By Susan Wade Wed, 2017-05-03 09:22

Right when his NASCAR career was cranking up, IndyCar and sports-car racer John Andretti made his drag-racing debut. He drove Jack Clark’s Taco Bell Express Dragster and reached the semifinals in his first NHRA national event at the 1993 Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.

He ran his career-best speed (299 mph) that day, as he eliminated the reigning Top Fuel champion Joe Amato in the first round and Tommy Johnson Jr. (who drove the Mopar Express Lube entry) in the quarterfinals. Andretti lost in the semifinals to Mike Dunn. Eddie Hill won the race.

Twenty-four years later, as this 37th edition of the Southern Nationals unfolds at Atlanta Dragway this weekend, John Andretti is once again a rookie – this time in a race he never planned to enter.
Andretti made public this week that he has been battling Stage 4 colon cancer that has spread to his liver. The nephew of auto-racing icon Mario Andretti shared his story with Dave Calabro, of Indianapolis TV station WTHR.

Calabro visited with Andretti at the Levine Cancer Institute in North Carolina and at Andretti’s home near Charlotte. He visited with Andretti at the hospital as the former racer underwent chemotherapy, and Andretti told Calabro he was reluctant to share his story because “I don’t want it to be a story about me. I’m more worried about Riley and St. Jude [children’s hospitals] and other kids and helping them.”

However, he said he wanted to urge people to seek preventive treatment and to undergo a colonoscopy screening.

He said he thinks, after undergoing surgery to remove part of his colon and checking in every 11 days for chemotherapy, that he still has a fighting chance to beat the disease. He faces liver surgery in June.

“Chemo sucks a lot. I don’t think anybody walks out going, ‘Man, this is great. Give me more,’” Andretti said with a laugh. “It is what it is. You always think it’s somebody else.”

The truth is any one can be that “somebody else.”

Andretti urged everyone above age 50 to undergo the screening. Calabro did. He knew he could be “somebody else,” just like Andretti is. “It only takes about two hours and it isn’t a big deal,” Calabro, 54 years old like Andretti, said after taking the challenge. “If I can do it, you can do it, too. The best part is you get a lot of crackers and cheese afterwards. Don’t put it off.”

Via the Twitter account #Checkit4Andretti, Andretti wrote: “My goal is to make people aware of the importance of screening through a colonoscopy. If you are 50 or your family has a history of colon cancer, waiting is not an option. You must be your own health care advocate. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your family. Early detection is key and had I been screened sooner, my diagnosis would be much better. Bottom line is that colonoscopies save lives. PLEASE DO IT. Let us know when you decide to at #Checkit4Andretti.”

Early detection is the same message that NHRA Pro Stock racer Jeg Coughlin Jr. and his family’s JEG’S Foundation have been preaching.

Coughlin, who has met Andretti briefly when the open-wheel star attended drag races, said, “There are so many forms of cancer. And chances of surviving any kind of cancer today are greatly increased with early detection. That’s true of colon cancer. You can’t fix what you’re unaware of, and the earlier you can detect that something is wrong, you increase your opportunity for a healthy recovery.

“A friend of mine had a scare a few years ago. I had the screening done, because you just never know,” he said.

“We certainly commend John for sharing what he’s going through and using his public personality to spread the message, urging everyone to be active in early detection of cancer. That’s a really noble thing of him to do. It’s always easy to preach that message until the shoe’s on our own foot. But what he is doing likely will save others,” Coughlin said. “We personally wish him well, wish him the best in battling this disease.”

For more information about the JEG’S Foundation online, please see

Andretti, who attends the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and the NHRA Charlotte events on occasion, stopped by the Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway this past Saturday and visited with his longtime buddy Tommy Johnson Jr. Johnson Jr. drives the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing. And he said Andretti never mentioned his struggle with cancer.

“I didn’t learn about it until later in the day,” Johnson Jr. said. He found out from his own father. Tommy Johnson Sr., a colon cancer survivor who has defied the odds for 18 years, since his March 1999 diagnosis that he wouldn’t make it to that Christmas.

Johnson Sr. has written a book, “How I Survived Absolute Terminal Cancer,” that he has shared with Andretti. In the book, now in its fourth edition, Johnson shares how unconventional/alternative treatment worked for him after independent research. He simply told what has worked for himself. But, like Andretti, Coughlin and even like the mainstream medical profession he has challenged, Johnson Sr. said he recommends “getting screened by your doctor regularly and especially if you are over 50. I caught my cancer with just a routine required race-car driver’s physical. Go get checked by your doctor regularly.” (His book is available online at

As for Andretti, Johnson Jr. said, “He’s always been very nice. Ha! That makes me feel like an old-timer, because I’m probably the only one who’s still around who was there when he was racing! I thought it was cool to have the opportunity to race him. I was disappointed I didn’t ever get a rematch with him. It’s just a little thing in your career that ‘Oh! I got to race with him.’ I’m grateful to get a chance to race him. He didn’t run many races. I don’t think he ran the whole season.

Johnson Jr. said, ‘I always find it funny that other drivers – Cup drivers or whoever – invite us to come and drive their cars. And I say, ‘Yeah! I’d do it in a heartbeat!’ But when I ask, ‘Hey, you want to jump in this thing, especially with the Funny Car, they say, ‘Nahhh, that’s OK.” But I was glad [Andretti] gave drag racing a chance, wasn’t too good for it.”

Anyone who wishes to send a card or letter to Andretti may do so at the following address:

John Andretti
P.O. Box 724
Davidson, N.C. 28036

Maybe Andretti still has some drag racer in him.

Of his cancer battle, Andretti said, “We’re in it to win it. This is one race I can’t lose. I don’t get a second shot at it.”

That sounds like it was spoken by a drag racer at heart.