Andretti Autosport a budding auto racing empire

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - In the far corner of Gasoline Alley, where the signs that say “Andretti Autosport” hang from the buildings, there is a flurry of activity that can best be described as organized chaos.

Engineers are poring over computer screens. Mechanics are peering into engine bays. Fans are milling about, snapping surreptitious pictures of their favorite drivers. And walking through the garage is what amounts to the sun, the man around whom everything seems to revolve.

Many have tried to segue from driver to car owner. A few have even thrived. Michael Andretti has done something else entirely: He has built an auto racing empire.

His hands touch everything from road racing to RallyCross to the innovative Formula E, an electric-car series that begins later this year. He’s responsible for developing many of the young drivers poised to become the newest generation of stars. He helps secures sponsorships, chips in on marketing, employs hundreds of people and champions open-wheel racing.

“He does it for love of the sport,” said JF Thormann, Andretti Autosport’s chief operating officer and a close friend for more than three decades. “Trust me, he doesn’t make money on most of those things. He continues to push for opportunities. But he’ll only do it if it’s right.”

That’s why Andretti’s colors have yet to fly in NASCAR, even though it seems to be a yearly conversation. Or why the team only fields cars for the Indy 500 if he thinks they can win. And why it was little surprise to see his new RallyCross team capture the first race of the season.

“That’s the thing with Andretti Autosport. I think we have like, four or five programs under one roof,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will pilot one of the team’s five entries in Sunday’s Indy 500. “You never know what’s coming next.”

The team was already established when Andretti joined in 2001, but he took on a bigger role upon purchasing a majority interest and hanging up his fire suit. Never content to be simply a name or face, he poured himself into the organization with the same kind of single-minded drive that carried him to such a successful career behind the wheel.

The team was renamed Andretti Autosport in 2009, and over the last five years it has taken off, with its fleet of drivers seemingly always in the hunt.

Yet for all the success in all those various series, Andretti’s heart still belongs at Indy, and that vexing oval that has caused so much heartache for so many generations of his family.

Since his father Mario Andretti tasted the milk in Victory Lane in 1969, the Andretti name has been oh-so-close time after time. Mario never won again. His son Jeff was involved in a devastating wreck in 1991 that changed the course of his career. Michael dominated the Indy 500 like no other driver without putting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Fuel pumps failed him. Tires punctured. Lady Luck kept brushing him aside.

“Since ‘69, we’ve been knocking on the door, and that’s what fuels us,” said Marco Andretti, who has led several times and finished second as a rookie. “We’ve been on the podium a few times, not the right step. We’ve led a ton of laps, not the right one. That’s why you saw me so mad when I finished second, because I know these opportunities don’t grow on trees.”

The irony is that while the Indy 500 helped make Andretti a household name, it is also what has relegated the team to a level slightly below that of rivals Penske and Ganassi.

Those teams have won numerous races on Memorial Day weekend, their cars becoming mainstays in Victory Lane. And that holds more sway than any winning other race or the championship itself.

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