NHRA’s Greg Anderson bounces back after life-threatening heart ailment

05/22/2014 6:09 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

When four-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson climbed into his Summit Racing Camaro last month at Houston, he was as nervous as a teenager taking his first driver’s test.

Anderson was 11 weeks removed from heart surgery, and he was filled with questions and a little bit of doubt.

“You question yourself after you sit on the shelf for a while,” said Anderson, who underwent surgery to repair a bicuspid aortic valve on Feb. 6 and missed the first five races of the season.

“Can I still do this? When I do get in the car, what’s it going to feel like? Am I going to have complications? Is my heart going to race, am I going to have chest pains? Is it going to hurt when I pull the parachute?”

Anderson’s questions were answered in 6.636 seconds when he made a pass at 209.92 mph in qualifying for the NHRA Spring Nationals.

“All those things were answered with a thumbs up,” said Anderson, 52. “No pain when I pull the parachutes. The tire shakes don’t affect me. I have no limitations. I’m pretty happy. There’s no excuse and no reason I can’t drive that car 100 percent.”

Anderson lost in the first elimination round at Houston but reached the finals last week at Atlanta, giving him some momentum heading into this weekend’s Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, where he is a four-time winner.

Anderson’s first two performances lifted him into 16th spot in the standings, and he has time to crack the top 10 and qualify for the Countdown to the Championship.

“That is the beauty, but the competition is so tough this year,” Anderson said. “I’ve got to win races. I can’t just win a round here and a round there. … I won’t make it. I’ve got to win races. To go four rounds in Atlanta felt great. It took a chunk out of the lead these guys all have on me, but I’ve got to do that several more times. I’ve got to find a way to go the distance a few more times.”

Anderson has only himself to blame for undergoing heart surgery on the day the 2014 NHRA season opened in Pomona, Calif.

Ha had known for years that he was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, which means Anderson’s heart had two valve openings instead of three, so blood did not flow through it properly.

“Blood would get restricted, or it would come through crooked and shoot out the sidewalls of the artery behind it,” Anderson said. “For 50 years, that blood squirting through that valve at a bad angle in a restricted angle is like holding your finger at the end of a garden hose.”

Anderson had scans of the artery taken every six months for the past three years, but because there had been no change in the condition after five exams, he did not have it done at the end of last season.

When Anderson was examined in early February, a camera revealed his artery had swelled to twice its normal size. He had weeks, if not days, to live.

“I screwed up by not having it taken three months earlier,” Anderson said. “Had it not been done, the doctor said I would not have made it to the first race because the wall was stretched absolutely paper thin. It had an aneurysm that was getting ready to burst. If that would have burst, I would have been done.”

Anderson was told the recovery period would be 12 weeks, which would cause him to miss six races. The team hired Jimmy Alund, a Swedish driver, to race the car before Anderson, who lost 20 pounds while recuperating, made it back a week earlier than expected.

Alund won the prestigious Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte, N.C., in mid-April, the week before Anderson returned in Houston.

“That made it tougher yet for me to boot him out of the car, a race early,” Anderson said. “We brought him on for six races, he was on top of the world … the first time a European has won anything here. It was a great story. I felt horrible, I had to kick him out of the car the next race. But I had to get back in. I have to get in the playoffs.”

To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to rcovitz@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/randycovitz.

NHRA KANSAS NATIONALS

The place: Heartland Park Topeka

The time/day: Friday, qualifying, 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. (ESPN2, 5-7 p.m.); Sunday, final eliminations, 11 a.m. (ESPN2, 9 p.m.-midnight).

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