Cancer plays no favorites and doesn’t have a conscience. It can destroy someone’s life and a family in a matter of months and it can bring down the strongest of people. It can make a person fixate on the “why me?” game or throw them into the depths of depression.
And while cancer finally ended John Andretti’s brave run on Thursday, it was a four-year battle royale that personified the human spirit because he kept fighting for, and with, the support of his family and showed us how long courage and attitude can fend off the insidious disease that kills 700,000 Americans a year.
“John gave it everything he had and he fought so hard,” said Mario Andretti, who bought the best treatment possible for his nephew against the evil known as colon cancer. “He was in so much pain the last few months and tried not to show it, always tried to put on a good front, and I think his attitude kept him alive, no question.
“He was an amazing person and we tried everything from clinical trials to even a blessing from The Pope but sadly nothing could save him.”
But because of his honesty and goodwill, Andretti turned his plight into something helpful. When he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in April of 2017, he immediately blamed himself for not getting a colonoscopy earlier and preached to people not to make the same mistake. His CheckIt4Andretti campaign encouraged getting colon screening and likely saved quite a few people.
“This could have been prevented,” he said at the time. “It’s unfair for my family and it’s my fault.”
As he began extensive and punishing rounds of daily chemo and radiation, I began texting him for updates and he was always forthcoming and funny. “Dealing with a lot of pain but it beats the alternative and I’m blessed to have such great medical care. Chemo is like the IRS – mean and doesn’t play fair.”
In the fall of 2017, I was diagnosed with bone cancer called multiple myeloma and one of the first calls I got was from John. He called or texted every other week and wondered if he could help. I assured him my cancer was very treatable and not nearly as serious as his but he was concerned.
What happened to Andretti next falls somewhere between unfair and cruel. Before 2017 was over his scans were clear, his cancer was gone and wife Nancy, daughters Olivia and Amelia and son Jarett breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But the Big C returned with a vengeance and spread to other parts of his body by 2018. It’s the kind of gut shot that would have destroyed most people but it only seemed to strengthen John’s resolve.
“Doctors told me I can’t beat it but I sure as hell going to give it my best go,” was his text to me that May. “I gotta hang around long enough to see Jarrett run Indy and my girls graduate. Tall order but I’m planning on it.”
John’s racing career was as fly-by-night as it was diverse. Yes his last name was Andretti but father Aldo didn’t have the money necessary to send him up the ladder so he went from midgets to sprints to Indy cars the old fashioned way – he earned it.
“John drove my midget for two years, then he ran part-time and we were in Belleville, Kansas one night, just the two of us, and we were struggling,” recalled Rollie Helmling, whose Harold’s Super Markets funded his racing before he became president of USAC.
“He got a call from Cary Agajanian who told him that Mike Curb had just fired Tom Sneva and they wanted him to run the Skoal Bandit Indy car at Road America,” Helmling added. “They sent a contract and John was reading it and said he wasn’t sure about a couple of things and I screamed at him: ‘John, we’re in the middle of Kansas, you need a job and it’s Dan Gurney’s car – now sign that thing.’ He did, I was the witness and that got him going.”
Andretti finished sixth in that 1987 IndyCar debut, then drove for Curb full-time in 1988 before going with Vince Granatelli and then Derrick Walker in 1990.
“John drove our Porsche (pictured below) with Teo Fabi and he was such a good guy and put a lot of effort into his racing,” said Walker. “He had a great sense of humor and not a malicious bone in his body and I never saw him use the Andretti name to get him anything. He was not a silver spoon driver — he worked hard to find sponsors and was always focused on his career.”
His lone IndyCar victory came in 1991 for Jim Hall at Surfers Paradise and following a couple of Indy 500 drives for A.J. Foyt, Andretti headed south. He became a NASCAR full-timer in 1993 and had a good decade in stock cars – winning for Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.
His 12th and final Indy 500 start came in 2011 yet he never severed his ties with the charity he started in 1997 – The Race for Riley – a go-kart race with proceeds for Riley Children’s Hospital which has raised over $4 million. Even in his weakened condition last October he was in Indianapolis to present a check to the kids.
“John was so caring and sharing and it amazed me how he could endure what he did and still smile through the pain and be so thoughtful,” said Helmling. “These last few months have been so tough and Michael (Andretti) flew him up here in November and I spent an hour with him and he knew he was headed for hospice but he still had such a spirit. That’s the ultimate courage.”
There have been better racers than John Andretti but I never met anybody who faced death with as much grit, heart, benevolence and dignity. In this fast, famous family he should always be remembered as the bravest.