John Andretti sat on stage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Thursday looking comfortable, even smiling.
It’s a familiar place for the 11-time Brickyard 400 and seven-time Indy 500 starter, who wowed the racing world with the 1994 Memorial Day “Double,” competing in the Indy 500 in the morning then the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the evening.
However, this time the 54-year-old was in the spotlight to talk about another test of endurance and faith; to formally share his recent stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis and talk about the toughest race of his life, one he is determined to win and make a difference for everyone else along the way.
And he has made a difference already.
Andretti flashed a quick grin when telling the story of how he convinced his famous cousin Michael Andretti — a former IndyCar superstar and current team owner — to get a colonoscopy.
“I forced a few people to go [and be tested] because I wasn’t going to come public with it [diagnosis] unless they did go, and they decided that it was worthwhile,” Andretti said. “One was my cousin Michael. I figured I’d never get him to go, so I would never have to go public with it, and two weeks later he’s doing it. So he fought a little bit, but he didn’t fight hard.
“Now the biggest part about this has been we’ve not only taken people in that are not getting colonoscopies to get them, but they’re becoming advocates of getting them done. And that’s been the bigger part of it. … Had I done it when I was 50 years old, there’s a very, very good chance I wouldn’t be sitting here.
“But fortunately for me I think that we’ve changed some people’s lives.”
That’s a safe bet judging from the swift and solid reaction Andretti’s news has received — from fans and from his fellow racers.
As the racing world does, it has rallied around Andretti and the important, potentially life-saving reminder he offers.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Front Row Motorsports team put Andretti’s “#checkitforandretti” message on its rear quarter panel for the All-Star race last weekend at Charlotte.
And since Andretti is one of the few drivers who has competed in the elite levels of NASCAR, IndyCar and the NHRA, social media is filled with photos of top drivers and race teams — from all across the racing spectrum — eager to help Andretti spread the word.
NHRA champion Ron Capps posted a photo showing him attaching a sticker on his hot rod with the message, “#checkitforandretti.”
– Ron Capps (@RonCapps28) May 19, 2017
Best of all, the entire Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR field and entire 33-car Indy 500 field will carry the decals in this weekend’s Memorial Day racing extravaganza.
“It’s grown, as I say, business-wise organically, and people now — you know, it’s almost like a mini-movement that’s getting even stronger every day,” Andretti said. “It sends chills through me because I never figured that people would get on board so quickly and in such volume that they have.
“I love people telling me that they’re going to get a colonoscopy, which I never thought that would ever be in my vocabulary,” Andretti said with a light laugh.
“But it is life-changing for me, but it’s more so for my family, and that’s the part I hate. I hate the stress that I put on them for this because this was definitely avoidable. And most of them are going to be avoidable if you get early detection.”
Andretti is the first to understand the reluctance for many in getting checked. But he stressed that getting checked and treated early can make all the difference. He knows.
For him, it’s a tougher road. He will have chemotherapy and another surgery awaits, too. They have found additional spots in Andretti’s liver and possibly his spleen — a place that can’t be biopsied.
Yet Andretti remains optimistic, hopeful in the treatment and buoyed by the outpouring of concern he has received. And his commitment to helping others avoid his situation provides a positive outlet in a time of uncertainty. Had he gotten a colonoscopy four years ago at age 50 — when doctors first recommend for everyone — he is convinced the situation would be different.
So this is his opportunity to help encourage others to be more proactive. And hopefully that sense of goodwill and making a difference will be a safe place where his mind can go during the tough physical and emotional tests awaiting him.
“One thing I was always lacking was a colonoscopy, and you would ask about it or whatever, and I’d forget about it,” Andretti said. “I never avoided it. It just didn’t happen. And unfortunately my wife has an issue that she has to go get them several times. And so she was in getting hers, and I decided to schedule mine.
“I won’t tell the whole story. It’s a little bit boring. But I was about three minutes away from walking out of the next doctor’s office because patience is not my strong suit. And so fortunately I didn’t, and immediately after the colonoscopy, they scheduled a surgeon. I was in surgery a few days later to have a tumor removed and another cancer spot.”
Anyone watching Andretti speak absolutely had to be moved by the positive attitude — it will be of great benefit to him in the coming months of treatment.
Through decades of competition, Andretti has always been that driver in the garage more prone to offering smiles than holding grudges. He has always been upbeat, had a great sense of humor and offered perspective.
And he is doing that again despite a tough, personal challenge.
But as it was on track, the expectation for Andretti is to win. And really, he has already.
“I get chills now because this is the most special place on the planet for me, for my family,” Andretti said of his time at Indy last week. “It’s a special time of the year. You know, somebody said to me, ‘I’m glad to see you here,’ and I’m like this, gives me energy.
“It has been really humbling and special to me.”