May 25, 2018

Power of God, prayer thrusts Andretti into latest race of his life

Professional race car driver John Andretti stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2009 in Indianapolis on the opening day of practice for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti recently spoke at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis about the role his Catholic faith has played in his struggle with colon cancer since January 2017. (Submitted photo)

Professional race car driver John Andretti stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2009 in Indianapolis on the opening day of practice for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti recently spoke at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis about the role his Catholic faith has played in his struggle with colon cancer since January 2017. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

During the course of his 30-year racing career, 55-year-old John Andretti has achieved success around the world in multiple forms of motorsports: open-wheel racing, stock cars, sports cars and dragsters.

The nephew of racing legend Mario Andretti and cousin of current champion Indy Car team owner Michael Andretti, John sees his family’s tradition being carried on in his son Jarett, 25, a dirt sprint car and road race driver.

In fact, when the green flag drops on May 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500, John will be on his way to Kokomo, Ind., where Jarett will compete in a race that evening on the dirt at Kokomo Raceway.

During the past 16 months, though, John has been in the race of his life as he has battled colon cancer and the continuing side effects of chemotherapy.

Even in this, he counts himself as a champion. Yet it’s not because he is cancer-free at present. It’s because his going public with his cancer battle has led so many others to be screened for colon cancer.

“People came and told me, as recently as today, that the only reason they did it was because of me,” Andretti said.

Through it all, the faith that was instilled in Andretti by his family as he grew up in St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg and as a student at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis has led him to grow in his trust of God and the power of prayer and in gratitude for his many blessings.

Andretti reflected on his racing career, his family, his struggle with cancer and how faith tied them all together in a recent interview with The Criterion and on May 3

at the 10th annual Men Valuing Prayer and Service steak dinner at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

Faith, family and racing

Growing up as the son of Aldo Andretti, Mario’s twin brother, John said that while he and his family “were not the holiest of people,” they still were dedicated to going to Mass each Sunday together.

“That’s just what we did,” he said. “We all got dressed, got in the car and off we went to church.”

His parents were also dedicated to providing a Catholic education for their children. Andretti attended both St. Malachy School and Cardinal Ritter.

With his high school being only a couple of miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Andretti said that everyone at Cardinal Ritter could hear the race cars practicing each May.

“Kids would play hooky, going over to the race track, and yet the teachers would make sure that we [Andrettis] were in attendance,” Andretti said with a laugh. “We started to figure out that we could give some passes to the teachers. That would help. If they were at the race track, then we figured we could go to the race track.”

As Andretti and his wife raised their family in Mooresville, N.C., they chose to make attending Mass together a priority, managing it as best they could amid the challenges of a racing schedule.

“Families can become disconnected when going to church goes out of their lives,” he said. “Families need that camaraderie and togetherness as a unit. Faith can and should be a big part of that.”

Andretti has experienced that togetherness in the motorsports community as well, a solidarity in part cemented through faith.

He noted that if the invocation prayed before the start of a race were left out, “it would be noticed immediately.”

“That’s what people expect,” Andretti said. “They expect to hear a prayer for safety for so many people involved. I’ve heard it so many times in different ways. But it’s important, every time.

“We have to recognize God and, in doing so, we’re asking for his blessing, not only for the day to be successful for us as individuals, but also for everybody to be safe.”

Andretti has reason to intensify those prayers as he travels the country to watch his son race in about 50 events per year.

His perspective on racing has now changed—and his emotions have changed as well.

“It switches from, ‘Boy, I hope I have a great race,’ to ‘I just want to get out of here with [Jarett] being good’ and then go on to the next one,” Andretti said. “Obviously, as a parent you want him to succeed, but also the priority is that nothing happens to him.”

Discovering the power of prayer

The tie between racing and faith also deepened for Andretti after he went public with his struggle with colon cancer, which was diagnosed in January 2017.

Andretti said at first he wanted to keep his health challenges private, but was convinced to let the public know about his diagnosis after he was presented with a challenge. If five people would choose to get a colon cancer screening after learning about his struggles, then he would announce his condition publicly.

That happened. And not only have countless people chosen to have screenings after learning about Andretti’s condition, but prayers and support for him came flooding in.

The people who were fierce competitors to him were now the first to offer a helping hand.

“In the motorsports community, when something happens, all of that [competitiveness] neutralizes. Immediately, it goes into, ‘How can we help?’ ” Andretti said. “The way the compassion and support came from the motorsports community was truly overwhelming. It was more than I could have imagined.”

That prayerful support also came from his many fans through social media and from many notes, cards and letters.

“I have so much in my office that I haven’t even been able to get through it all, which gives me a lot of strength,” Andretti said.

In the three weeks before going public with his condition about a year ago, Andretti found it extremely painful to eat because of the ongoing effects of chemotherapy.

Then the prayers came flowing in.

“When people started praying, my life changed,” Andretti said. “My pain subsided substantially. Within three days, it had gone down to almost nothing. And by the end of the week, I had no more pain. No one can explain why.

“To me, that is the power of prayer and the power of God. That is the only thing that changed.”

Finding ‘silver linings’

Living with cancer has deepened the connection between faith and life for Andretti.

“I don’t worry about, ‘Why me?’ ” he said. “If tomorrow is my last day, did I get more than I deserved out of life? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ ”

Andretti expressed his gratitude for God’s blessings in his family and his racing career—and also, in a way, for his cancer.

“God’s not the one who gave me cancer,” he said. “Satan works to challenge your beliefs and your faith. But at the hand of God, so many things have changed. So many wonderful things have happened, because of my cancer. Not necessarily for me and my family, but for [so many] other people.”

Opening his eyes to how God has worked for his and other people’s good through his condition has helped him see the “silver lining” in a period of his life he could easily have said was only marked by dark clouds.

“It’s God putting his hand down and saying, ‘This is the difference that you’re going to make,’ ” Andretti said. “God is the silver lining in all that we face. He’s always present. And God not only allows you to see that silver lining, but to bask in it.

“I’m truly blessed. I witness silver linings every day. I look for them.” †

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