Greg Anderson a feel-good story in '10
POMONA, Calif. -- When Greg Anderson holds the championship trophy in his hands on Sunday afternoon, he will send a message to us all.
The message really has nothing to do with winning his fourth NHRA Pro Stock title, his first championship season in five years.
"I guess the message is to just keep going," Anderson said Friday at Auto Club Raceway. "Keep moving forward no matter what happens. Keep climbing the ladder, it does get better."
Before the 2010 season started, Anderson wondered how things could get much worse. Ken Black, his team owner and close friend, suffered a debilitating stroke in December.
One month later, Anderson's suburban Charlotte home almost burned to the ground in a fire that was accidentally started by a neighbor.
His family was uprooted and his team owner was in the hospital, fighting for his life.
"I was lost," Anderson said. "I don't know how many times I said, 'My God. Is this black cloud ever going to go away?' ''
Anderson, wife Kimberly, daughter Brittany (age 20) and son Cody (12) moved to Black's condo in Charlotte. Kimberly had almost daily meetings with insurance adjusters to itemize all the things they lost in the fire.
And no one knew if Black would recover. He was partially paralyzed and placed in an induced coma.
But Anderson had to try to hold things together for the two-car Summit Racing operation, including teammate Jason Line, while everything seemed to be crumbling around them.
The goal was to stay focused.
"But we couldn't stay focused,'' Anderson said. "You think you're professional enough to do your job and block things out, but we're human. It was too much to block out. I don't know that anyone could, and that's why our performance suffered early in the year."
Anderson was winless in the first 12 events of the season. Eight times he lost in either the first or second round.
"We wanted to win for Ken so badly," Anderson said. "But he's the one who told us to stop pressing. He said, 'Don't worry about it. Just go out there and have fun.' We were trying too hard. We all got our attitudes back in the right place, especially me. Once we took Ken's advice, things got better."
Anderson won at Norwalk, Ohio, in June and Seattle two weeks later. But he still entered the Countdown playoff chasing Mike Edwards, the defending champion.
He lost to Edwards in the second round at Indianapolis and found himself 104 points behind after the first playoff event.
Anderson, 49, won three consecutive championships from 2003 to 2005 but had finished second in the standings each of the previous four years.
"You start doubting yourself," Anderson said. "You think [a championship] is never going to happen again. Even though we weren't running terrible those years, Edwards was so far above us that I didn't see how we could get back there."
But he did get back. Anderson won at Charlotte in the second Countdown race and beat Edwards at Dallas in the final one week later.
"All of a sudden there was a chink in Mike's armor where there hadn't been one in two years," Anderson said. "At the same time we started to get our groove back."
Anderson doesn't know if it would have been enough without an emotional moment two weeks ago at Las Vegas. Black returned to the track for the first time since his stroke. Line said it pumped up everyone.
"It was the happiest I had seen our guys all year," Line said. "Things felt like they had gone back to normal for us. Best of all, Ken's smile was as big as I've ever seen it."
The team members at the shop who normally don't travel to the events spent their own money to fly to Vegas to see Black.
I guess the message is to just keep going. Keep moving forward no matter what happens. Keep climbing the ladder, it does get better.” -- Greg Anderson
"When the guys saw Ken at the track, it was like a light turned on for all of us," Anderson said. "His body still won't do everything he wants it to do, but everyone saw that his mind was the same as always."
Anderson won the event and Edwards lost in the first round, ending any realistic chance he had to catch Anderson for the title.
"It was the perfect storm for us," Anderson said. "It's a tough deal for Mike, and I definitely understand what it feels like. He dominated for so long, but you're never safe in this business."
And you're never truly safe in life, either, as Anderson found out over the past year.
"It was a difficult deal," Anderson said. "But it did make us stronger as a team and as people. You realize what's really important in life.
"Honestly, we have so much to be thankful for. Ken is still with us and getting better every day. No one was hurt in the fire, even though my wife and daughter were in the house when it started.
"The little things don't bother me as much anymore. If my wife wants to go buy more shoes [Kimberly's favorite activity], who cares?"
The most important thing to Anderson now is that Black will be at the starting line Sunday to see his driver win another title.
"Seeing the improvement he's made the last few months has been incredible," Anderson said of Black. "He made us better and we made him better. I expect to see him jump up out of that wheelchair at any moment."
Anderson said a lot of things will go through his mind when he becomes the champ again. He hasn't officially clinched the title, but all he basically has to do is show up at Pomona.
"It's unbelievable," Anderson said. "This one is different. This is going to be the most memorable one and the most special one. There's no way with everything that's happened this year we ever thought we had a chance at this. It's a real credit to this team."
Almost eight months after the fire, the Anderson family moved into their new home in August.
And what about that black cloud that wouldn't go away?
"Ends up it had a silver lining," Anderson said. "I mean, my goodness. Look at where we were and where we are now.''
A lesson for us all.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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