The news hit hard Thursday afternoon. In a week when NASCAR will be celebrating its newest Hall of Fame class, it must also say goodbye to one of its most cherished competitors, John Andretti.
Andretti, 56, of Bethlehem, Pa., died of colon cancer on Thursday. But it is the way he lived and the way he ultimately helped others live that will be remembered most about this great racing talent. He won races for legends on legendary race tracks and made a name for himself as one of the most versatile competitors in the sport.
And he was always, one of the “nice guys” – a pleasure to speak with, to share a laugh with, to marvel at.
Andretti Autosport, which is run by John’s cousin Michael Andretti, released a statement Thursday afternoon: “It is with the heaviest of hearts we share that John Andretti has today lost his battle with cancer. John was a loving husband and father, a devoted son and a trusted cousin. He was a philanthropist, an advocate for the sport, a dedicated teammate, a driven competitor and most importantly, a dear friend."
Andretti is survived by his wife Nancy and children Jarrett, Olivia and Amelia.
The son of Aldo Andretti, Mario Andretti’s twin brother, John Andretti was a master of the “competition” – any car, any venue - at a time most modern-day drivers were beginning to focus their competitive efforts in only one form of racing.
In 1989 Andretti won the Rolex 24 at Daytona co-driving with sportscar greats Bob Wollek and Derek Bell and a decade later – won a six-hour IMSA race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) in 2001 teaming with NASCAR star Kyle Petty.
He won the 1991 IndyCar season-opener at Australia. And in 1993, advanced to the Top Fuel dragster semifinals in his very first National Hot Rod Association race – marking his debut by beating drag racing legend Joe Amato in the opening round.
In 1994, Andretti became the first driver to attempt the “Memorial Day Double” – competing in both the Indy 500 and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. He finished 10th at Indy but his car suffered a mechanical problem in the NASCAR half of “The Double” and he did not finish the Charlotte race.
Better times were ahead however. He won two of NASCAR’s premier Cup Series races in a 10-year fulltime Cup career, fittingly driving for a pair of NASCAR Hall of Famers. His 1997 July win at Daytona International Speedway came for Cale Yarborough. Andretti was driving for Richard Petty in his 1999 win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
And, it is noteworthy to add, Andretti had all this racing success while also managing to earn a Business Management four-year college degree from Moravian College in his native Pennsylvania.
As his many accomplishments display, Andretti was versatile, driven, and ready for a challenge. But he went about things with a calm spirit. In interviews with the media he was funny, always smiling yet exceedingly humble about his resume. He never wore his diverse successes on his sleeve. And he always, always loved talking about his children.
Andretti made his family’s racing dynasty proud, contributing in ways unique and robust.
His uncle, legendary champion Mario Andretti issued a statement on Twitter Thursday, “Rest In Peace #JohnAndretti. The best godfather. Your passion for Motorsport was admirable. Always the good ones we lose too soon. #checkit4andretti”
NASCAR President Steve Phelps also shared the sentiment of the NASCAR industry: “John Andretti embodied the spirit of a champion and inspired an entire fan base through his courageous battle with cancer. He was a fierce competitor throughout his life, and we are saddened by his passing. The entire NASCAR family extends its deepest condolences and prayers to John’s family.”
As much as Andretti’s passing will be noted within the motorsports industry – in all the genres he competed in and beyond – and by the fans who cheered his versatility and talent on track; his life will also be duly noted by the people whose lives he saved too.
When he was diagnosed with late stage colon cancer in 2017, Andretti was not necessarily prepared to be so open about his health situation. However, he quickly discovered that he had a rare, far-reaching platform. He knew he could reach people and encourage them to get life-saving colonoscopies. He knew that he could affect a change in how people maintained their health.
Even as he began the aggressive and painful treatment and dealt with the emotions of a cancer diagnosis, Andretti remained adamant about saving others.
“I love people telling me that they’re going to get a colonoscopy, which I never thought that would ever be in my vocabulary," Andretti said with a laugh, addressing reporters in May, 2017 shortly after sharing his diagnosis and beginning his quest to help save others.
His talent behind the wheel made him an example in auto racing. His commitment to making a difference has made him an example in life.
A longtime supporter of the Riley Hospital for Children, Andretti had seen plenty of illness and suffering. And he also saw the upside of treatment and learned the impact of being proactive. That became his mission. It was something he had power to affect.
Teams put stickers on their race cars throughout the last two seasons – “#checkitforandretti.”
Andretti came to the 2019 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in the minutes before the Drivers Meeting was to start, a long line of people walked over to greet him. The handshakes were hearty and the hugs were tight. The smile never left his face. He was upbeat and truly enjoying the time in that setting. The reverence toward him was real and deserved.
It was important.
John Andretti was a “life example” – mastering the of art of showing grace under pressure and perhaps more importantly, he knew how to show grace when there was no pressure. It was just the right way to be.
For racers and for all of us. There is no finer legacy.
Thank you John.