HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Whether excelling in myriad racing disciplines, tirelessly raising awareness (and money) for passionate causes or relentlessly wooing his wife, John Andretti and his indomitable will were celebrated Monday night.
The versatile racer, who died of colon cancer at 56 last Thursday, was remembered during a three-hour visitation and 45-minute memorial service at Saint Mark Catholic Church that drew hundreds (including NASCAR president Steve Phelps and several drivers, crew chiefs and team executives) to a suburb just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, who entered the Cup Series with Andretti as rookies in 1994, eulogized his close friend as a fierce competitor with bedrock principles, a redoubtable spirit and a devoted family man.
“To be blunt, I didn’t know why an Andretti was coming to NASCAR racing,” Burton said, drawing chuckles from an audience that included IndyCar legends Mario and Michael Andretti. “I wanted to understand what he was about. We were always together and became really close. We spent a lot of time at racetracks, on airplanes and at holidays together.
“I knew John to be a guy who made stuff happen. If something was on his mind, he’d make it happen.”
Burton recalled the best example as Andretti’s pursuit of his wife, Nancy, who initially rejected his overtures. When her parents got her to relent after Andretti’s nonstop phone calls, they went to dinner at an expensive French restaurant.
“It was a complete failure,” Burton said with a laugh. “Nancy decided no more with this guy, but that wasn’t what John had on his mind. A year later, Nancy agreed to go out with John again, they got married for 30 years and had great kids. That was John’s persistence. The smartest thing John ever did was marry Nancy.”
The most impressive was his diverse resume, which included wins in Cup, IndyCar, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and sprint cars. He also reached the semifinal round of an NHRA Top Fuel event. In 1994, Andretti became the first to race the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
“For an Andretti that might be normal, but for the rest of us you don’t do that,” Burton said. “It’s just amazing what he was able to do. John had a huge impact on motorsports.
“When he ran the doubleheader on the same day, that was crazy. The exposure that gave our sport was unbelievable. That’s legacy stuff, and 25 years later, we still are talking about the potential of someone doing that. Two of the biggest events in motorsports, he started it. He was the first to come up with that idea who was brave enough and tough enough to do that. The whole racing world and more were watching that.”
Andretti leveraged the awareness to help causes that were both charitable and personal.
Jamie McBride, a board member for Window World (which sponsored Andretti in three Indy 500s and NASCAR), began working closely in 2011 with Andretti as he spearheaded a five-year project to have every living driver who raced the Indy 500 sign “The Stinger,” a replica car of the Marmon Wasp (which won the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911).
After Andretti traveled thousands of miles to secure the signatures of more than 250 drivers, the car was auctioned in 2016 for $1 million that was donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In August 2018, Window World gave Andretti a humanitarian award that was inscribed with “Love deeper. Dream bigger. Reach higher.”
“When something was on his mind or in his heart, John got it done,” McBride said. “I’ll remember his infectious smile, tenacity and uncompromising work ethic and dedication, love of his family. I will remember John for what he did to help others, not just what he accomplished on the racetrack.
“His heart was huge. He wanted to make the world a better place, and he did just that.”
It was evident even in the three-year battle with the disease that took his life. Andretti became an outspoken advocate for colon cancer screening and created the “#CheckIt4Andretti” hashtag to encourage early detection and prevention.
“John could have decided that, ‘My family and I are going to deal with this and be private about it,’ and that would have been easier,” Burton said. “He didn’t do that. He had a conversation with Nancy and decided, ‘Maybe this isn’t fair but maybe this is my calling. Maybe we can take this and turn it into something positive to help other people.’ Think of the lives saved by John Andretti deciding I’m going to do this publicly.”
The service also had lighthearted moments, particularly when Burton recalled Andretti’s zeal for his children’s sporting events (which was manifested in an incessant berating of officials) or his razor-sharp wit (“You better be looking at him when he was cracking a joke at you because if you weren’t, you didn’t know it.”).
Burton laughed about NASCAR’s preseason safety meetings when drivers and emergency services workers discussed how crash scenes and injuries from wrecks would be handled.
“Typically this was a 20- to 30-minute deal,” Burton said. “John did it in 30 seconds. He said, ‘OK, if I get in a wreck with Dale Earnhardt, someone needs to come help me, you can’t just help the most popular driver.’ He turned around and walked out.
“That’s John Andretti. That’s who he was. He loved and adored Nancy and felt the same way about his kids.”
Father Alfonso Gamez, the parochial vicar who presided over the service, said Andretti told him that he knew death was imminent but felt guilty for his family and not being able to be part of their future.
“He fought heroically for his life,” Gamez said. “He did not fight for it selfishly. He fought for his life with a sole purpose of giving it away to his family to spare them of any pain and agony that this day brings.”
Said McBride: “For someone who accomplished so much in his professional life, I believe that what made John most proud was seeing the successes of his family.”
Burton closed his address with a message for Andretti’s three children, Jarrett, Olivia and Amelia.
“You had a father that left with you the things that will carry you for a lifetime: Goodness, ethics, hard work, dedication,” Burton said. “When you find yourself in a spot you don’t know what to do, take a step back, and take a breath, and 99 times of 100 this will work.
“Just ask yourself, ‘What would my dad do?’ That will be the right thing.”