One of the things I hated about my time covering auto racing was people who had become more than subjects of stories, they had become friends, but their lives were lost, and lost way too soon, to a dangerous sport. Yes, they knew the risks they were taking, but their deaths didn’t make it any easier on those of us who knew them.
Sure, we could take some consolation in the fact that they died doing what they chose to do. Nonetheless, their deaths were losses to their families, their friends and their fans.
But there is no such consolation for me in the death Thursday of John Andretti.
Just as his father, Aldo, was overshadowed on the track by his twin brother Mario, so John’s racing career was never as acclaimed as that of his cousin, Mario’s son Michael. And yet it was John who was the first, and I believe still the only, driver to have competed in the highest level of Indycar racing, of stock car racing, of sports car racing, and even of drag racing.
If you aren’t familiar with his career, you can read about his victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona, his victory in the Indycar race at Surfers Paradise, a stock car career that included victory in the July/Firecracker race at Daytona, and even his success in a Top Fuel dragster, clocking 299 mph in the quarter-mile.
He also was one of the few professional racing drivers with a college degree.
Lesser known than his on-track performance, but so important to John and his wife, Nancy, was the founding and support for Race for Riley to benefit patients at the children’s hospital in Indianapolis.
Ah, John and Nancy. I can’t really think of one without the other, or remember the night when they and my teenage son and I filled John’s Merkur XR4ti and he drove, yes, quickly (but also safely) enough so we’d not be late for an Indianapolis Ice minor league hockey game.
After they moved to Charlotte, we kept up by telephone, the times we’d both be a race tracks, and by the Christmas cards they sent every year, cards to let me see their family as it grew in numbers and as Olivia, Jarett and Amelia grew from year to year.
A few years ago, John was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer. Characteristically, he not only fought it, but with Nancy launched #CheckIt4Andretti, a very public effort to get everyone screened, immediately and then regularly.
On Thursday, and only in his mid-50s, John’s battle ended. I write this with so much sadness. Sadness for Nancy and her family, for their friends, and for their fans. But also with the realization that as hollow as it may seem, there is consolation, consolation in knowing that through John’s example, through #CheckIt4Andretti, John’s death may extend the lives of others.
My friend John’s battle is over. It’s up to us to finish it for him, for Nancy, for Olivia, for Jarett, and for Amelia, and so that other families don’t have to grieve.