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.”

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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