Original publish date: May 18, 2017
Last week I traveled out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to catch up with an old friend. Most people know Dave Wilson from his many appearances on the Q-95 Bob & Tom show, others from his longtime gig as an Indy 500 radio man, and still more know him as “The King” of the Circle City stand-up comic scene. What most don’t know about Dave is his devotion to his hometown of Indianapolis.
Dave and his wife Peggy are now running the club room of the Speedway American Legion Post # 500 at 1926 Georgetown Road. The post is literally a stone’s throw from the track and, as you might guess, the interior is decked out in a black and white checkered flag design. “This will be my 51st Indy 500,” says Dave. “My dad brought me to this post for the first time even before I saw my first race.” Turns out that both Dave’s and Peggy’s fathers were high ranking members of Post 500. “In the past 5 years, we’ve lost 300 members to father time.” Dave continues. “We were really afraid that this post might not be able to continue.”
Now, with the Wilson’s steady management alongside the leadership of Post Commander John Hannon, the Speedway Legion Post 500 is on the upswing. “In the old days, if you didn’t get here by 5 o’clock on a Friday or Saturday night, you didn’t get a table.” Wilson says. “Those numbers fell way off in the in late 1990s-early 2000s, but we’re attracting younger members now and things are looking up.”
Wilson is a busy man during the month of May. Along with his daily management chores at Post 500, Dave reports from the Pits at the Speedway for the Bob & Tom Show. While race fans are accustomed to seeing Wilson on patrol in Gasoline Alley, Dave’s biggest impact may well be his work for the “Race for Riley” which celebrates its 21st year in 2017. Wilson started the charity go kart race back in 1995 with his longtime WIBC radio show host (and former Indianapolis Colt) Joe Staysniak and NASCAR / Indy Car driver John Andretti. The race is always held at the New Castle Motorsports Park the week before the Brickyard 400.
Wilson has known John Andretti since the late-1980s. Dave recalls that inaugural Race for Riley event, “John called into my radio show every Tuesday. At the time he was driving in the NASCAR series for Cale Yarborough Motorsports. Somehow we came up with the idea of a go-kart race for charity and we picked Riley Children’s Hospital as our beneficiary. We raised $ 36,000 for Riley that first year. As of this year, we are up over $ 4 million.”
Dave notes that while John Andretti has been the name draw for the Race for Riley over the years, Andretti does it all without the use of a foundation. What does that mean? Dave answers, “That means that all of the money raised goes directly to Riley. Since there is no foundation, there are no administrative fees and no overhead. Everything is donated.” As for the expenses involved in this 3 or 4 day event, “John pays most of those out of his own pocket.” states Wilson. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.” Wilson pauses for a moment to reflect about his friend of 30 years.
John Andretti has been in the news lately. On April 28th, Andretti revealed to the world that he is battling stage four colon cancer. The 54-year-old Andretti made 393 starts in NASCAR’s premier series from 1993-2010, scoring 13 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes. He also won four poles- at Darlington, Talladega, Atlanta and Phoenix. He made the last of his 10 Indy 500 starts in 2011, with a best finish of fifth in 1991. He has two NASCAR and one IndyCar wins in his career, and was last a full-time driver during the 2009 NASCAR season. Andretti, the nephew of famed racer Mario Andretti, is currently undergoing chemotherapy and will have surgery in June.
“At first, John wanted to keep his diagnosis private,” says Wilson. “But word got out and John decided he was going to use his personal battle to spur others to get themselves checked out for colon cancer.” The Andretti family has started using the hashtag #checkit4Andretti on social media to encourage people to take the easy test for colon cancer. Their goal is to keep other families from suffering their pains by getting a colonoscopy before it’s too late.
When asked how he feels about his friend’s prognosis, Wilson replies,”Well, if anybody can do it, John can. He’s tough. One of the toughest guys I know.” Wilson notes that Andretti is getting some good advise and counsel from NASCAR engine builder and team owner Robert Yates, who is himself battling stage 4-B cancer.
Wilson relates how his friend John Andretti, who makes his home in North Carolina, would often drop into Riley Children’s hospital unannounced whenever he was in town. “After every race, we have a party in the lobby at Riley. John always goes upstairs to visit with those kids too sick to attend and he would spend hours up there. Do you remember the pro wrestler Bobby “The Brain” Heenan? I had him on my radio show once and I took him out to Riley to see the kids. He didn’t last 10 minutes.” says Wilson. That’s how dedicated John Andretti is.
The Andretti family has a rich history in our city. They are as much a part of our racing tradition as the Unser’s, the Bettenhausen’s, the Vukovich’s, the Foyt’s and the Hulman’s. We owe it to those racing families, just as much as our own, to go and get ourselves tested. Guys, if you are 50 years old or older, the time to get a colonoscopy is now. When you make your appointment, reach out to John Andretti on social media and let him know your date. Don’t tell him you’re thinking about it, give him the date. That will make John Andretti smile and it might just save your life.