INDIANAPOLIS — John Andretti can’t shake the sound from his head. The haunting sound of a machine pumping toxic chemicals into his system as part of chemotherapy.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and I sit and listen to this pump going and know this pump is poison,” Andretti said. “I hear that pump right now. I hate that thing.”
The 54-year-old Andretti is in the fight of his life and has been for several months. He is battling cancer that started in his colon, spread to his liver and doctors believe to his spleen, too.
The former racer is back for his family’s annual May reunion in the venue that has always felt like home — Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place that provides Andretti with the boost he needs right now.
“This place is life to an Andretti,” he said. “I get chills because this is the most special place on the planet for me, for my family. This gives me energy.”
Andretti started 49 consecutive IndyCar races from 1990-92 before moving to NASCAR, where he made 29 or more starts every year from 1994-2003. He was the first driver to attempt the Memorial Day double, racing first in the Indianapolis 500 and then NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.
Andretti spoke Thursday during an announcement for his (hash)CheckIt4Andretti campaign encouraging those 50 or older to get a colonoscopy. Andretti hopes the message is heard by everyone, not just racing fans.
A decal will be placed on every car in 101st running of the 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Freedom 100 races. The decal will also be displayed at other races in Indiana and Kentucky this month with the (hash)CheckIt4Andretti message “Schedule Your Colonoscopy Today.”
“John is in a different race,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles said. “And not unlike his spirit and his fight, he has figured out a way to be a superhero in this new fight and this new race that he’s on.”
It’s an important message that can save a life or at the very least, relieve some pain and financial burden. Had he gone through a colonoscopy at 50, Andretti said, he believes the cancer never would have progressed to this point. Throughout his career, Andretti received regular medical screenings — just not the one he’s now pushing for.
“I was always focused on my health,” Andretti said. “It wasn’t a matter that I wasn’t paying attention. … The only thing I was missing was a colonoscopy.”
Andretti has nearly forced those closest to him to get one, including his cousin, Michael, who recently had his. Prior to Thursday’s announcement, Andretti placed the first decal on one of his cousin’s cars.
“It is perfectly aligned and straight,” Andretti said. “I was going to actually put it on crooked so it would drive my cousin nuts for the whole month.”
Most of Andretti’s chemotherapy treatments have been in North Carolina, where he lives, and his sixth treatment will be in Indianapolis next week. In June, he will have surgery on his liver and spleen.
“People get embarrassed by talking about colonoscopies and they shouldn’t be because it’s just something that’s natural,” Andretti said. “So it’s something that’s really close to me now and obviously important, and for everybody to do. It’s way easier than doing (chemo), I can guarantee you that, because I did both.”
Jay Howard topped the speed charts at Indianapolis 500 practice Thursday with a fast lap of 226.744 mph while Honda cars claimed nine of the fastest 11 speeds during the session.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner at Indy, was second fastest at 225.826 mph while teammates Marco Andretti (225.709) and Fernando Alonso (225.619) were third and fourth. Alonso, a veteran in Formula One, will be making his debut in the May 28 race.
Josef Newgarden crashed early in the day when he lost control and hit the Turn 1 wall. He was later checked and released from the track’s medical center and was fifth fastest at 225.445 on a day that saw retired NASCAR great Tony Stewart on pit row.
Speeds were lower the past two days due to warm and windy conditions, but things picked up Thursday. Friday is the final day of practice before qualifying this weekend.