Memories of Daytona Mingle With Memories Of Andretti

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 9 2020
Daytona International Speedway was a special place for John Andretti .

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To anyone involved in motorsports, Daytona International Speedway is magical, especially the Daytona 500. 

It’s the place my dad always wanted to be in February during my childhood, but I usually messed up his vacation by getting the flu. It’s a place where numerous memories of the “Great American Race” flood your mind every year when you drive through the infield tunnel for the first time in the 10-day stretch. It’s where you feel chills run down your spine when you stand on pit road and watch a tightly packed field of stock cars roar off the fourth turn to take the green flag in the Daytona 500. 

Daytona is an emotionally charged place. However, this year as I drove through the tunnel for the first time and looked at the historical moments on the wall, John Andretti was on mind. The 56-year-old Andretti recently lost his battle with colon cancer and he was one of the most gracious, humble drivers I have ever known. He never won the Daytona 500 like his uncle Mario Andretti, but he did get to enjoy the 2.5-mile track’s victory lane. 

The year was 1997 and the date was July 5. It was the morning of the Pepsi 400. John and I were standing outside the old infield media center, located a few steps from the garage entrance. The driver motor coach area also was close by. No one bothered to interrupt John for an autograph while we talked. Suddenly, Dale Earnhardt emerged from the garage and immediately was bombarded by fans as he quickly walked towards the motor coach entrance, signing as he maneuvered his way through those trying to impede his path. John just looked at me and smiled. His smile was always one that was warm and sincere. But it also was one that made me think he knew something that he was keeping a secret until just the right time. 

That day I never saw anyone stop John and ask for an autograph. I even overheard one fan ask a friend who he was as he ran past me towards the garage later that morning. Her friend knew, but neither requested an autograph from the Cale Yarborough Motorsports driver. However, by the time the race ended, everyone knew the then 34-year-old Andretti. He snared his first NASCAR Cup victory by finishing less than a second ahead of Terry Labonte.

Andretti’s only other Cup victory came at Martinsville, Va., in 1999 when he drove for Richard Petty. He also won in open wheel and sports cars, and was the first driver to perform the Memorial Day weekend double, competing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. The fact people didn’t often recognize him never seemed to bother him. His smile, calm demeanor and quite determination never wavered throughout his career.  

I last saw John and his wife, Nancy, in the summer of 2017 when I ran into Walgreen’s to get a prescription for my mother. Even with all they were facing with John’s colon cancer battle, they still had time to talk. John told me he was about to begin treatments again. He had stopped them so he would feel good for his daughter’s wedding. 

John became a strong colonoscopy advocate after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. If you’ve ever had a friend or a relative battle cancer, you are familiar with their tough, painful fight.     

I thought of John last year when I went for my overdue colonoscopy. And, of course, I thought of him Saturday morning when I drove through the Daytona infield tunnel. It may have been several years since John Andretti celebrated a race win, but every time someone gets a colonoscopy because of him, he enjoys another victory. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 9 2020
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