John Andretti grew up thinking his first name was Other. As in, The Other Andretti. But, as the nephew of Mario and the cousin of Michael Andretti, John established a successful career of his own. He won in IndyCars. He won in the NASCAR Cup series. He won the 24 Hours of Daytona. He raced 300 mph NHRA Top Fuel dragsters. He won on dirt tracks in midgets and sprint cars. He was also the first to ever do “The Double” by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and then flying to Charlotte for the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 1994. He was a racer. If it had wheels and an engine, he was willing to race it.
John was diagnosed with colon cancer in January, 2017. He fought the disease, gutting through gruesome surgeries and treatments while raising awareness of the need to get routine colonoscopies with the program called #CheckIt4Andretti. He passed away January 30, 2020 at his home near Charlotte, North Carolina.
Here is an excerpt from his autobiography, RACER, as told to author Jade Gurss. Ten percent of all proceeds from the sale of RACER will be donated to John’s chosen charity, the Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. Pre-order RACER at OctanePress.com.
At age 15, it really hit me what it meant to be an Andretti. My cousin Michael got an opportunity to go to a driving school in Europe, and he wanted me to go along. We were just kids and neither one of us had a driver’s license. We were just over there having a great time and getting a big experience.
We went to the Andre Pilette Racing School in Zolder, Belgium. (It was the same track where F1 great Gilles Villeneuve would later be killed.) We ran Formula Vees around there. Formula Vees were the perfect introduction to driving an open-wheel, rear-engined car.
One lesson was on a skid pad. It’s a big, open space that they cover in water so the car can slide and spin. They were teaching us how to do 180s and 360s, and I got really good at it. Michael did too, of course. It was a lot of fun and it taught car control – although I didn’t know then what it was going to do for us.
Andre had been teaching us, as well as his son, Teddy. Both had raced in Formula 1 at one time or another. So here comes Teddy, barrel-assing down toward the skid pad to show us all how to do a proper 360. Uncle Mario had just shown up, so perhaps that’s why Teddy was trying so hard.
Teddy started spinning and went right into a lamp post at high speed. He smashed into the concrete base, and the entire pole crashed down on the car. Michael and I – our eyes and mouths were wide open. “Holy ****!” Mario was about ready to die laughing. And Andre Pilette, as calm as could be, says, “Zat is ze improper way.” Are you kidding me?
Before Mario arrived, we stayed in this old hotel, and we thought we’d be cool to drink beer. We’d go out for a movie, and I told Michael that when we walked down the street, we should wave at people and then yell, “Hey, asshole!” and keep smiling. Well… I didn’t realize everyone spoke English! That’s how dumb I was. Michael knew because he had already been over there, so he just stayed quiet and let me do it. “Why are people getting so mad?” I wondered. “How do they know that word?”
Andre was a piece of work. One day we were going to the track and he was driving his Porsche, and God forbid he would move his seat up a bit so my knees would fit in the back. Michael always got the front seat, relaxing like King Crab. I was in the back of this Porsche 944 and, as short as I was, nobody’s legs could fit back there! This lady was pulling out of her driveway and Andre went up through her front yard, through her flower bed, through the bushes, and then back on the street. The whole time he is talking: “Vat you have to do is see the zituation…” as we’re crashing through all of this! Instead of just hitting the brakes, he mowed down everything.
We thought when Mario showed up the fun was going to end. But it had just started! It made me realize just how powerful he was. He was way beyond just “Uncle Mario.” He was somebody who people looked up to and held in high regard. As big as he is here in the States, he’s a god in Europe. All of a sudden, everything was free, everything was taken care of, everything was a limo, everything was a helicopter – it was a whole lifestyle change for me.
We definitely had a good time. There are a lot of stories. We were like princes running around with the king. Until then, racing was just part of what our family did. But I began to understand what my last name meant.
We were staying in Salzburg during the opera season, as Mario was at the Salzburgring, testing his F1 car. One morning, Mario was in the shower, bellowing out an aria. Michael and I opened the hotel room door so everyone could hear him singing. When we went down to breakfast, all of the waitresses were looking at Mario and giggling. “What’s so funny?” Mario asked. “Is it my hair?”
We went to Germany where Mario was racing in the German Grand Prix. One of Mario’s sponsors had two daughters, and one of the daughters was really hot. Now, Michael would beg to differ, but she had no interest in either one of us. I would say if she did have any interest, it would’ve been me. But she definitely did not have an interest in either one of us. The night before the race, we were staying up late, trying to make headway with this girl. Finally, it dawned on us young geniuses that it ain’t going to happen. She’d already gone to bed.
Then we realized: “Oh, crap! We don’t have a key to the room! We can’t go knock on the door and wake up Mario the night before the Grand Prix!” But, we had a big idea. The room was poolside, so we would sneak through the pool area and go in the window. We had to walk through this muddy ditch, so we were a real mess when we got there. We got the window open and Michael started to crawl in the window. The window had these ribs along the windowsill, and I started pushing him. His legs went straight out, and I got these two huge globs of mud on me. “Ow! Ow! Owwww!” He was trying to be quiet. (There was a lot of muffled giggling.) He made it in, so I started to climb in. He grabbed my wrists and drug me in over the windowsill. The next morning, we woke up as Mario was shaving.
“Hey! You two Einsteins!” he yelled. “I left the door cracked open so you just needed to push on it and it was open. I heard ya, ‘Oh, . . . ow . . . ooh . . . ah!’”
We had failed with the girl… and with Mario.
But it was a great time, then we flew back to the U.S. Of course, we flew back first class because we were with Mario, in the first two rows of a 747.
That was a big trip for me – it was the first time I’d been out of the country. I got to drive race cars and be around Formula 1 cars! I got to see a different side of my uncle, because it was the first time to see him “hands-on” at work. It was intense to be right in the middle of everything. Pretty cool.
After we got back from the trip, I was in Michael’s fan club for inviting me along. I was the president… and only member. We could have had our annual meeting each year in a phone booth.