Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, May 30, 2018, 11:33 a.m.
John Andretti is fighting for his life. He has been for a while. The recent news is bad. His cancer has spread. It is a scourge that touches all lives, even those it doesn’t attack directly. When a person reaches my age, losing a loved one to cancer is almost impossible to avoid.
The purpose here is not sorrow. There’s enough of it to go around.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was busy finding out all there was to stock car racers that I did not know, Andretti taught me a lesson. He said six friendly, thoughtful words that made me feel stupid because I was. I’ve laughed about it many times since. I laughed as I was walking out of the team transporter, where I had interviewed him.
I had already finished the formal interview and just stayed to chitchat a bit. John could have excused himself, but he indulged me.
John is not the son of the immortal Mario Andretti. His father, Aldo, is Mario’s twin brother. Mario won in almost every kind of race. John merely competed in them. Both won NASCAR races at Daytona, Mario the 500 in 1967 and John the (then) Pepsi 400 in 1997. John also won at Martinsville in 1999. He won a CART race in Australia in 1991 and a Rolex Grand-Am race at Watkins Glen in 2001. John won sports car races at Daytona and Palm Beach, Fla. Twelve times, beginning 1988 and most recently in 2011, John competed in the Indianapolis 500, finishing a career-best fifth in 1991.
In those days, I dabbled with the early racing simulation games that were mainly available for play on desktop computers. The first that was relatively sophisticated was a simulation of the Indy 500, though, by today’s standards, it was antiquated. The player chose between three models — a Penske, a March or a Lola – and three engines. I think they were Chevrolet, Cosworth and Buick.
Anyway, as I was young and stupid, I thought I’d ask the genuine article, the veteran of real Indy 500s, for some pointers on my video-game playing.
I explained to him that I could set up a car to go fast in qualifying, but I couldn’t drive a car that way in a race because it was too loose, and I coudn’t handle it when I had to use something other than the preferred groove. I’d have to make it slower and more maneuverable, and that meant that I was competing for, oh, 10th place instead of up front.
John paused, looked me in the eyes, and said quietly, “That is exactly what we do.”
He didn’t say “duh,” but he could have.
Life is full of moments that make us look back and groan. That was one of mine.
I probably haven’t talked to John in a decade. The nephew of Mario Andretti won his two NASCAR races driving stock cars owned by legends Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty. I was there for both. Of all the Indy-car drivers who made a crossover to NASCAR, John is the most overlooked and underrated. He made that transition better than most.
Now he fights for his life. It must be a little different for a race driver, who has battled in a way for his life every time he strapped himself into a car. Such a battle comes as a surprise for most of us. Its possibility lies in the backs of our mind, where budding nightmares reside. For the racer, it is never, I suspect, that far away.
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