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Veteran Safety Patrol Member, John Andretti Bond with Good Humor Through Shared Struggle

They became fast friends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by comparing chemotherapy ports and stage four colon cancer conditions.

The motorsports world knows about retired driver John Andretti, who has publicized his recent diagnosis to promote the importance of colonoscopies. A “#CheckIt4Andretti” decal will be affixed to each of the 33 cars in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Now meet Ken DeLion, 61, of Lafayette, Indiana. A proud Gold Badge member in his 23rd year with the IMS Safety Patrol, he was given his serious prognosis in November 2015.

DeLion was sharing his story on Pole Day morning, Saturday, May 20 when he mentioned watching Andretti’s recent news conference at IMS. Perhaps someday, DeLion suggested, he could meet Andretti.

One golf cart ride later in what suddenly became an incredibly meaningful Sunday, they were together in the Tower Terrace suites.

Andretti and DeLion quickly connected because they speak the same language through a healthy sense of humor. Ask DeLion about how grim his prognosis is, he smiles and tells a joke.

“I’ve got to keep my sense of humor because that keeps me going,” DeLion said. “The doctor only gave me three months to live. ‘Well, I can’t afford to pay you in that much time.’ So he gave me an extra three months.”

Andretti likes it.

“I’ve got to use that,” Andretti said. “I’m going to use that on my doctor.”

“But you’ve got to say it straight-faced, like you’re serious,” DeLion said.

That’s about as serious as DeLion wants to sound in his fight. Every other Wednesday, that chemotherapy port gets used for eight to 10 hours, which zaps his strength. Where he once weighed 290 pounds, he’s now 213.

“Cancer hits you like a ton of bricks,” he said.

But DeLion, a married father of three grown children, refuses to retire from his beloved May routine, when he takes two weeks of vacation from his regular job in the receiving department of a Kroger-owned Payless Supermarkets to don his yellow IMS hat and command the south pit gates.

Pole Day was DeLion’s first day back this month. He’s mindful that everyone around him is keeping a watchful eye, from colleague Andy Bowman to several firefighters stationed on a truck at his location. The upbeat DeLion insists on reminding there’s no need for sympathy or special treatment. Family, friends and fellow Yellow Shirts need to realize he’s still in amazingly good spirits.

“People ask me, ‘What are you doing working?’” DeLion said. “I don’t want to sit in my easy chair and have self-pity. I’m still alive, still kicking, still vertical.

“You don’t know how happy I am, being vertical. It makes me appreciate life a lot more. I look at life a lot more now than I had before. I took a lot of stuff for granted.”

The DeLion-Andretti meeting of the minds shifts to weight loss. Andretti advises he lost 20 pounds in his first two weeks of chemotherapy. They show each other their ports, affixed just below the shoulder.

“We all have one, right?” Andretti said. “All I know is that it hurt like hell for two weeks, and I was going to cut it out.”

“The doctor who put mine in,” DeLion said, “he said a prayer before I went under the knife. I’ve never had a doctor say a prayer over me.”

“I’d get another doctor,” Andretti said.

Andretti repeats a line from his news conference, about how every oncologist who prescribes chemotherapy should have to endure two or three treatments.

DeLion is brought a Coke, which switches the subject to neuropathy. As DeLion takes his soda with ice cubes, Andretti advises he’s too sensitive to the extreme cold because it can affect his hands and toes. DeLion’s neuropathy is in his feet.

Each tell the other how they are the youngest patients receiving chemotherapy.

“It’s not fair,” DeLion said.

“Nobody should be my age and sitting there,” said Andretti, 54.

DeLion said he had to accept chemotherapy or he would have been dead in three months. Eighteen months later, he couldn’t sound more inspired. It’s not about just commanding his IMS post. Being back brings back so many memories.

An affinity for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” began in Lafayette, when he and his childhood friends would ride bicycles around the neighborhood in their own Indy 500. He saw his first “500” in 1964 at the age of 8, seated about 100 yards south of the front-straight crash in which Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald perished. Even at a young age, the joke-appreciative DeLion identified with Sachs, an entertaining personality known as the “Clown Prince of Auto Racing.”

By 1996, DeLion was working the north end of the pits. He bonded with fellow Yellow Shirt Bill Campbell. “Always look north,” was their warning. The race cars exited Turn 4 so fast. DeLion and Campbell eventually moved to the south end of the pits.

Campbell passed away in 2005. His death resonates as a reminder for DeLion to live each day like it’s his last.

DeLion mentions a practice crash when Billy Boat hit the attenuator at the start of the pit lane wall. Upon Boat’s impact, DeLion’s training and attentiveness kicked in immediately to warn those whose minds were elsewhere or working on other tasks.

“I kept yelling, ‘Look out! Look out!’” DeLion said. “Some guy about a half hour later came up and shook my hand and said, ‘Now I know what you’re talking about. Always look north.’

“That makes the whole job worth it.”

That and being able to order around the police on Race Day.

“That’s the one time out of the year I get to tell the State Police what to do because I’m the man down here,” DeLion said. “When the State Police move from my commands, that makes the whole day right there.”

“You get pulled over a lot the rest of the year, don’t you?” Andretti said, joking with DeLion.

“Yeah, I’ve got to watch myself when I get out of here,” DeLion said.

“That’s all right,” Andretti said. “We’ve got less to lose.”

Andretti mentions he’s going in more for scans next week with an operation looming in two weeks.

“Good luck to you,” DeLion said. “I’ll be praying for you.”

“I'm looking forward to the operation,” Andretti said, smiling. “I get off chemo for six weeks.”

“I ain’t that lucky,” DeLion said. “Every other week for me.”

“I told my doctor he can operate on me every week if he lets me off chemo every two weeks,” Andretti said.

The two new friends laugh yet again.

DeLion insists he’ll go home and tell his wife, Debra, he’s definitely coming back next year. But he reluctantly acknowledges the “if” factor.

“If I retire from the Speedway, I will not have any regrets,” he said. “I had so much fun.”

“I won’t tell anyone you left your post,” Andretti said of their impromptu get-together.

“I appreciate that,” DeLion said.

They end their time with another DeLion joke, the same riddle shared with his doctor before surgery.

“There’s 30 cows in a pasture and 28 chickens. How many didn’t?” DeLion said.

After a long pause, DeLion said, “The whole surgical team, only one got it.”

“Got what?” said Andretti, perplexed.

DeLion is amused.

“The answer is 10. Would you like me to go slower?” DeLion said. “The slower you go, the funnier it is.

“There’s 30 cows in a pasture, and 20 (pause) ate chickens.”

After a final laugh, the friends say farewell. DeLion is all smiles as the golf cart brings him back to his post.

“That made my month,” he said of meeting Andretti.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28, and for more information on the complete Race Weekend schedule at IMS.

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Yellow Shirt
 
Veteran Safety Patrol Member, John Andretti Bond with Good Humor Through Shared Struggle
They became fast friends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by comparing chemotherapy ports and stage four colon cancer conditions. The motorsports world knows about retired driver John Andretti, who has publicized his recent diagnosis to promote the importance of colonoscopies. A “#CheckIt4Andretti” decal will be affixed to each of the 33 cars in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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