John Andretti's life celebrated in first of two memorials

Updated: 

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – The late John Andretti was fortunate to have three families in his life.

The 56-year-old who passed away Jan. 30 from Stage 4 colon cancer was a proud member of the royal family of racing. His father was Aldo Andretti, Mario’s twin brother. Mario was his uncle, Michael his cousin and Marco his first cousin once removed and godson.

Of course, John loved his immediate family that consisted of wife Nancy, son Jarett and daughters Olivia and Amelia.

His second family was INDYCAR, the sport that made the Andretti family international racing stars. John competed in 90 races in CART and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, including 12 Indianapolis 500s. In 1991, Andretti drove Jim Hall’s Pennzoil Z-7 Lola Chevrolet to victory in the season-opening race at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia.

And then, there was Andretti’s third family in NASCAR. He came South to become a stock car driver in 1993. He won two races in 393 NASCAR Cup starts. He drove team owner Cale Yarborough’s car to a win in the annual 400-mile July race at Daytona in 1997 and the legendary Richard Petty’s No. 43 machine to a short-track win at Martinsville Speedway in 1999.

Monday night at Saint Mark Catholic Church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, Andretti’s NASCAR family said goodbye to its friend. NASCAR President Steve Phelps paid his respects as did 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and his wife, Katie, and 23-time Cup race winner Ricky Rudd and his wife, Linda.

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES was represented by Team Penske President Tim Cindric, his wife, Megan, and their son, Austin. Other key INDYCAR team members including Team Penske Competition Director Kyle Moyer and his wife, Tracy, both former members of Andretti Autosport, as well as other Team Penske crew members.

Various current and former CART and INDYCAR marketing, public relations and track presidents came to pay their respects.

Father Alfonso Gamez officiated the service. He spoke of Andretti as a man of great character who left a legacy of love, conviction and faith.

“In the midst of this tragedy and pain, I, myself, was privileged to witness rays of light that beamed through the broken hearts of Nancy, Jarett, Olivia and Amelia,” Gamez said. “In his final days, John was assured of the love of his family, who night and day stood by his side with great attention.

“May we all be as blessed as John was.”

Andretti’s good friend and former competitor Jeff Burton gave the eulogy. He shared numerous stories that showed Andretti’s personality.

“John and I met in 1994 when we were both rookies coming into the Cup Series,” Burton said. “I was really curious about John because we both came from completely different backgrounds. To be blunt, I didn’t know why an Andretti was coming to NASCAR. What was that all about?

“Through that, we developed a friendship. Our wives became very close and so did our families. We spent holidays together, Disney trips, we spent a lot of time with each other.”

Burton told the story of how Andretti met his wife, Nancy -- in high school in Indianapolis. Andretti showed tremendous persistence before she finally agreed to go out on a date. He tried so hard to impress Nancy, he took her to an expensive French restaurant in Indianapolis. The date did not go well, however.

One year later, they went out on another date and ultimately won each other’s affection.

Andretti’s second NASCAR win, in 1999, came when he saved his tires while Burton and Jeff Gordon dominated the race only to burn up their tires in the closing laps. Andretti was able to save his tires for the end of the race and defeated the two Jeffs.

“John was an underrated race car driver,” Burton said. “He won in NASCAR, he won in INDYCAR, he won the 24 Hours of Daytona, he won IMSA races, Grand-Am races, he won in USAC Midgets and made it to the semifinals in an NHRA Top Fuel drag car.

“For an Andretti, that might be normal, but for the rest of us, that is amazing to do.”

In 1994, Andretti became the first driver to attempt to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day. Burton said that monumental effort brought increased attention to auto racing.

“When he ran the double on the same day -- think about that. It was crazy,” Burton said. “It was nuts. The exposure that gave our sport was unbelievable. That’s legacy stuff.

“Twenty-five years later, we are still talking about the potential of someone doing that. John started that. He was the first one to come up with that idea. He was the first one brave enough, tough enough, to do that. People all over were watching that and it had a hugely positive impact on motorsports.”

Burton challenged motorsports to continue to the #CheckIt4Andretti program, urging individuals to get colonoscopies to make sure they are cancer free or discover it in time so that it can be treated successfully.

“I want to challenge everybody in this church tonight, we have to keep that going,” Burton said. “There are lives that he has touched through selflessness, through his sense of giving to just being a good person.

“We have a responsibility to help keep that word going. I want to challenge all of us to continue that.”

Burton said Andretti was always proud of his family name and has left his family with character traits that will carry them through their lives.

“Goodness, ethics, hard work, dedication -- those things will carry you through a lifetime,” Burton said. “When you find yourself in that spot where you don’t know what to do, take a step back, take a breath and ask yourself, ‘What would my Dad do?’

“That will be the right thing.”

Burton’s eulogy was warmly received with none other than Mario Andretti paying the ultimate compliment.

“It was phenomenal,” Andretti said.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Thursday at 1 p.m., at Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral Catholic Church in Indianapolis. The family will receive friends from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. prior to the Mass at the church. Private burial will follow the service.

In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to:

Window World Cares
118 Shaver Street
North Wilkesboro, NC 28659
http://www.windowworldcares.com

Riley’s Children’s Foundation
30 S. Meridian Street, Ste 200
Indianapolis, IN 46024
https://www.rileykids.org

From the fans