Drag racer Greg Anderson has the stout physique of a strong safety, the hand strength of an ironworker, the endurance of an iron man — and the overall manliness of John Wayne.
So imagine his reaction three years ago at his annual health physical when the doctor told him the tiniest part of his heart was so damaged, it was on the verge of killing him.
Nah, he said. Not me.
It almost did.
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Had Anderson, a four-time Pro Stock champion on the National Hot Rod Association circuit, gone against his doctor’s recommendation — and his wife’s wrath — and raced the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals on Feb. 6 in Pomona, California, he likely would have died on his first qualifying run down the quarter-mile Auto Club Raceway.
Instead on the first day of the season, the 53-year-old Minnesota native was in a Charlotte, North Carolina hospital having open-heart surgery to repair a bicuspid aortic valve.
While recovering, Anderson missed the first five races on the NHRA schedule, and now sits on the outside looking in at the “Countdown to the Championship” playoffs. He is 11th in the points; the top 10 advance for the chance to win the world title.
Moreover, as Anderson is set to finish off the final leg of the tour’s “western swing” starting Friday at the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, he has not won a national event since the 2012 Toyota NHRA SuperNationals — a span of 53 races.
“I feel real good physically and mentally. I am probably back to 80 percent of what I was, but it is certainly enough to do what I do,” Anderson said. “As far as the car goes, it has been a little bit off since I have been back.”
Anderson has been involved in professional drag racing since 1992 — first as Warren Johnson’s crew chief, then as a driver since 1998. During that span, he never missed a race.
And he certainly wasn’t going to let a doctor get in the way of that in 2011 when he was first told an echocardiogram revealed he had an inflated artery in his heart.
“I asked him where it came from, and he said it was probably something I was born with, and it had finally gotten to the point it was causing a problem,” Anderson said.
The NHRA veteran said he felt fine. Plus he had a race the following week in Las Vegas that he wasn’t going to miss.
“I just told him, ‘For 50 years, it hasn’t caused a problem, and now the day I come in for a check-up, you are telling me I need open-heart surgery?’ ” Anderson said. “I talked him out of it.”
The two came to a compromise: Anderson would have a computerized tomography (CT) scan every six months, and if the swelling of the artery exceeded 5 centimeters, surgery would be scheduled immediately.
For the next two years, Anderson said it never got bigger than 4.6 centimeters.
But when he went in for his physical in early February, he got some shocking news: The artery had grown substantially.
Anderson couldn’t believe the news, and was set to still open the 2014 season in California had wife, Kimberly, not put her foot down.
“She said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” Anderson said.
The valve-replacement procedure was performed by the same surgeon who did Carolina Panthers football coach John Fox’s open-heart surgery three months prior.
“The doctor told me as soon as he opened me up and touched the artery, it fell apart,” Anderson said. “He said it was the worst artery he had never seen, and that I wouldn’t have made it past the first race. It was a mess.”
Recovery time was three months. The Summit Racing Team brought on Jimmy Alund, an eight-time FIA European Drag Racing Pro Stock champion from Sweden, as Anderson’s short-term replacement.
At the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in mid-April in Charlotte, Alund became the first European winner of an NHRA event when he defeated Erica Enders-Stevens in the Pro Stock finals.
The next week in Houston, Anderson was back in the Chevy Camaro — and has raced every NHRA stop since, making it to two finals.
“(The surgery) is absolutely a game-changer. I certainly look at things a little differently now,” Anderson said. “Those (doctors) were right on the money. I now understand how people can have heart attacks, because I didn’t really have any symptoms. I never felt bad. The warning signs just didn’t seem strong enough.”