The Andretti Family Curse Explained

When it comes to the world of motorsports, if there's just one name that you associate with the sport overall, there's a good chance that name is Andretti. And rightfully so. Mario Andretti is a bonafide legend in the racing world, having racked up accolades and wins across multiple different series, including IndyCar and Formula 1, and spawning a family full of race car drivers.

But here's a bit of a strange fact: despite his fame and numerous trips to victory lane, there's one win that proved surprisingly elusive. It just so happens that said elusive title also happens to be one of the most famous and coveted ones in all of motorsports – the Indy 500 champion. Now, in all fairness, Andretti did see the checkered flag first on one occasion, in May 1969, and that's impressive, but other racing greats have managed to nab multiple Indy 500 wins (AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, and Helio Castroneves are all four-time champions, after all). But with Andretti being considered the "Driver of the Century," per the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself, it's a little odd that his name isn't up there with the four-time Indy 500 champions. Or even with any of the other drivers with multiple 500 wins under their belts.

So just what's going on here? After all, the problem certainly isn't lack of talent, so maybe it's just down to bad luck. Or maybe, just maybe, it's the fault of a curse.

What does this curse matter, anyway?

So, maybe you're coming into this whole narrative wondering just why there's such a big deal about this Andretti family curse. After all, the curse is basically just talking about the fact that no Andretti has won the Indy 500 since 1969 (via IndyStar); there are plenty of drivers who haven't even won that race once, much less multiple times, right? In that case, what's it really matter that Mario Andretti only won once?

Well, the answer there is essentially the fact that Andretti's list of accolades over the course of his career is just so impressive that you'd kind of expect multiple wins in Indianapolis. According to his official website, his titles span multiple decades and a bunch of different series. Four-time IndyCar champion as well as the Formula One champion in 1978. Winner of the Daytona 500, if you want to take a look at his time in NASCAR. Multiple wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring. A couple of titles in dirt track racing. And that's not even accounting for the numerous records he holds in IndyCar itself. The most race starts, most pole positions won, and most laps led of all time. None of that is the sort of stuff to just scoff at.

Mario Andretti's track record at the Indianapolis 500 isn't great

Despite a glowing and storied list of career highs that would seem to indicate an equally impressive showing at Indianapolis, Mario Andretti's time at the 500 has been riddled with misfortune after misfortune, bad luck that just seems to persist year after year.

Bleacher Report has an extensive report of just what happened to Andretti every year he's raced in the Indy 500, and, in short, it's quite the comedy of errors. Sure, yeah, he won in 1969, but his races in the three years prior? He didn't finish a single one – to add insult to injury, he didn't even make it halfway through in any of those races (the Indy 500 is 200 laps long, and the furthest Andretti got was to lap 58). Even stranger than that, he actually retired twice from the race in 1968, climbing into his teammate's car, only for it to suffer the same mechanical issue that his original car did.

And after 1969? To be entirely honest, it's harder to find a good year than a bad one. He's experienced more than his fair share of crashes and wrecks that ruin the car beyond repair, putting him out of the race early. Then there were the countless times when his car just kind of died – engine issues, throttle and piston issues, and vague mechanical problems. Of course, there were the occasional glimpses of hope (fast laps, good starting positions), none of which ever fully panned out.

There are a couple different reasons the curse might have started

Knowing the whole deal of what the Andretti family curse is might be one thing, but with a name like that, it would only make sense that there's some sort of fabled reason it came to be, right? Well, there are a few oft-cited reasons for just where this whole thing originated.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as Mario Andretti celebrated in the winner's circle in 1969, car owner Andy Granatelli approached to partake in the fun. And he made history in the process, reaching for Andretti and giving him a kiss. The event was immortalized in a photograph, but, per Motorsport, that celebratory kiss eventually gained notoriety, and that led some people to blame it for the equally infamous curse.

There's also another name attached to the origins of the Andretti family curse: Tom Carnegie. Per IndyStar, Carnegie was a rather famous announcer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he's the one who's largely credited with coining this string of especially bad luck. Apparently, the whole thing came about as he began to comment on Andretti's struggles – the phrase "Mario is slowing down!" is a rather famous one of his, according to Racer – and Andretti himself believed he was the one to popularize the idea.

Maybe the curse's origins are a little more supernatural

While there are a number of different potential origins for the Andretti family curse, there's one that stands out as being, well, just a little bit odd. It has to do with some behind-the-scenes drama. And just a touch of magic.

The main players in this version of the story were Mario Andretti himself, his engineers Jim McGee and Clint Brawner, and team owner Andy Granatelli. Per IndyStar, McGee and Brawner were basically the brains behind Andretti's win in 1969, overcoming some pretty wild technical challenges, and by all accounts, it seemed like everything was going pretty well after the win. But behind the scenes, Autoweek says that McGee and Brawner weren't really big fans of Granatelli, and it wasn't long before they took their leaves from the team.

But Racer Magazine puts forward a slightly different version of the tale. Instead, Brawner was allegedly let go by Granatelli when he assumed ownership of the team after the big win. To say the whole situation wasn't ideal would be an understatement, and Brawner's wife really didn't like the way things were going, evidently blaming Andretti (although the man himself said that he actually didn't want the team broken up at all). So she visited a soothsayer and made a very specific request in revenge: no Andretti would ever be an Indy 500 champion again.

1981 was an especially weird year

It's one thing to talk general stats when it comes to Mario Andretti's experiences at Indy, but based on those stats alone, you could try to chalk it up to nothing more than some really, really bad luck. But then, if you take a look at 1981, well, it gets a little harder to say it's only luck.

See, the 1981 Indy 500 was referred to as one of the most divisive and controversial races by Autosport, and for pretty good reason. The race in general had its problems, from a bungled start and confusion over rules (which even led to discussions in court) to just plain problems with safety standards. But at the end of the day, fans in the stands watched Bobby Unser cross the finish line first to win his third Indy 500 title, with Andretti coming just behind him in second. And then things got weird. Sixteen hours later, the official statements suddenly called Andretti the winner; Unser had received a penalty that ultimately cost him the win.

A kind of pandemonium ensued, and when the dust settled, the situation had resolved. Somewhat. IndyStar explains that, following five months of court proceedings, the win was restored to Unser, and the history books officially recognize him as the winner. That said, both Andretti and Unser have championship rings for that year, and Andretti holds that the win was his, regardless of what the records say – a debacle that soured what used to be a strong friendship. In short, it's certainly an unusual way to lose a race. Maybe even the result of a curse.

The curse didn't seem to end with Mario Andretti's career

As explained by Bleacher Report, Mario Andretti had quite a lengthy career and quite a number of starts at the Indy 500 from the 1960s to the 1990s. But all good things must come to an end, and Andretti's last race was in 1994 (with just an unglamorous end as many of his other times at Indianapolis). But it wasn't actually Andretti's last time driving at the famous track.

In 2003, Andretti was back behind the wheel of an Indycar, doing some testing in another driver's car (via Motorsport). In an interview with Autosport, Andretti said himself that the day was going great, and he was setting some pretty impressive lap times. But with just a few minutes left in the session, the car in front of Andretti had problems and crashed into the wall, scattering debris all over the track. Traveling at over 200 mph, Andretti didn't exactly have time to react, and he collected some of that debris. All of a sudden, his car went flying, flipping over a couple times in the air. Fortunately, the car landed on its wheels, and Andretti walked away uninjured.

So, really, Andretti himself called it a stroke of good luck; after all, yes, there had been a crash, but he hadn't been hurt in the process. Regardless, though, it's hard not to think of the Andretti family curse in this instance. Sure, Andretti wasn't in the race itself, so the curse couldn't stop him from winning, but a crash is pretty hard to ignore, especially 10 years after Andretti had already retired.

The Andretti family curse has affected many of them

The curse didn't only affect Mario Andretti. After all, it's the Andretti family curse; it's really done a number on quite a few of them.

Bleacher Report goes pretty in-depth on the misfortunes of the entire family at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of course, there are Michael and Marco Andretti, Mario's son and grandson, respectively. Michael had a rather successful career as a driver, but much like his father, his trips to the 500 were plagued with stories of mechanical issues and crashes, unfortunate strategy calls, and plain bad luck. And all that despite him leading more than 400 laps over the course of 16 visits to the speedway. Marco's story isn't all too different, either – crashes, mechanical failures, and some strange inability to come in higher than second place. IndyStar sums things up more succinctly regarding these three; all three were named Rookie of the Year over the years, and yet none of them averaged better than a 10th-place finish.

But the curse even extends beyond those three. Jeff Andretti – Mario's son and Michael's brother – only drove in the Indy 500 three times. He only actually finished one of those races (a disappointing 15th-place finish), and his other two appearances ended in crashes. Then there's also John Andretti, Mario's nephew, who also had his fair share of shots at the championship title, only to constantly come up short, either due to problems with the car, or just not having the speed to keep up with the rest of the field.

They can't win, even when multiple family members are in the running

So, it's been well established that, for whatever reason, members of the Andretti family just cannot seem to come out on top in the Indy 500. But what if there are multiple family members racing at the same time? Better chances, right? Even if only statistically speaking.

Well, if history is anything to go by, apparently, even upping the odds doesn't have much of an effect. In 2006, both Michael and Marco Andretti were representing the family, per Bleacher Report, and as the race neared its end, things were looking pretty good. They were actually running in first and second with only a few laps left. It really did seem like the curse was about to be broken, but then in came Sam Hornish Jr., (via Autoweek). In short: Hornish passed Marco on the final lap, walking away with the win and one of the closest finishes in the history of the race.

But 2006 wasn't even the craziest example of this. For that, you'd have to go back to 1992. Per ESPN, that year, there were four members of the family in the race – Mario, Michael, Jeff, and John. Something like that had never been seen before, and nevertheless, things didn't go any better. Arguably, things were actually worse. Both Mario and Jeff went into the wall, hitting hard enough that they needed to be taken to the hospital for their injuries. And Michael, after having no idea the state of his two family members, also ran into trouble, his car just dying for no apparent reason.

The Andretti family doesn't believe in the curse

It probably isn't much of a surprise that the press has really latched onto this whole deal with a curse. After all, it really does make for quite the story, doesn't it?

The Andretti family doesn't quite agree, though. In fact, Mario Andretti has been pretty vocal about it; in an article by IndyStar, while he does acknowledge that there's been some pretty ridiculously bad luck, he refuses to actually refer to the "curse" that's been built up by the media, saying, "I will never endorse the idea of a curse. Actually, I want to put that away forever." It's clear enough that he'd like to debunk this entire thing and just move on. Beyond that, though, he also has made it known that, rather than resenting Indianapolis or the race or the poor luck, he sees things in the opposite way: "Indy has always been a blessing for me and my family ... It's a tough place and, sure, it's been disappointing many times, but we love it" (via Racer).

Mario's grandson, Marco Andretti, has also weighed in on the topic. Speaking to For the Win, he explained that the family will play things up just a little because they know the media loves drama, but really, they would rather count their blessings than bemoan their misfortunes. IndyCar is a dangerous sport, after all, so the fact that they've all been safe for so many years? How could anyone call that bad luck?

There are some glimpses of hope

Regardless of anything else, it seems that the stipulations of this supposed curse are pretty clear: no member of the Andretti family can ever win the Indy 500. On the surface, that seems incredibly clear-cut. But, really, there's more of a gray area than might be immediately obvious.

If you take a look at the 2022 IndyCar season, you'll see the Andretti name crop up, but specifically, it's there as the name of a team. Autosport has a bit more to say on the exact status of the team and whether or not they're doing well (it's pretty up and down, to say the least), but when it comes to the Indy 500, well, they've had a pretty strong showing since the mid-2000s. With Michael Andretti at the helm as the team owner, five different drivers have gotten themselves to the victory lane: Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, Alexander Rossi in 2016, and Takuma Sato in 2017 (via IndyStar).

Sure, it's not an Andretti winning the Indy 500 from the driver's seat, but it's still a win (well, five wins), even if in a slightly different way. In that light, the curse doesn't seem quite as powerful, and Mario Andretti was adamant in raising that point to the media: "Look at Michael, the way he's getting his revenge as an owner. He never won as a driver ... but now he's a five-time winner as an owner."