Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: December 10, 2010
Despite a season in which he lost his home to fire at the beginning of the year and his championship-winning race car, engine, and transporter to fire at the end of the year and very nearly lost his team owner, Ken Black, Greg Anderson can still laugh, but it's the almost exhausted kind of exhale, the kind of I-surrender laugh you make when no other emotion seems possible, when everything you've done, lived through, and accomplished seems unreal.
"My God, you can't even imagine the highs and lows we've been through this season," he said. "I don't know if I'm the luckiest guy around or the unluckiest guy, but I'm going to have to go with lucky."
For all of the tragedy that befell the team the last calendar year, beginning with Black's December 2009 stroke, Anderson's house fire Jan. 4, and the loss of the rig on the way home from the season finale, Anderson and the Summit Racing Equipment/KB Racing team also experienced some incredible highs that culminated in Anderson's fourth world championship, the team's fifth in the last eight seasons, and it led Anderson to anoint this championship year the most special in his career.
The team began its season under the unimaginable black cloud of Black's hospitalization and four-month-long coma and not knowing what the future might hold for him, let alone the team. Still, Anderson began the season with a runner-up at the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, and teammate and engine boss Jason Line got a win at the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals, but those were the lone highlights for the first half of the season because defending champ Mike Edwards continued his 2009 tear.
Edwards won eight of the season's first 12 events and was the No. 1 qualifier at nine of them to build what seemed like an insurmountable lead. By the time Edwards had collected his eighth Wally in Bristol, he led the points chase by 450 points and had more than double the total that Anderson, in fourth place, had accrued.
"It was nothing we can really pinpoint," assessed Anderson. "We didn't have a dominant car all year. We were underdogs all year and just had to scratch and claw and grit out every race, every round we could."
The team also was hamstrung and a bit lost in Black's absence.
"It was like, 'What are we going to do now?' He's everything to this team. He's the leader, he's the financer, and, frankly, we wouldn't want to race without him. He's that good of a guy, we like him that much, but we couldn't talk to him - he was in a coma - and we didn't know what we should be doing with the race team," said Anderson. "We didn't want to spend any money because he's in the hospital, and you don't want to burden them, so we just worked harder in the shop without outside funds, but it's hard to do that in Pro Stock, so we got a little behind. But, at the same time, we didn't even know if we'd ever see the man again. It was very tough.
"We were disappointed in ourselves and not proud of what we were doing. We were pressing so hard because of Ken, thinking that would make him smile and help his recovery, and we were thinking we needed to win every race we went to, but we were pressing too hard. When Ken finally came out of his coma, we had a chat with him that lightened out minds, and we realized we didn't have to win every race. That allowed us to focus a little better.
"As far behind as we were at midseason, we were thinking that this was a lost season, but knowing that Ken would be getting out of the hospital, we knew that he would be so disappointed if we didn't have a good-running race car, so we realized that we did have to get our heads back in the game and maybe spend a little money and dig forward."
Right after the Bristol event, where Anderson suffered his second first-round loss of the season, the team made the radical decision to buy a used Jerry Haas-built car from Jim Yates to replace Anderson's current RJ Race Cars machine and also brought in respected tuner Tommy Utt to work with crew chief Rob Downing.
The moves were crucial and necessary because the next event on the schedule was their sponsor's event, the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, an event that also hosted the lucrative K&N Horsepower Challenge bonus event.
"The new car certainly helped, and Tommy absolutely helped," said Anderson. "Sometimes you have to swap in personnel as well as parts to try to help out. Tommy didn't really change anything, he just calmed everybody down, told us we had what we needed to win, and let us go race."
The team could not have experienced a finer weekend; Anderson won Saturday's $50,000 K&N payday with a final-round victory over Edwards, then turned right around and won Sunday's points event, earning the event payday and a $25,000 "sweep bonus" from NHRA.
Anderson struck while the iron was hot, winning at the next event in Seattle to kick off the new-look Western Swing, but things quickly went downhill with second-round losses in Sonoma and Denver. He reached the semifinals in Brainerd, his coming-home party to his Minnesota birth state and last race of the regular season, and entered the Countdown to the Championship playoffs in fourth place.
The resetting of the points pulled Anderson to within 50 points of Edwards, but a secondround loss to Edwards at the playoff-opening Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil was a morale crusher and dropped Anderson to fifth place.
"I thought, 'So this is how it's going to go?' I was in a fight just to stay in the top five. I hadn't been lower than one or two for the last seven years and now I'm fifth? I needed to do something so that I didn't plummet out of the top five," said Anderson.
The team resorted to the ploy that had worked so well earlier in the year and brought out some new iron.
"Jason's car was running good, and we had a match to it back at the shop, so we switched to that car in Charlotte, and boom, we took off running again," said Anderson. "From that point on, everything that happened was simply magical."
Anderson won the event in his operation's backyard in Charlotte, defeating Indy winner Greg Stanfield in the final, a victory that, combined with Edwards' first-round loss, catapulted Anderson to second place. Anderson and company poured on the coals and won again in Dallas, where he defeated Edwards in the final round to narrow the points leader's advantage to just 16 points.
Anderson reached his third straight final round in Reading, where for the only time this season he set low e.t., and even though he lost the final-round tilt to Dave Connolly, he took over the points lead heading to the final two events of the season.
The team's soaring attitude was buoyed by the assurance that Black would return to the track in his hometown Las Vegas race, but even they could not have imagined what a lift Black's presence would bring, nor the Hollywood-like ending it would produce; both of Black's Summit Pontiacs reached the final, where Anderson edged Line to move further ahead in the points, and then he clinched the title two weeks later in Pomona.
"I thought Charlotte was as cool as it could get, but Las Vegas certainly topped that," marveled Anderson. "That was way more than anyone could ask for. It will always be the most special race of my career.
"For all the trials and tribulations of this year, we had three or four magical weekends. Winning in Norwalk in front of our sponsor when we hadn't done much for them all year, winning in Charlotte to get us kick started in the Countdown, and the win in Las Vegas for Ken - you're lucky if you get any one of those kinds of weekends once in a lifetime, and we got three of them this year.
"Needless to say, we couldn't have done anything without Ken, Judy, and Kenny Black; our team - Jason, Rob, Tommy, and all of the guys at the shop - wonderful sponsors like Summit; and, of course, my family. There's nothing that holds a candle to this year; this is my most special championship without a doubt. I'll never forget this year no matter what happens from here on out."