John Andretti won in Indy cars. He won in the NASCAR Cup series. He won the 24 Hours of Daytona. He raced NHRA Top Fuel dragsters. He won on dirt tracks in midgets and sprint cars. He also was 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 also raising awareness of the need to get routine colonoscopies with the program called #CheckIt4Andretti. He passed away on January 30, 2020 at his home near Charlotte, North Carolina.
Here is an excerpt from his autobiography, RACER, as told to writer Jade Gurss. Ten percent of all proceeds from the sale of RACER are being donated to John’s chosen charity, the Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. You can order the book from Octane Press at OctanePress.com.
My goal had always been to make it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before my twenty-fifth birthday. My first test session at the Speedway was March 11 and 12, 1988. I remember it well because my twenty-fifth birthday was March 12. I was excited that I made my goal on the last possible day.
As a kid, I had been to the track a lot. At the end of the old garages was a Mallory Ignition garage. They could open the fence there to let in VIPs and guests without going through the main gate. As kids, we would come in through the Mallory gate and then out into the garages. It was pretty obvious because we were never big kids. It was clear we were under age. The guards would see us and chase us around. We’d run out of the main gate and then sneak around to the Mallory garage again. I don’t know how many years we did that, but the guards never caught us!
Every time I drive into the Speedway, it feels as special as the time before. It doesn’t matter if it’s right after the race or a random weekday, it’s still the Speedway. There’s no other place like it. If anyone says it’s not a special place, they’re not into the sport. Even the stock car guys understand what it stands for.
My experiences went way back, but I had never been on the track itself! A day before my test, I gave my dollar and rode around the track on the tour bus. I thought I’d better ride around in this thing before I do it in a race car. I rode in the front seat so I could see. He was driving down the middle of the track giving the tour and I was hoping he would drive on the racing line, but it at least gave me a rough idea. There was a warm-up lane, but it wasn’t a separate lane like now. It was a part of the race track.
In a race car, the track was totally different. I may not remember a lot of laps at the Speedway, but I remember my first time rolling out. It was intimidating. You look at those corners and you think, “Oh my gosh, that’s a fast corner!” It’s not easy!
The Mike Curb Motorsports Skoal Bandit team was led by John “Ando” Anderson, an Aussie who had the respect of everyone and was one of the nicest guys in the garage. He made sure I didn’t get myself in trouble. I took it at the right pace, and I never put myself in a bad position. The team didn’t either. And we had speed right away.
Engine issues had plagued us all season, and two failures meant I didn’t qualify on the opening weekend. I went out the following Saturday and qualified for the 500. The car picked up a push and the handling went away. I was in the race, but I wasn’t happy because I really wanted to post a quicker time. After the four-lap run, I rolled in half hot-headed, but as I came to a stop, I saw my dad there. That took every bit of anger and frustration away because here’s a guy who deserved to be there. A man who should have gotten an opportunity to be in the race. What did I have to be upset about? I was there! I was going to be in the Indianapolis 500.
The traditional qualifying photos from that day really mean a lot to me. It’s me and my dad. He didn’t get to qualify for Indianapolis, but I felt like my effort was something that made him proud and happy. It felt like something we did together, way back to working on the go-karts and working at the Firestone store. He’s always been there and always supportive of me. That was important and put things back in perspective.
To me—and it was always this way—the minute I got in the car, it was just another race. The helmet goes on and everything gets calmer and more focused. I had a lot of confidence that we would be good that day.
My first 500 went really well. I didn’t know any better, but I was passing people. The pass on the outside is not something invented in recent years by Alexander Rossi! I can promise you that. I moved up to seventh from twenty-seventh, and we were earning each spot. We passed the halfway mark feeling good, but on lap 114, the motor blew. And that was it. I was dejected because I was having a really good month and had put myself in the right places . . . not always on purpose. John Anderson had kept me on the right path.
As I climbed out of the car, I understood how disappointing the place can be. You walk out of there empty-handed. You pour your whole life into being there, and it can just rob you blind. I realized that when your race is over, it’s another twelve months until you get to try it again. Despite that emptiness, at the end of the day, you still say, “Thank you.”