Jarett Andretti’s Friday run at Indy will be ’emotional’ for his family

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The handsome young man with the easy smile and famous last name had just turned his first laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he grabbed a cellphone to call his father, who was tethered to an IV to receive the medication he hopes will save his life.

“What was it like?” John Andretti asked, upon picking up the phone.

“Awesome,” Jarett Andretti said. “Just awesome.”

It was the simplest of exchanges coming at the most difficult and complex of times.

The 26-year-old Andretti is making his racing debut at the hallowed speedway on Friday, when the lower-tier Indy Lights series runs the Freedom 100 on Carb Day ahead of the Indianapolis 500. He will become the seventh Andretti to race at the track, and he’ll be doing it 50 years after his great uncle Mario captured the family’s only victory in the Indy 500.

He also will be taking the green flag while his father, who started 12 times in the Indianapolis 500, undergoes an aggressive clinical trial to treat a return of his colon cancer.

“It’s going to be emotional,” Jarett Andretti said. “It will mean a lot to our whole family.”

That includes his uncle, Adam, and cousins Jeff and Marco, who have all taken the green flag at Indy. His grandfather, Aldo, tested a car there but never competed in a race – he retired early after a bad crash in 1969. John’s brother, Michael, has been coming to the great gray speedway his whole life, first as a driver and now as the leader of the Andretti Autosport team.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

It will be Michael, who is also Jarett’s godfather, who will field an Indy Lights car for him.

“The history of our family speaks for itself and what Indianapolis means to us,” John Andretti told The Associated Press. “To have another Andretti participate, it’s very gratifying.

“It’s the place that you go to make your mark,” he said, while sitting patiently through his latest treatment. “Of course, there’s good and bad ways to make a mark there. We’ve all done both. But it’s the place you go to be challenged, and this is a big challenge for Jarett.”

That’s because the latest Andretti took a round-about route to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By the time he was old enough to follow his dad to the track, John Andretti had gone from racing open-wheel cars to NASCAR. So rather than playing in Gasoline Alley or within the shadow of Indy’s old pagoda, Jarett Andretti grew up going to Daytona and Talladega.

It wasn’t until he was a teenager, and John had returned to the Indy 500, that Jarett got to see his first race there. And it left an immediate mark on the wide-eyed boy.

“It was the only time I saw him nervous. The intensity was there more than anywhere,” Jarett said. “Then I came to the race and the grandstands are falling down with people, and the allure draws you in, so much of it. And from that point on, this is what you get to.”

The seeds of a dream were sowed that day, but they took a while to germinate. Jarett worked his way through go-karts, midgets and sprint cars, often with his dad turning wrenches for him, patiently biding his time. He didn’t want to rely on his famous last name for a ride, instead earning it through hard working and a resume built from the ground up.

“We’ve been talking about it for quite some time, especially with John – he’s always had this dream to see his son drive at Indy,” Michael Andretti said. “We thought it was time.”

John Andretti won’t be able to see it in person, though, relying instead on NBC’s coverage.

Watch ‘Drive Like Andretti’ — the NBC Sports feature on Mario

He was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in April 2017, and began both chemotherapy and a campaign to encourage people to get colonoscopies. Treatments ended that November and he announced the following march that tests had shown that the cancer was gone.

Two months later, John announced that the cancer had returned and spread to other areas. He began another round of chemo, underwent surgery in January, and is now in the midst of a clinical trial that requires weekly treatments – making it impossible for him to travel.

“I’ve got three kids that are outstanding in each of the things they’re doing. One in medical school, another that’s graduating high school. Then I have Jarett,” he said, “who when it comes down to it, he and I spent so much time together, just like my father and I.

“I went and spent a day in the life of a medical student at George Washington, where my daughter is going to school, and I know that’s not for me,” he continued. “We have a special connection because of that. And Indianapolis Motor Speedway is sort of where you have to go, you know, if you’re in our family. And just to get to drive around the speedway is a privilege.”

Jarett said that his father has taught him a lot over the years, both inside the car and out of it. And the lessons have continued as John Andretti battles cancer once again.

“I could let races bother me for weeks. Something could go wrong and I’d dwell on it,” Jarett said, “but now it puts everything into perspective. Whatever happens Friday, the sun is going to come up, in the grand scheme of things. His fight, it’s something totally different. The stakes are raised infinitely higher. That puts everything you’re doing into perspective.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.