As Duluth race car driver Tommy Archer whizzed around the track on March 5 at Sebring International Raceway, passing car after car, there were more than a few people who couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Archer is 61 in a young man’s sport where some drivers are a third his age and where speeds top 170 mph. But that’s just a small part of his story because Archer already could have died, not from a crash, but from cancer.

Archer plans to continue racing in the Trans Am Series even while he battles an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Everyone hoped he had it licked, but it came back, tough as ever, so he underwent radiation treatments from Nov. 30to Jan. 13at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Following radiation, Archer recovered just in time to make the Trans Am Series season opener two weekends ago at Sebring. It is hard not to support him.

“There was a guy who helped us go to Sebring,” Archer said. “He goes, ‘You know, I have to give it to you, a guy that is fighting for his life, he’s 61 years old, and he wants to go race.’”

Hollywood couldn’t make this up.

ON TO SEBRING

Archer has a racing resume most drivers could only dream of. He raced for years with his brother, Bobby, and won multiple championships in the Sports Car Club of America and International Motor Sports Association. Twice he finished second at the renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But all things considered ― age, cancer and so forth ― he probably turned in his greatest performance at Sebring.

Archer’s team tested his Koolmat/Kolar Chevrolet Camaro six weeks prior to Sebring and knew they could compete. A couple adjustments and they had the car dialed in. Archer qualified third among 35 drivers in the TA2 division.

“We were fast right out of the box,” Archer said.

But a communications gaffe cost him as he missed the cutoff time to reach the starting line. Archer said there were four updates to the race schedule, but his Archer Brothers racing team only received three of them. He would have to start in the back of the pack, actually entering the race from pit road after the field went by at 125 mph, ready to fly around the 17-turn, 3.74-mile track for the 100-mile race.

That didn’t keep Archer from catching up, and catching up in a hurry. He was on a mission.

Archer caught up to the back of the pack by Turn 3. He went on to pass 10 cars on the first lap. He passed another two or three cars by the time a caution came out two laps later, and he passed another nine cars on the restart. By the time another stoppage came, Archer was up to fifth.

“We knew we were back in the fight,” he said.

Archer worked his way up to second. He had a nice duel with Adam Andretti, nephew of famed driver Mario Andretti, swapping positions three times in one lap.

“I’ve seen Tommy win multiple times, but I’ve never seen him go from 35th to second before,” said Adam Archer, Tommy’s nephew and crew member. “That was something.”

Adam Archer watched the race from the start-finish line with his father, John, and crew chief Ty Manseau of Duluth. They weren’t able to see much, just a five-second glimpse as the cars came bolting past, but they liked what they saw until the end.

Tommy Archer said he was gaining on race leader Gar Robinson but was resigned to the fact he was running out of time to catch him.

Heading into Turn 14 with just three turns to go, Archer drove over something that caused his car to spin out.

“You’re going through a turn at 140 mph, and all of the sudden, it felt like somebody slapped me upside the head, and I was spinning backwards,” Archer said.

Archer suspects he ran over oil from another car which had blown an engine, especially after later examination of his car showed that nothing had broken. He recovered in time to finish 11th.

Archer has no laments. He has been around long enough to know, as the old saying goes, “That’s racin’.”

“It was an awesome race,” Archer said. “I’ve never had that many people come up to me after a race and just be ecstatic about what they just watched.”

DRIVING ON

Archer took a phone call last week and was asked how he was doing.

“I’m surviving,” he said.

That usually doesn’t mean much, but with Archer, it means everything.

Archer had a physical four years ago in which the blood tests showed his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels were high. He has an aggressive form of cancer that had spread beyond the prostate.

The prostate is part of the male reproductive system, secreting a slightly alkaline fluid that helps prolong the lifespan of sperm. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in seven men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime. It is the second-leading cause of cancer death among American men, behind only lung cancer.

Archer underwent a rigorous treatment regimen that included surgery. It took a toll. Just when he thought he was cancer free, Mayo Clinic doctors noted a significant PSA increase, though they couldn’t find the tumor. Archer was taken off medication to let the tumor grow, so it could be detected more easily. A cancerous lymph node about the size of a small egg was found and removed from his pelvic region on March 17 of last year (Google “Tommy Archer Mayo” to see the video online).

“We all thought I was cancer free,” Archer said.

Archer competed in eight of the 12 races in the Trans Am Series last year, finishing as high as second at Brainerd International Raceway over the Fourth of July weekend.

Unfortunately, Archer’s time being “cancer free” was brief. In August, his PSA level was elevated again. A friend tried to cheer him up by telling him nobody gets out of this world alive, but it didn’t make him feel any better.

“I told him, ‘Well, I’m not quite ready to leave right now,’” Archer said, laughing.

Archer already had two surgeries, and with cancer apparently flowing in his bloodstream, doctors opted for radiation to go after a larger area.

“When they found this cancerous lymph node in the front part of my body, the doctor said there is probably five million cancer cells there already,” Archer said. “So you’ve got to believe if there is five million there, then there is probably some someplace else. We just don’t know where it is.”

Archer underwent 33 radiation treatments from Nov. 30to Jan. 13at the Mayo Clinic. He felt terrible over the holidays, but he specifically planned his treatments around his race schedule, allowing just enough time for him to recuperate for the season opener at Sebring.

“You wake up every morning knowing you have cancer, and that there is something inside you trying to kill you,” Archer said. “That is a daunting thing to have to wake up to every day, knowing that, if you don’t get it, it’s going to get you.

“Racing is what I do, and that’s what I’ve always done. But not only that, it’s been a great form of release, where I can go and not think of the fact I have cancer. It keeps my mind on something else.”

Archer said his doctor told him he had two choices - that he could live or die - but if he followed a certain diet, he would have a good chance of living. Archer said “sign me up.”

Archer is on a whole foods diet, which means no animal food. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains while minimizing highly refined foods.

Archer hasn’t had red meat or a can of pop since Jan. 15. Instead he drinks water or tea. He said the plan is to starve the cancer from sugar, because cancer loves sugar.

“I’ve seen some of the things he eats, and I think cardboard would taste better,” Adam Archer said, laughing.

Tommy Archer also receives a female hormone shot every 25 days that he said kills off his testosterone. As part of the reaction, a big red dot on his stomach grows like a tick bite. The pain lasts about three days and can be so severe that he can hardly touch his stomach.

“Whatever it takes,” he said.

Archer’s next blood test is in 60 days, and he and his family and friends are praying for a negative result.

Adam Archer said his uncle always has been an inspiration, but it’s more about life and death now. Tommy’s approach hasn’t changed. He is still mellow, yet determined. This is the same guy who had a race car before he was even legal to drive it. The same guy who couldn’t lift a newspaper because of broken ribs, but he could win a 125-mile race. The same guy who could go from the back of the pack to the front, less than two months after having radiation treatments.

Archer is now more determined than ever. For him, it’s life and death.

Archer believes in mind over matter, and in support. He said his love of racing helped keep his mind focused on returning to the track, while knowing people are rooting for him drives him on.

“I have a lot of determination to do the best I can do with what I’ve been given,” he said. “When you have all kinds of people working around you, to help you do that, it just gives you strength.

“I believe in God, and I believe that he’s done this for a reason. I think some of it is the fact that I’m a light for other people, so that they know that just because you have something bad, it doesn’t mean your life is over.”

If you go

  • Arrowhead Auto Body Motorhead Madness
  • What: 48th annual car show
  • Where: DECC
  • When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: Adults $11; children 6-12 $5; 5 and under free
  • Information: motorheadmadnessmn.com
  • Featured guests: Author and Duluth native Rick Shefchik, and Duluth race car driver Tommy Archer, who will take photos and sign autographs from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, and noon-3 p.m. Sunday