IRL: Michigan Int'l Speedway - Young racers spotlight

AMERICAN YOUTH PROMINENT IN INDYCAR SERIES BROOKLYN, Mich. (July 26, 2006) -- Between them, they both have top-five finishes at the Indianapolis 500. Both are currently situated within the top 10 of the IRL IndyCar(R) Series standings. Their ...


BROOKLYN, Mich. (July 26, 2006) -- Between them, they both have top-five finishes at the Indianapolis 500. Both are currently situated within the top 10 of the IRL IndyCar(R) Series standings. Their marketing potential rivals that of superstars in any professional sport. If you think Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick are merely young flashes in the pan, think again. The future of American open-wheel racing couldn't be brighter.

Entering Sunday's Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, neither Andretti nor Patrick has ever driven their car to victory in the IndyCar Series. However, they've certainly had their moments.

It was Andretti back in May, the bright new star of his family's historic pedigree, hoping to deliver the first Indy 500 victory for his family since grandfather Mario won 37 years before. It was Marco behind the wheel of the No. 26 NYSE Group Honda as he took on father Michael in the waning laps: a youthful rookie full of raw hopefulness hanging on to what would have been a historical win. Even after Sam Hornish Jr.'s incredible, daring pass to beat the 19-year-old at the line, it was Marco being hailed as the new American star. Not even defeat could derail Andretti. When asked about his race, he replied with the strong, stoic words of a veteran: "Second place is nothing." Clearly, a star, and a story, had been born.

It was Patrick who, at 23, captivated the racing world throughout the month of May just the year before when she became the latest female to crack the starting lineup in the Indianapolis 500. It was her No. 16 Argent Mortgage car at the front of the historic race with fewer than 10 laps to go, raising speculation that a female, not a male, might just drink the celebratory milk in the Hoosier State on that May afternoon. It was the young woman from Illinois, who, even amid endless blasts of media coverage and criticism, became the 2005 Bombardier Rookie of the Year.

They remain on the cusp of victory. Their legacies are set to be etched in racing history, yet a win eludes each of them.

Andretti comes to MIS this weekend hoping to build upon the remarkable record of his family's success in the Irish Hills. In 31 open-wheel starts from 1968 to 1994, his grandfather Mario piled up three wins and 16 top-five finishes. In an incredible eight-race stretch from 1980 to 1984, Mario finished no lower than fourth place in any race at MIS. Marco's father, Michael, has been solid as well, with two victories and eight top-10s in 21 starts.

The 2005 Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway didn't go so well for Patrick. After a season-low 19th place finish in the previous week at Milwaukee, Patrick hoped that the wide-open racing at MIS would allow her to improve upon that result and possibly even break through to her first victory in the IndyCar Series.

Patrick qualified eighth on the two-mile oval in the Irish Hills and had performed well on large tracks all season, including a fourth-place finish at the Indy 500, but success was not in the cards for her at Michigan. Almost immediately after the green flag, Patrick lost power -- and gained incredible adversity. Just several laps into the race, she had fallen to 20th place. Though she later progressed as high as 13th, a blown engine on Lap 164 put her day to a close. She finished in 20th place, a far cry from her previous successes, and a new season low.

Patrick is on her way back to Michigan -- and ready to roll. She hopes to not only finish the Firestone Indy 400 this time around, but to take the checkered flag as well. Winning anywhere would be nice, but one has to believe that a win at Michigan might be special for Patrick, especially after last year's bout with bad luck.

Starting in 2007, the young guns will be teammates. On Tuesday, Andretti Green announced that it had signed Patrick to a new contract that will bring her from Rahal Letterman Racing to join the ranks of Andretti and Tony Kanaan with AGR starting next season. It's a move that changes the spotlight around the team, says Kanaan.

"It'd be nice to have someone like Marco and Danica on the team," said Kanaan while testing at MIS before the Patrick announcement. "You guys wouldn't be here interviewing me for three hours. It'd be just Danica and Marco."

"If she wants to come play with us as a teammate, we'll give her a hard time," added Kanaan of Patrick. "We're already planning some pranks if she comes."

If Marco and Danica can handle the pranks in the AGR shop the same way they've handled the pressure of being labeled the future stars of American open-wheel racing, Kanaan and the crew will have to plan pretty hard to rattle the young phenoms.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Kanaan , Marco Andretti , Sam Hornish Jr. , Danica Patrick