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Duluth Denfeld graduate Greg Anderson competes earlier this season on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Despite missing five races while recovering from heart surgery, Anderson, a four-time national champion, finds himself in the thick of the chase again. Photo courtesy NHRA
Duluth Denfeld graduate Greg Anderson competes earlier this season on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Despite missing five races while recovering from heart surgery, Anderson, a four-time national champion, finds himself in the thick of the chase again. Photo courtesy NHRA
Auto racing: Duluth's Anderson shows heart, keeps driving
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Duluth Denfeld graduate Greg Anderson told his wife it’d be no sweat.

That wouldn’t be the answer for most people who are about to have their chest cut open, and an eight-hour operation done on their heart, but National Hot Rod Association drag racers aren’t like most people.

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When you go from 0 to 200 mph in less than 6 seconds, you have to be a little fearless.

Anderson is back, and along with teammate Jason Line, just about as good as ever going into the 33rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals this weekend at Brainerd International Raceway.

“After getting my heart fixed up, we struggled to get the performance out of the car. We were just off a bit,” Anderson said. “But now, we have a very legitimate chance of winning races and contending for a championship. Things are looking up.”

Anderson, 53, underwent surgery in February in Charlotte, N.C. near his home, to fix a faulty bicuspid aortic valve, which wasn’t allowing blood to flow properly through the largest artery of the body. Anderson, a former multisport athlete at Duluth Denfeld, said it was something he was born with but never noticed. It was not discovered until after a heart murmur was detected during a routine physical in 2011. His doctor wanted to operate on it immediately, but Anderson talked him out of it.

Instead, Anderson’s aorta was measured every six months. Everything was fine until late this past January, and he had surgery less than two weeks later.

“It’s my fault,” Anderson said. “The size never changed for three years, so I almost forgot about it and starting thinking it was never going to change. I’d be fine. But then it went from about an inch in diameter to two. It was getting ready to burst, and that’s what they feared, because if it bursts, you’re done. At that point, I didn’t have much of a choice. Pretty crazy.”

Anderson’s surgeon was the same as the one who operated on Denver Broncos football coach John Fox in November.

Anderson’s surgery was complicated because he bled a lot. He went into surgery with too much aspirin in his system, making his blood too thin. Anderson was told his doctor basically spent three hours “mopping up blood.”

After surgery, Anderson was nonsensical for two days as his blood levels returned to normal, causing fear he may have suffered a stroke.

“I felt great going into surgery because I knew nothing about it. I was naïve,” said Anderson, who has a wife, Kimberly, and children Brittany and Cody. “I told my family they had nothing to worry about. This should be a piece of cake, but I should have done a little research. It put the family through a heck of a scare for a couple of days. I never wanted to think about things like that but sometimes you’re forced to. It isn’t just about you.”

Anderson came around in time to watch Line win the season-opening Winternationals on Feb. 9 in Pomona, Calif., dedicating the victory to his bedridden friend. Anderson keeps the trophy on his desk.

“The doctors didn’t want me watching TV, must less getting excited,” Anderson said. “Jason winning was the best medicine you could ever imagine.”

Anderson went through the agonizingly slow process of recovery. For most of the first month, he was at home on pain killers. Then he started going to the race shop and rehab.

By mid-April, Anderson was already pleading with his doctor to let him return to the cockpit of his Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro.

“He just laughed at me and said, ‘Get out of my office. Go away.’ Wasn’t even a conversation,” Anderson said, laughing.

Two weeks later, Anderson was cleared. He was supposed to miss six races; instead, he only missed five.

Wearing a custom-made chest protector, Anderson qualified for eliminations on April 25-27 in Houston but was eliminated in the first round. He has since rebounded. The four-time national champion now sits 10th in the Pro Stock points standings with two races remaining before the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, with the top 10 drivers qualifying.

“I worked really hard because I knew at the end of the day, that one race could make all the difference, and that is the way it is looking,” Anderson said. “I’m already in my playoff run.”

Line said he hasn’t noticed a change in Anderson, saying “he is as competitive as ever.”

Anderson jokes that doctors “dialed back his odometer,” so he has even more miles left on his engine, but other times he is dead serious.

“It was a game changer,” Anderson said. “I could have easily pushed it too far and lost my life. You realize how lucky you are.”

Line, a native of Wright, has won the last two NHRA events, moving up to third in the season point standings and landing on the cover of this week’s “National Dragster” magazine. Line, 45, has never won three in a row and would have to win for the first time at his beloved Brainerd track to accomplish the feat.

Anderson, meanwhile, nearly beat Line for the title two weeks ago in Seattle.

When asked if they were on a roll, Anderson said, “We’re definitely on the road to recovery.”

In more ways than one.

THEY SAID IT

A News Tribune reporter called the Summit Racing shop on Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.

Crew member Lynn Mueller, a Wisconsin native, answered the phone and was asked if he was Jason Line. Later, the same reporter took a phone call from Line and thought it was Anderson. All three members of the team have developed a little Southern accent after years based in the Charlotte area.

“You spend that much time with one another, you all start to sound the same,” Line said, laughing.

33rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals

What: The 17th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series

Where: Brainerd International Raceway

When: Today through Sunday

Tickets: $40 for today, $55 for Saturday and Sunday; available by calling (866) 444-4455 or going to www.brainerdraceway.com

TV: ESPN2, 10 p.m.-midnight Saturday; 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday

Defending champions: Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock)

On the bubble

Despite missing five races after having heart surgery in February, Duluth native Greg Anderson is still in the running for a spot in the National Hot Rod Association’s Countdown to the Championship. Teammates Jason Line and Vincent    Nobile have already secured their spots in the Pro Stock division, while Anderson needs a solid showing over the next two races. The top 10 after Brainerd (this weekend) and Indianapolis (Aug. 27-

Sept. 1) qualify for the playoffs.

NHRA Pro Stock Points Standings

1. Erica Enders-Stevens    1,229

2. Allen Johnson    1,197

3. Jason Line    1,192

4. Jeg Coughlin    1,128

5. Dave Connolly    1,075

6. Shane Gray    1,015

7. Vincent Nobile    959

8. V. Gaines    742

9. Chris McGaha    718

10. Greg Anderson    647

11. Jonathan Gray    621

12. Larry Morgan    520

13. Rodger Brogdon    422

14. Shane Tucker    283

15. Jimmy Alund    282

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