28 of Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started with the team in 2010. He’s racked up 13 wins in that time, including victory at the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and a series championship back in 2012.

During the final weekend of the 2016 season at Sonoma Raceway, Hunter-Reay and team owner, Michael Andretti announced a 4-year agreement with DHL, giving Hunter-Reay a guaranteed ride and sponsorship with the team through the 2020 IndyCar season.

His teammate, Alexander Rossi, made a similar announcement about a year later, confirming that NAPA Auto Parts would act as primary sponsor for Rossi’s Andretti Autosport ride for the majority of races in 2018. The contract length was not specified but Rossi did confirm it was a multi-year agreement. Rossi won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in his rookie season and really seemed to be finding his groove in the second-half of 2017 with a pole and win at Watkins Glen and visits to the podium in Toronto and Pocono, finishing second and third respectively.

Rossi, in his new No. 27 Honda, is one to watch this season, and he’s one of two that we’ve all been watching during the off-season, thanks to CBS and The Amazing Race. The finale episode is this evening and of course I will be rooting on Rossi and Daly as they complete the last legs of the race and possibly battle for the win!

Make sure you tune in at 9:00 p.m. ET tonight to see the Season 30 finale of The Amazing Race on CBS.

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Photo credit: Chris Owens/Shawn Gritzmacher/Joe Skibinski, IndyCar