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Racing Loses Multi-Level Winner: John Andretti

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 31 2020
John Andretti was a fighter both in and out of race cars.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Nearly two-decades after it went up, the rectangular, full-color poster thumb-tacked to the wall over the work bench in my garage in Fort Worth proclaims: Pennzoil Has A New Car, A New Team and A New Driver.

It’s a simple-yet-slick promotional piece announcing John Andretti as wheelman of the low-slung, yellow No. 4 Pennzoil Z-7 Hall/VDS Racing Lola/Chevrolet for the 1991 Championship Auto Racing Teams season. That SWAG was picked up during a last-minute trip myself and staff photographer Jerry Hoefer of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made on assignment to Midland, Texas, to interview the team principals before the start of the season in Australia.

Interviewing Jim Hall, whose line of revolutionary Chaparral sports cars and Indy cars were/are the stuff of West Texas legend, always was intimidating. Jim Hall truly was the smartest guy in any room. Interviewing Andretti, with his ever-present smile and boundless enthusiasm for whatever he was driving, always was a joy.

John often told the story of how he would sit in a classroom at Speedway High School _ a short sprint from Lyndon Street up 25th Street to Indianapolis Motor Speedway _ and listen for the Indy cars to start practicing during the Month of May. Daydreaming, he was determined to add to the Andretti family’s Indianapolis 500 legacy. 

John Andretti and Richard Petty at the world’s most famous race track. (File photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

Our schedule was unusually tight that spring day, and once the interviews were on-tape and Jerry’s photos were on film, we were back on a plane ticketed to Fort Worth. Hall/VDS and Andretti, meanwhile, were preparing to head to the Land Down Under, where they introduced themselves with an improbable victory in Queensland. John led four laps of the 65-lapper that afternoon in Surfers Paradise during a season in which he would lead only one more lap in 17 total starts.

One year after an underwhelming season spent in Porsche’s Indy car experiment, Andretti recorded that victory, five top-five and 11 top-10 results for Hall/VDS, including a fifth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. That poster and Andretti’s best season of INDYCAR racing immediately came to mind Thursday, Jan. 30, when John’s death was announced after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 56.

Andretti Autosport, the successful INDYCAR organization owned by cousin Michael, issued the following statement:  “It’s with the heaviest of hearts we share that John Andretti has today lost his battle with cancer. John was a loving husband and father, a devoted son and a trusted cousin. He was a philanthropist, an advocate for the sport, a dedicated teammate, a driven competitor and most importantly a dear friend.  

“Through Race4Riley, John spent decades dedicating his time and fundraising attention to Riley Hospital for Children. When first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017, John vowed to fight back and use his voice to help spread the word of prevention and early detection. He fought hard and stole back days the disease vowed to take away. He helped countless others undergo proper screening, and in doing so, saved lives.

“We will forever carry with us John’s genuine spirit of helping others first and himself second. Our prayers today are with (wife) Nancy, Jarett, Olivia and Amelia, with our entire family and with fans worldwide.

“We urge all our followers to, please, #CheckIt4Andretti.”

Open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr., an extended family member, added his condolences to the Andrettis.

“This is a very sad day,” Foyt said. “I was John’s godfather and it seemed the older we got, the closer we got. He called me about a week-and –a-half ago and he sounded tired but I didn’t think it would happen this quick. When Mario called me, it really caught me off-guard. I thought John had more time. John was really a fighter and he fought this long and hard. There was no harder fighter than him. It’s a terrible shame. Whenever and wherever they have his service, I’ll be there.”

John Andretti raced both with and without fenders. (RacinToday file photo by Tony Bush)

A member of the famed Andretti racing family, John drove and won at the highest levels of North American motorsports in Indy cars, stock cars and sports cars. He also competed in Top Fuel drag racing and short-track open-wheel racing. His career included 12 starts in the Indianapolis 500 and 11 starts in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mark Miles, president/CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., issued the following statement on behalf of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: 

“John Andretti’s skills behind the wheel of any kind of race car were admired by his millions of fans around the world, and he always returned that loyalty and kindness to become one of the most popular drivers of his generation. But John’s true mission was helping others, whether through his countless hours of charity work, especially with Riley Children’s Hospital here in Indianapolis, or by the colon screening campaign he started in April 2017 after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“John’s positive attitude and selflessness throughout his brave fight inspired all of us and will be a legacy that will continue forever. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Nancy, their three children and the entire Andretti family.”

John Andretti was born in Bethlehem, Pa., on March 12, 1963, the son of former racer Aldo Andretti and nephew of Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time Formula One World Driving Champion.

John Andrew Andretti started his racing career in karting and won the USAC Speedrome Regional Midget series title in 1983 at age 20. He began his professional fulltime driving career after graduating from Moravian College in his hometown in 1985.

John landed in Victory Lane almost immediately in IMSA sports car racing, winning a race with co-driver and eventual fellow -Indy 500 veteran Davy Jones in September 1986 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. That success helped launch Andretti into INDYCAR competition with Curb Racing in 1987, joining uncle Mario and cousin Michael. John was named series Rookie of the Year in 1987.

John made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1988 with Curb Racing. He ran as high as seventh in the No. 98 Skoal Bandit Lola/Cosworth before engine problems relegated him to a 21st-place finish.

Continuing to compete in sports cars, Andretti teamed with veteran international legends Bob Wollek and Derek Bell to win the 1989 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the gold-and-white No. 67 Miller High Life Porsche 962 Prototype. Andretti and Wollek also co-drove to victory later that season at Palm Beach, Fla., in the same Porsche. Andretti placed fifth in the IMSA standings that season as the highest-ranked Porsche driver.

The 1991 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at IMS marked the first of two consecutive years in which four members of the Andrettis  _ Mario, Michael, John and cousin Jeff _ raced in the Indy 500.

A week after John’s career-best finish at Indy in 1991 produced another highlight, when Michael, John and Mario Andretti finished 1-2-3 in the CART race at The Milwaukee Mile.

In his lone CART start in 1993, John finished 10th in the Indy 500 while driving for Foyt _ the year A.J. retired from the cockpit at IMS. John also started/finished 10th at IMS in another Foyt entry in 1994.

John made headlines in NHRA Championship Drag Racing in 1993 by reaching the Top Fuel semifinals in his first national event, the Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. He clocked a career-best speed of 299 mph in that event.

Andretti shifted his focus to NASCAR during a partial schedule in the Cup Series in 1993, going fulltime with Hagan Racing in 1994 and driving the final third of the season in the famed Petty blue-and-red No. 43 STP Pontiac Grand Prix for Richard Petty Enterprises.

On May 29, 1994, Andretti made North American racing history by becoming the first driver to attempt and complete “The Double” of competing in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day. He finished 10th at Indy and 36th in Concord, N.C.

Andretti earned his first Cup Series victory in July 1997 at Daytona International Speedway while driving for Cale Yarborough Motorsports. But John’s NASCAR career reached its peak when he returned to Petty’s team fulltime in 1998. That started a stint of nearly five seasons between two of the most iconic names in American motorsports. John finished 11th in the standings in 1998 during his first season with “King Richard” and earned his second and final Cup victory with the team in spring 1999 at Martinsville Speedway.

Andretti teamed with another famous member of the Petty family _ Richard’s son, Kyle _ to win the GT class in a Porsche GT3R at a GRAND-AM Sports Car Series race in August 2001 at Watkins Glen.

When his fulltime tenure with Petty ended during the 2003 season, Andretti began a diverse schedule behind the wheel that included starts in the NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series, GRAND-AM Sports Car Series and NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti made a popular return to the Indianapolis 500 in 2007 with Panther Racing, competing at IMS every year through 2011. His final two 500 starts, in 2010-11, came while driving for cousin Michael’s Andretti Autosport organization.

His charity work saw John and Indianapolis-area radio personality Dave “The King” Wilson co-found the “Race for Riley,” an annual go-kart event in Central Indiana that has raised nearly $4-million for the Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis since its inception in 1997.

When he announced his diagnosis with late-stage colon cancer in April 2017, Andretti also started an aggressive campaign to urge regular colon screening, something he admittedly didn’t do to catch his illness in its early stages. The #CheckIt4Andretti campaign became a rallying cry during the 2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, seen on many hats and T-shirts. The hashtag and campaign saved many lives through regular colonoscopies and still is shared frequently on social media.

Among his children, Jarett Andretti has followed his father’s career path and drives sprint cars, sports cars and Indy Lights. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 31 2020
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