It was April of 2017 when the news broke, and the diagnosis wasn’t good. John Andretti was battling stage 4 colon cancer, and the outcome appeared bleak.
He began chemo and radiation treatments and, while in the midst of a crisis, simultaneously channeled energy into helping others to not find themselves in the same situation. He began a campaign called #CheckIt4Andretti, reaching out to race fans and urging them to get colon screenings. John believed that, had his own cancer been detected much earlier, he would have faced a much more winnable battle.
At one point later in the year, word spread through the racing community that there might be a glimmer of hope for recovery, that there had been improvement and his screenings were looking much better. But, those hopes were quickly dashed, and John and the rest of the racing world braced for what now seemed even more certainly to be an inevitable outcome.
He vowed to never give up the fight, wanting to live to experience more days with his wife Nancy, son Jarett, and daughters Olivia and Amelia. And, true to his word, he never gave up that fight, but neither did the vicious disease that was his attacker.
On January 30, at the age of 56, the cancer claimed his life. His friends, family, and the entire racing world had lost a shining star.
A week later, memorial services were held. His hearse, and a short procession of cars containing members of the Andretti family, took a detour on the way to the cemetery, slowly making one final lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the scoring tower displayed his name.
He was born into a racing legacy on March 12 of 1963 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the son of Italian immigrant Aldo Andretti, and nephew of Aldo’s twin brother Mario Andretti. His cousin Michael had been born a year previous, and cousin Jeff would be born a year later, both sons of Mario. His brother Adam would be born in March of 1979. All would have high-profile careers in auto racing.
John followed his destiny first in karts, then junior stock cars, and midgets and sprint cars competing with USAC, scoring one career win with the sanctioning body’s National midget series. As time went on, his racing career became more eclectic, competing in everything from sports cars to NHRA top fuel dragsters, and of course the three premier NASCAR divisions and Indy cars. Though never taking the checkers in the 500, he competed in 12 Indy 500’s, earning a career-best finish of fifth in 1991. It was one of three years in which four Andrettis – John, Mario, Michael, and Jeff – all competed.
Just prior to his diagnosis in 2017, it was common to see John present in the pits at dirt tracks on the USAC trail, guiding son Jarett’s racing career as he competed in sprint cars, midgets and the Silver Crown division. The next generation of the famous Andretti racing family. Casually dressed, standing in the infield of an Indiana bullring, John’s low-key demeaner and easy-going nature would not offer any clues to any unknowing competitors that they were in the presence of a 12-time Indy 500 competitor.
Despite a lifetime with that massive surname that both opened doors and also brought with it an intense pressure to perform, he was just…John. He was down-to-earth. He was just a dad, teaching his kid the ropes of the family business. He was a racer. And, in the end, he was a fighter. R.I.P., John.