John Andretti spent the final months of his life working on his autobiography, and despite his loss on January 30 to colon cancer, the project has gone forward to the point of completion and is expected to be published later this year.
Co-authored with award-winning writer Jade Gurss, whose book Driver 8 written with Dale Earnhardt Jr, became a national bestseller, and The Beast, on Team Penske’s all-conquering engine program for the 1994 Indianapolis 500, was widely celebrated, is putting the finishing touches on ‘John Andretti: RACER.’
The following snippets from the 41-chapter book, which features insights from the immensely versatile driver and forwards from Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Michael Andretti, and Richard Petty, are contained within almost 300 pages of funny and poignant material.
On the fog that nearly derailed his win at the 1989 24 Hours of Daytona:
I was in the car in the middle of the night, and I thought all of the fires in the campgrounds were making thick smoke, but it was fog rolling in. I couldn’t see anything, but we were making up time on the leader. We knew we had to run hard to get the Nissan to break. The Nissan was easily the fastest car, but not the most reliable. We believed the same about the Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguars, so we pushed hard throughout. I didn’t want to say too much on the radio about the “smoke” because I wanted to keep running to put more pressure on those teams.
“Can you see OK?,” Mike Colucci, the team manger, asked me on the radio. I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know our strategy.
“You tell me. Do I need to be able to see?” I asked. “No,” he said.
“Then, I can’t see!”
On being the first driver to do ‘The Double’:
I had a meeting with Humpy Wheeler, who was the showman/promoter at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had an idea to promote ticket sales and media coverage of the Coca-Cola 600, a race that started in the afternoon and ran into the night. The race had always been in the shadow of the Indy 500, which ran the same day.
Humpy’s idea was for me to be the first to ever race in the 500, then fly to Charlotte for the NASCAR 600-mile race. 1,100 miles of racing in one day! “You know, it could be done,” Humpy insisted. I had never even thought about it. Nobody had ever tried. “Well, hell, if it can be done, I might as well do it,” I said.
Then, I was on my own. It wasn’t as simple as jumping on a plane between races. There was an immense amount of logistics and coordination. I didn’t make any money off of it. Nothing. Of course, I didn’t do it for the money but it would have been nice to at least have had some lead time to secure additional sponsors. It all came together fairly late so we did our best.
Billy Hagan hadn’t been paying me, so he couldn’t really object to me attempting it. The team was scraping for every last cent, and as a rookie driver, I didn’t have much leverage to demand being paid. Where else was I going to go once the season had started?
I was able to do a deal to race at the 500 with A.J. Foyt’s team. The first qualifying weekend at Indy conflicted with the NASCAR race at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California, so I was going to miss a practice session or two.
Bombardier covered the cost of using their Lear Jets, which would have been a huge expense. It paid off for them because I think they ended up selling a Lear 60 to Dale Earnhardt. He saw the plane at the airport and thought it was mine.
“Really, Dale?” I laughed. “****. If you don’t have one, I definitely don’t have one.”
“Well, I didn’t know!” he said.
“You’re welcome to fly back with me if you want to. I have to go to Indy and then come back.”
“No. You’ll miss practice on Saturday,” he said.
When I left Indy for California on Wednesday, the Indy car was not handling well. Bryan Herta was my teammate. Even though he was a rookie, Bryan was really good at setting up the car, so while I was in Sonoma practicing and qualifying the Cup car, he helped work on my car and they changed everything. I mean everything. The shocks. The rocker arms. The wings.
I qualified the Cup car Friday (we were 38th fastest) at Sonoma, then hopped on the jet and landed in Indy in the middle of the night.
On confronting mortality:
I’m far from righteous. I just try to be logical about things. It tears you in half to see a child when they’re terminally ill or fighting cancer. Or with burns. It’s brutal. Everybody’s going to break an arm or a leg. You move on. You figure it out. Because you just do.
It’s not, “My life is over now.” You say, “Well, that happened. Let’s go!” But those kids, with horrible, terminal diseases… Their whole life is focused around their health. When they feel good, it’s everything. “I’m doing good,” they always say.
My dad does the same. “I’m doing good, John. Don’t worry about me.”
I am anxious about how I close the book of my life. How do I leave my family a little better and in the right place? I’m doing the best I can, but that’s what I worry about.