The Other Andretti
When I watched John Andretti smash his Richard Petty-Dreyer & Reinbold entry into the turn one wall late Sunday afternoon, it occurred to me that this was just another chapter in a star-crossed racing career. John has been coming to the Speedway since his first appearance in 1988, when he did well to finish 21st in an underfunded Mike Curb entry. For whatever reason, he has not approached the success attained by his more famous cousin and uncle. Much like his father, Mario Andretti’s twin-brother Aldo, John always toiled in the shadows of his relatives. The stars never quite seemed to align for him.
In 1990, Andretti teamed with Teo Fabi at the highly touted Porsche team in only their second year of competition. This effort sounded promising. The team was also spearheading March’s return as a chassis builder. However, before the team turned a wheel in competition, the main principal, Al Holbert, lost his life in an airplane crash—leaving Derrick Walker in the reluctant position of picking up the pieces and running the team. The team was a major disappointment and both March and Porsche pulled out of CART by the end of the year.
Andretti landed on his feet before the 1991 season. He secured a plum ride with the newly formed Hall/VDS team, comprised of the legendary Jim Hall of Chaparral and famous engine builder and former driver Rudy Van Der Straten. They had snagged the prized Pennzoil sponsorship and on paper, the team sounded like a virtual who’s who of racing. On the track, things started out great as John won in their initial outing at the season opener at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia. From there, it was downhill for the next two years until John was released at the end of 1992. The team went on to underachieve with other name drivers such as Teo Fabi and Gil de Ferran, but Andretti was always made the scapegoat as to why the team underperformed.
The next year in 1993, found Andretti with no full-time ride in CART and only made the Indy 500 because his godfather, AJ Foyt, gave him a ride on the second weekend of qualifying. He jumped into the car with little practice and qualified 24th by putting up a speed which, had he been a first day qualifier, would have put him on the outside of the second row. He was in contention all day and finished 10th just behind Teo Fabi and the Hall/VDS car.
Later that year, Andretti even ran top-fuel dragsters with success—demonstrating his versatility. He could drive anything and just wanted to race. However, when he couldn’t find a CART ride for 1994, Andretti made what I thought was a curious move by switching over to NASCAR. He again ran the Indianapolis 500 for AJ Foyt in 1994, posting another 10th place finish. Immediately after the race, Andretti climbed aboard a helicopter in order to catch a plane to Charlotte, NC to run the Coca-Cola 600 that evening. By doing so, he became the first driver to ever run both races on the same day. In later years, other drivers would do the “double” including Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart; but John Andretti was the first.
This began a strange odyssey for Andretti who drove for some pretty obscure NASCAR teams over the years. However, he won the 1997 Pepsi 400 driving for Cale Yarborough before joining Petty enterprises permanently in 1998. Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999, giving Richard Petty his final win as an owner. He was released by Petty in 2003, and again he became a NASCAR journeyman. All the while, his dreams of returning to the Speedway in an IndyCar seemed to be drifting further away.
Finally, when most had assumed he would never run in another Indianapolis 500, John Andretti returned in 2007…thirteen years since his last 500 start. It was not a spectacular return. He brought out the first yellow, as his mirror blew off and landed in the north end of the track. Later in the race, he crashed in a one car accident and ended in 30th position. More impressive, was his return in 2008. Rookie Jay Howard was attempting to qualify a second Marty Roth entry, but was having trouble getting it up to speed. On the morning of Pole Day, it was announced that John Andretti would replace Howard in the car. He qualified 21st and finished a strong 16th. He went on to have several good runs for Roth Racing in the 2008 season, before yielding again to Howard.
While still driving NASCAR, Andretti is back for this year’s 500. Unfortunately, it is in an entry that may have difficulty finding its way into the field of thirty-three—even though there may be no more than thirty-four trying. Richard Petty has loaned his name to the effort, but is little more than a figurehead. The car is being prepared by Dreyer & Reinbold, which seems to be stretched a little thin at the moment. They are running four cars and only one, Davey Hamilton, is currently qualified.
John Andretti’s career has always had me a little perplexed. He is an excellent driver that was never with a good team. I was always intrigued to see what he could do in a Penske or Ganassi car. He is a smart and savvy driver who, unlike his relatives, usually takes care of his equipment (Sunday’s crash not withstanding). Why he hasn’t gotten better rides over the years has always bewildered me. Unlike his uncle and cousins who are somewhat aloof and arrogant—John is fan-friendly, personable and very down-to earth. Plus, he can drive the wheels off of a racecar. His career has been stalled however, by one bad team after another.
John Andretti and his father, Aldo, seem to share the same fate. Due to some bad racing luck, Aldo never got the breaks that his twin-brother Mario did. Aldo labored in obscurity throughout his career, while Mario became a household name. The genes have been passed down on both sides of the family. Unfortunately, there seems to be a different type of Andretti curse at work here.