He was the driver with an Easter egg career. John Andretti’s resume is filled with impossible variation where all of the big leagues are covered, but those accomplishments only tell a portion of his incredible story.
It’s in the adventure to include his lesser-known outings, from all manner of racing series, that leads to a delightful hunt for surprises throughout the record books. It also gives us a deeper appreciation for how unique Andretti’s spirit was in our world.
John raced and won in IndyCar for the legendary Jim Hall. And in IMSA, for the BMW factory, and for renowned Porsche entrant Jim Busby while claiming overall victory at the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona. And Rick Hendrick.
And in NASCAR, for The King, Richard Petty, where he scored a famous win at the dizzying Martinsville. And for another legend, Cale Yarborough, in winning the summer Daytona 400. And for Richard Childress. And the Earnhardt family. And more.
He raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, crossing the finish line sixth overall while sharing a car with his famous uncle Mario and cousin Michael as part of the factory Porsche team. After receiving an invite from former baseball star-turned-team owner Jack Clark, he took on the world’s most insane racing machine – an NHRA Top Fuel dragster – and impressed with incredible reaction times and round wins in a form of the sport that was completely foreign to him.
In IndyCar, Andretti drove for Mario’s heated rival, the peerless A.J. Foyt. And Vince Granatelli. And Hall. And his cousin Michael. And more.
Andretti, BMW, Busby, Childress, Clark, Earnhardt, Foyt, Granatelli, Hall, Hendrick, Petty, Porsche, and Yarborough. It’s a Hall of Fame cast who hired John for his driving prowess, rather than the richness of his surname.
With no disrespect to his father Aldo or famous extended family, John was the different member of the Andretti clan whose last name was everything but a master key. There were occasional invites to take part in special Mario-Michael-and-John opportunities, but those are rarities on his CV. Despite having that famous last name, it did not unlock every door, nor would it guarantee a long and steady career in the sport.
This Andretti lacked the automatic prequalification that Mario and Michael carried into negotiations, and for that alone, I’ve long marveled at all John achieved. He earned those 440 NASCAR starts and 15 Daytona 500s, those 83 IndyCar drives and 12 Indy 500s, nearly 50 sports car starts spanning 1984 through 2012, and all the other crazy outings in between.
Consider these classic John Andretti resume entries: In 1988, he made his Indy 500 debut with Curb Racing and then, weeks later, flew east to France where, at 25 years old, he participated in his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, and just for fun, he added Australia’s great race – the Bathurst 1000 – to his amazing year of firsts after getting a call from Garry Rogers to be his co-driver at Mount Panorama.
The idea of adding one’s name to Indy, Le Mans, and Bathurst, all in the same season, borders on fantasy for most drivers.
And in another typical John Andretti moment, he arrived at the Sydney airport, ready to tackle the punishing Bathurst circuit, while walking slowly and gingerly on crutches. John suffered an explosive crash at the August 21 Pocono IndyCar race, which forced him to miss the next two IndyCar races due to significant foot and leg injuries.
Team owner Mike Curb, who serves as a co-entrant on Bryan Herta’s cars today, and was part of Dan Wheldon’s second Indy 500 win, recalls Andretti’s Pocono crash as the most violent he’d witnessed prior to Wheldon’s fatal impact at Las Vegas in 2011.
Andretti had almost six weeks to heal before the October 2 event at Mt Panorama, but he cut the recovery period short by returning early for the September 25 home IndyCar race at Nazareth. It set his healing back a fair bit.
Undeterred, Andretti spent the better part of 30 hours on planes to sprint from Pennsylvania to Australia to race the following weekend. Once there, his lower extremities took a new round of battering when a tire blew during the race. It was nowhere near as bad as Pocono, but John went hard into the wall, which left his aching feet tangled in the Holden Commodore’s pedals. New wounds from Bathurst kept him out of the Curb Racing IndyCar seat for the final two races of the year, and afterwards, he also lost his spot on the IndyCar grid.
Andretti would use the offseason to heal and turned up for his first race, now with Busby’s IMSA outfit, and in yet another classic moment, won the effing 24 Hours of Daytona in his first drive for the team.
That’s the irrepressible John Andretti I loved. And we’ve yet to start the proper Easter egg hunt.
His Bathurst 1000 appearance ranks atop the top of unexpected outings, just as his call-up to drive for Jaguar, on its IMSA swansong in 1993 at the 24 Hours of Daytona, jumps out as one of Andretti’s finer and sneakier appearances.
Go back to his earliest days in the sport, and it’s all but impossible to draw a line from where he started to where he finished. John’s formative stages had little to do with sports cars and Indy car; he took a page from his father and uncle, rather than his cousin, and built his foundation in short track racing. From the Midwest to the Northeast to the west coast, Andretti popped up in the early 1980s as a sprint and midget driver. USAC and a mix of regional circle-track championships were his home. And his exploits on dirt weren’t reserved for the U.S.; Andretti’s talents were on display in Australia’s hardcore short-oval scene well before he raced at Bathurst.
The Easter egg routine took root during John’s roundy-round era as an SCCA Super Vee race pops up – akin to today’s Indy Pro 2000 cars – and then there was an IMSA race or two in the second-tier GTP Lights class with an unheralded team. The old and oft-forgotten 1980s SCCA Can-Am series – a shell of its former self – also bears Andretti’s name at the even more forgotten Green Valley Raceway in Texas.
Returning to the John Andretti classics, 1987 stands out as another prime example of why he was beloved by so many people. BMW North America axed its glorious 1986 IMSA GTP program after a single season, despite John and Davy Jones taking a late and energizing win at the 500km Watkins Glen race. Without any serious offers coming his way, he made a bold decision to accept the only thing BMW had to give: a ride in a mostly stock M3 street car in IMSA’s production-based Firestone Firehawk series.
For the sake of comparison, it was like losing a full-time IndyCar ride and choosing to continue with the same manufacturer in go karts.
There was almost nothing lower on the pro-racing ladder for John to take, and yet, thanks to that unquenchable passion for driving, he signed up and had an almighty blast banging fenders and playing in a new form of racing. It’s such an obscure entry, you won’t readily find those Firehawk drives on his resume.
In the ultimate Easter egg season, we can’t forget 1993, so let John uncork just some of the things he raced and accomplished.
“Well that was a unique year, because basically, I was driving everything from go-karts to the Indy 500, to Daytona with the [NHRA] drag team, to the Indianapolis 500 with AJ [Foyt], to the Top Fuel car, to running my first NASCAR race, and who knows what else in between, but… oh yeah, I [also] set a land speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats,” he told me a few years ago.
Karts, the Indy 500 for Foyt where he finished 10th, his first Cup races for Tex Racing, breaking into the NHRA and beating defending Top Fuel champion Joe Amato in his first official round as a drag racer, plus… Bonneville!
And if 1993 wasn’t already rather ridiculous, Andretti drove in the final Moosehead Grand Prix, held on the streets of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a Formula 3000 car. And finished eighth. At the Moosehead effing Grand Prix!
“Basically, I just took a year off and said, ‘I’m just going to have fun. I’m not going to sign a contract with anybody. I’m going to be a hired gun and I’m just going to go week by week and I’m going to decide where I’m going to race, and what weekends I’m going to race, and that’s what I did,” he said. “Not to sound spoiled or anything, but it was great.”
Going back, I forgot that time in 1989 where he flew to Germany and did a one-off race in the Supercup series in a Porsche 962, and finished second on the cramped Norisring street course. And when he and cousin Michael shared Hendrick’s zillion-horsepower Corvette GTP car in 1988 at Mid-Ohio in the middle of John’s first season-long IndyCar campaign. And when he and former NASCAR teammate Kyle Petty turned up in a Porsche GT car and won their Grand-Am Rolex Series class at Watkins Glen in 2001.
And there’s more. With John Andretti, there’s always more. The Easter egg hunt might never end, and what does that say about the man?
We hail racing’s great utility players, the Foyts and Clarks, the Parnellis and Gurneys, the Hills – Phil and Graham – and the Marios, for blurring racing’s talent lines. As the legend goes, they’d race anything, anywhere, anytime. I’d like to propose we add a second Andretti to that list of all-timers. I bet a few of them would even blush a little bit after reading through John’s resume.
Asked if there was any form of racing he missed out on trying, we have yet another John Andretti classic to admire.
“I was scheduled to drive an unlimited hydroplane… I thought that it would be so cool to drive something like that,” he said as I shrieked and laughed. “It was going to happen. And then all of a sudden, one of those contractual things… I was going to quietly go off and do it, but it got [back] to the [NASCAR] team owner and he put a [stop] to it. I thought that would have been a lot of fun. Certainly differentiate myself from everyone else, that’s for sure.”
‘Differentiate himself.’ That’s the funniest line of all.
I’d offer that a big part of the outpouring of unprecedented love for Andretti in the week since his death has come in response to those efforts to race as often as possible in as many disciplines he could imagine. On dirt, on short ovals, street circuits, road courses, super speedways, drag strips, salt flats, and from Australia and back, how many racing series, and how many fans got to watch John Andretti pour his love for driving into a vehicle that brought crowds joy and memories?
He leaves behind large fan bases in seemingly every series on the planet.
“He’s one of those guys, that we, sadly, collectively as fans, really just took, and you hate to say it, but really just took the talent and took him for granted,” Kyle Petty said.
“But now, as you look at what he’s done, he’s like a Monet or a Picasso when you look back and you think, ‘oh my God’. You know what I mean?”
Yes, we do.