John Andretti, who died Thursday from colon cancer at age 56, was a successful driver in numerous motorsports racing genres and had strong ties to Wilkes County.
His greatest impact surely will be urging others to be screened for colon cancer after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2017. He publicly stressed the need for regular colonoscopies for early detection and acknowledged that he should have done this.
There’s no way to estimate how many people had colonoscopies or other screening because of Andretti and #CheckIt4Andretti, the Twitter campaign he launched to urge this testing.
It’s important to know that colon cancer, unlike most cancers, is preventable with regular screening such as colonoscopies to detect polyps (grape-like growths) so they can be removed before becoming cancerous.
Andretti was from a family known for competing in diverse motorsports and he won while racing go-karts, USAC Midgets, Sprint Cars, prototypes, GT cars, IndyCar, NASCAR and drag racing.
His father, Aldo Andretti, and Mario Andretti are Italian-born identical twins and former racers. Mario, named “Driver of the Century” by the Associated Press in 2000, won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, Daytona 500, Formula 1 World Championship and more.
Others in this family raced and are still racing.
John Andretti was born in Bethlehem, Pa., raised in Indianapolis, Ind., and lived with his wife and three children in Mooresville.
He is best remembered by NASCAR fans for driving the No. 43 car for Petty Enterprises, owned by Richard Petty, briefly in 1994, and full time from 1998 to 2003. North Wilkesboro-based Window World was the sponsor.
Andretti entered 393 NASCAR races in 17 years, winning at Daytona International and at the Martinsville Speedway in 1997 and 1999 respectively.
He became the first to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 on the same day in 1994.
Andretti first competed in a NASCAR race when he entered the Tyson/Holly Farms 400 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1993. He drove the No. 72 Tex Racing Chevy for owner Tex Powell of the Montgomery County town of Star.
NASCAR Hall of Famer and Wilkes native Benny Parsons drove this same car when he won the NASCAR Winston Cup championship in 1973, with Powell as his crew chief.
Terri Parsons of Purlear said Andretti and Benny Parsons, who was her husband, became good friends after meeting through Mario Andretti. “John was one of those invaluable guys (for her) after Benny died” of complications from lung cancer at age 65 in 2007.
Parsons said Andretti continued to check on her by calling about every other month. “The last time he called (in early January), I asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘You know from Benny,’” since he also had cancer.
Andretti then asked her rhetorically, “What’s the worst that can happen?” She noted that Benny had said the same thing. Both men were referring to their belief in eternal life in heaven.
Parsons said Andretti “was just the nicest guy, but that’s the Andretti way. They’re such nice people.”
Andretti raised nearly $4.5 million for Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, Ind., through his annual Race for Riley event.
Window World also sponsored Andretti in the IndyCar Series, including his last race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in 2011.
Window World returned to IMS by sponsoring Andretti’s son, Jarett Andretti, in the Freedom 100 there in May. Tammy Whitworth, Window World chairman and CEO, said sponsoring Jarett Andretti in the Freedom 100 was an absolute joy when it was announced.
In the announcement, Whitworth also noted the company’s long relationship with John Andretti. “We were privileged to watch John race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the No. 43 Window World car some years ago, and it’s wonderful to be able to share that same honor with his son, Jarett….”
He was the seventh member of the Andretti family to race at IMS.
The Andretti family received friends Monday evening at St. Mark Catholic Church in Huntersville, followed by eulogy and prayer service. A mass of Christian burial is Thursday at a Catholic church in Indianapolis.