IndyCar, NASCAR driver John Andretti dies after long, public battle with cancer

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John Andretti, the versatile racer who waged a public battle with colon cancer, has died at age 56, Andretti Autosport announced Thursday. He was the nephew of Mario Andretti and son of Aldo.

“I’m an Andretti,” Andretti told IndyStar in May 2018. “I already beat the age I should have lived to. Growing up when you’re a little bit wild in a race car, I think everybody in our family’s always heard this: ‘You’re not going to live to see 20.’ Then it was, ‘You’re not going to live see 25,’ then, ’30.’

"But here I am. Still going. Our family’s already been through plenty of trials, and we’re still here. To get taken down by this, well, I’m going to go out giving it the strongest fight I can give it.”  

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More: John Andretti remembered for his racing passion and humility 

Andretti was almost predestined for the cockpit of a racing machine, born while his father still was competing in various racing circuits.  But the fact that those close to him -- from family to racing peers and charity associates -- agreed that his most impactful achievements came off the racetrack paints the picture of the person Andretti was outside of a race car.

For a winner both in IndyCar and NASCAR during a career that spanned 24 years, that means something.

"He had a racing last name, but the reason he was so popular in this area was because people knew him, saw him around, knew he grew up here," said IMS president Doug Boles. "He was a great race car driver, but he was our great race car driver."

Boles remembers the the pride he felt for a Westside native when Andretti got his lone IndyCar win in the 1991 season-opener in Australia. Another special moments Boles recalls includes  John sharing a podium with his cousin, Michael Andretti, at the Milwaukee Mile later that year with a second-place finish.

"I just remember thinking, 'How cool is it to have John Andretti -- not Mario, not Michael, but John -- winning a CART race,'" Boles said. "You can't state how big that was."

Even after Andretti left IndyCar for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after his 10th-place finish in the 1994 Indy 500, he never lost his Indy roots. After more than 10 years racing stock cars, he returned to IMS and IndyCar for five more Indy 500 starts.

By that point, he was more than a decade into what turned into his next major passion in life: the creation, development and growth of the Race for Riley, an annual go-kart race, progressive dinner and fundraiser for the Riley Children's Foundation that continues to pour money, time and effort into cancer research. 

"He understood he was living the dream, getting to be a professional race car driver, and while he saw a lot of kids battling with diseases that kids shouldn't have to battle with, I think he felt compelled to use his position to help them feel better," Boles said.

Jason Mueller, the assistant vice president of communications for the Foundation, met Andretti in 2003 and said he was instantly wowed at his drive that powered the evolution of the annual event. In 23 years, the Race for Riley has raised $4.5 million for the Foundation -- in large part to Andretti's vision for others and having racing as a platform.

And while Andretti largely became the driving force behind the big-picture event, his impact reached down to the people affected by cancer, too. Mueller remembers that Andretti began a tradition of dressing in his fire suit and parading through the lobby to engage with any kid healthy enough to make the journey. And when they weren't healthy, Andretti would visit. His gentle heart, even for a few sacred moments, helped kids daydream their struggles away.

"Some kids would know exactly who he was," Mueller said. "and others would talk about their favorite driver, and John would share a laugh with those kids when they shared a name other than his.

"The way John lived his life is something that can impact all of us."

More: John Andretti never quit helping kids with Race for Riley

And when the dark days came for his own health, Andretti again recognized the power his status could have. As his uncle Mario explains, racing, in a way, gave way to the Stage 4 colon cancer he first was diagnosed with at age 54.

"This type of cancer, it's known as the silent killer, and it caught him when he was too busy in racing and chasing doing things he loved," the elder Andretti said. "He knew he made that mistake, but instantly, his mindset was 'Maybe, I can help prevent others from making the same mistake.'"

Soon after his diagnosis, Andretti held a news conference alongside Boles to bring light to a subject, colonoscopies, that he felt was only whispered about. On stage, Boles called his own doctor to schedule an appointment, and with the use of his social media campaign #CheckIt4Andretti, Andretti tore down the stigma of the disease.

"John wasn't doing it to benefit John," Boles said. "He knew, always knew what he was getting to do for a living was a blessing, a gift, and I think he felt an obligation to give back and use his platform to make a difference in people's lives. He just genuinely wanted to give back."

That November he announced his chemotherapy was over, and in March 2018 he tweeted his scans were clear. 

But on March 29, 2019,  he took to Twitter again to say his six-month scans showed the cancer had returned and spread.  

“Although this is a difficult time for us,” part of the tweet read, “your continued prayers & support are very important to us.” 

The support of the racing community never wavered. 

“I’m a really private person,” Andretti told Coping with Cancer magazine for its March/April 2018 issue, “and certainly nobody but my family would have known that I even had cancer if it weren’t for being pushed that I can make a difference by telling my story. That’s the only reason I went public. Because I really didn’t want people to know. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.” 

Andretti’s son, Jarett, told IndyStar in May 2017 that people had already started reaching out to him on social media to say his dad’s efforts led them to receive their own colonoscopies. A doctor, among many others, had reached out to Andretti that same month to tell him the same thing. 

"The doctor told me the guy said, ‘The only reason I’m doing this is because of John,’” Andretti said. 

And in his final days, as family made some of their last visits, there was Andretti, still the positive voice, lifting his family in dark times. Publicly, he was never going to submit to the disease, though privately Mario knows he was realistic.

But John Andretti always had an innate sense what an impact living as a beacon of light could be.

"Till the end, he was the one lifting all of us up," Mario said.

Added Boles: "There was never a time I would have bet against John Andretti. He was going to win and make a difference. That was the race car driver in him, and he was a race car driver all the way to the end."

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar and NASCAR driver John Andretti dies after long, public battle with cancer

Related slideshow:  John Andretti: A life in photos

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