Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 Veteran John Andretti Dies at 56

Indianapolis, IN — John Andretti, one of the most popular and versatile American race drivers of his generation, died yesterday (Jan. 30) after a four -year battle with colon cancer. He was 56.

Photo: IMS

A member of the famed Andretti racing family, he drove and won at the highest levels of North American motorsports in Indy cars, stock cars and sports cars. He also competed in top-level drag racing and short-track open-wheel racing. His career included 12 starts in the Indianapolis 500 and 11 starts in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But his tireless, selfless work on behalf of various charities, even after his cancer diagnosis became public in April 2017, earned him additional respect and loyalty from a legion of worldwide admirers.

Andretti was born in Bethlehem, Pa., the son of race driver Aldo Andretti and nephew of Mario Andretti. He started his racing career in karting and won the USAC Speedrome Regional Midget series title in 1983, at age 20. He began his professional full-time driving career after graduating from Moravian College in his hometown in 1985.

He found victory lane almost immediately in IMSA sports car racing, winning a race with co-driver and eventual fellow Indy 500 veteran Davy Jones in September 1986 at Watkins Glen.

“We are devastated by the news that our dear friend, John Andretti, has passed away,” IMSA President John Doonan said in a statement. “John was an extremely talented IMSA racer, as his 1989 Rolex 24 victory and three other victories will attest. But he was one of the most versatile racers ever, winning races in IndyCar and NASCAR and reaching the pinnacle of top fuel drag racing as well. Our thoughts and prayers are with John’s family, friends and many colleagues, and he will be missed by many throughout our motorsports community.”

His success in IMSA helped launch Andretti into IndyCar competition with Curb Racing in 1987, joining his uncle, Mario, and cousin Michael. He was named series Rookie of the Year in 1987.

John Andretti made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1988 with Curb Racing. He ran as high as seventh in a Lola Cosworth before engine problems relegated him to a 21st-place finish.

He also continued to compete in sports car racing, teaming with Bob Wollek and Derek Bell to win the 1989 Rolex 24 At Daytona in one of the Porsche 962 prototypes of the era. Andretti and Wollek also co-drove to victory later that season at Palm Beach, Fla., in the same Porsche, and Andretti ended up fifth in the IMSA standings that season as the highest-ranked Porsche driver.

Andretti’s best year of IndyCar competition arguably came in 1991 while driving for Hall VDS Racing. He earned his sole career IndyCar victory at Surfers Paradise in Australia, and finished an Indy 500 career-best fifth in a Lola/Chevrolet. That year also marked the first of two consecutive years in which four members of the Andretti family — Mario, Michael, John and cousin Jeff — raced in the 500.

John Andretti made waves in NHRA Drag Racing in 1993 by reaching the Top Fuel semifinals in his first national event, the Southern Nationals at Atlanta. He clocked a career-best speed of 299 mph in that race. He then shifted his focus to NASCAR in a partial schedule in the Cup Series in 1993, going full time with Hagan Racing in 1994 and driving the final third of the season in a Pontiac for Richard Petty Enterprises.

In May 1994, Andretti made North American racing history by becoming the first driver to attempt and complete “The Double” of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day. He finished 10th at Indy and 36th at Charlotte.

Andretti earned his first Cup Series victory in July 1997 at Daytona while driving for Cale Yarborough Motorsports, but his NASCAR career reached its peak when he returned to Petty’s team full time in 1998. That started a stretch of nearly five seasons between two of the most famous names in American racing.

He finished 11th in the standings in 1998 during his first season with Petty and earned his second and final Cup Series victory with team in spring 1999 at Martinsville Speedway.

Andretti teamed with another famous member of the Petty family — Richard’s son, Kyle Petty — to win the GT class in Porsche GT3R at a Grand-Am sports car race in August 2001 at Watkins Glen.

For all of Andretti’s versatile skills as a driver, he was equally admired for his charity work. He co-founded, with Indianapolis-area radio personality Dave “The King” Wilson, the Race for Riley, an annual go-kart race in Central Indiana that has raised nearly $4 million for the Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis since its inception in 1997. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and children Jarett, Olivia and Amelia.

Read a personal remembrance about Andretti by our Racer colleague Robin Miller.