Four-time NHRA champ Greg Anderson reveals how close he came to death without preseason heart surgery

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In a very compelling – if not downright scary – story in the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal, for the first time four-time NHRA Pro Stock drag racing champ Greg Anderson reveals just how close he came to death had he not undergone heart surgery that forced him to miss the first six races of the 2014 season.

“The doctor told me we had to replace it (a failing bicuspid aortic valve),” Anderson told veteran drag racing writer Bobby Bennett Jr. of CompetitionPlus.com. “I told him I was a week away from starting the season, and I couldn’t do it (surgery).

“The doctor pleaded with me to get the procedure done because at any time it could explode with the higher blood pressure associated with driving a race car.”

The admittedly stubborn Anderson was ready to overrule the doctor and continued preparing for the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.

But prodding from Anderson’s wife and parents convinced him to undergo what wound up being life-saving surgery. Had he not, Anderson likely wouldn’t be with us today and back to racing in this weekend’s NHRA SouthernNationals in Commerce, Ga.

“When I came out of the surgery, (his doctor) told me I absolutely wouldn’t have made it through the first race,” Anderson said. “The doctor said the artery was so weak when he touched it, it just fell apart. The lining had been stretched so far and so thin. It wouldn’t have lasted through one more blood pressure spike.”

Even when he was being wheeled into the operating room, Anderson’s mind was still on racing when it should have been on recovery, asking his surgeon if everything went perfectly, could he move up the timetable for Anderson to return behind the wheel.

Fate took care of that question when Anderson suffered excessive blood loss, prompting doctors at first to think he had experienced a stroke.

“I’d look at them and want to talk, but the words wouldn’t come out right,” Anderson told Bennett. “They’d ask my name and I’d respond, ‘hockey puck.’

“I knew what I wanted to say, I just couldn’t answer. This went on for two days and they told my family I’d likely had a stroke and would never be the same. …They finally took me down and did a CAT scan and it came back negative for a stroke. On the third day, I was back and answered every question correctly.”

Now that he’s back to racing, Anderson is glad he listened to his family, rather than remain bullheaded.

“I feel very fortunate, the luckiest man in the world,” Anderson said. “I was this close to making the wrong decision because we, as racers, cannot sit out of a race. That seemed more important, to race. And, my family talked me into the right decision. I was too stupid to make the right decision.”

To read the rest of Bennett’s excellent story, click here.

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).