Winning is the best medicine. Just ask any racer who passionately seeks success but endures a streak without gripping a checkered flag. Two ingredients that to win joined forces at a Long Island bullring this past week. One, a veteran racer who hadn't seen victory in a few years at his stomping grounds. The other, a Modified champion trying to prove his medal in one of NASCAR's elite series. The two drivers, generations apart, proved to be a combination that would bring healing all around.
Saturday night's story actually starts nearly one month ago. The night of May 15th was like any other Saturday night at the Long Island's Riverhead Raceway. Wayne Anderson was carving laps around his home track, as he's done for decades. The five-time Riverhead champ took the pole position but later in the race fell victim to tire troubles. After the race, the 62-year old Anderson's night, and life, changed in one moment.
"I was sitting in the trailer and all of the sudden I got dizzy," said Anderson. "I had no pains or anything. I just blacked out. The next thing you know I was in the hospital getting my heart checked out."
Some quick work by the medical team at the Raceway, and others in the pit area, saved Anderson's life. Using an AED machine, Anderson's heart came back and established a proper rhythm. His life was saved. The incident came as a shock to Anderson.
"I go to my cardiologist every six months and I always get checked out. He was kind of surprised by it too. My heart is in good shape it was just the arrhythmia that was off. So they put a defibrillator in me and sent me on my way. I have restrictions until my body gets accustom to that thing (defibrillator)."
With Anderson out of the seat of his famed #15 Modified, they needed a replacement driver. Jimmy Blewett filled that role one week but could not make it to the June 5th, 35-lapper because he was competing in a NASCAR Modified event in Martinsville, Virginia.
In stepped Donny Lia.
Lia has a proven resume in the NASCAR Whelen Modified ranks. With two-national Tour titles to his resume and a handful of Riverhead wins, Lia seemed a natural fit. The Long Island driver is currently competing in his second part-time season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Lia won during his rookie Truck season (Mansfield - 2008), but is on a mission to prove he can be a consistent force in that series. Driving for the SS-Racing #07 team, this season has been filled with spikes of success, easily visible by the naked eye, but not the desired results in ink. Lia had the itch to win and the Modified opportunity was his chance to scratch it.
"A friend of mine mentioned to me that Wayne Anderson's guys needed some help filling in for Wayne," explained Lia. "I wasn't racing the truck this weekend and was going to be home on Long Island. I said, 'why not?' I love racing at Riverhead. It's where I got my start in racing."
That 'why not?' put in motion a memorable night on Long Island. From a 14th place starting spot, Lia quickly charged though the pack, passing cars and avoiding trouble around the tight quarter-mile oval.
"One of the guys came on the radio and said 'Car 15 is leading by lap 15,' so that is pretty cool," adds Lia.
"It was an awesome run. It was probably a ton of fun to watch and it was even better behind the wheel."
To some, the win was just a local NASCAR weekly series win, an accomplishment that might land a blurb in the local newspaper. To Lia, it was a personal achievement that he is proud of.
"I ran Riverhead in a Modified my rookie season in 2001," says Lia. "I only ran weekly that one year. I've won a few NASCAR Tour shows there, but not a weekly show since that first year. It's something I've always wanted to do, to go back there and get a regular Saturday night win. I don't care what people say, these local guys know how to get around that place. If you go into their house and beat them, you've done something. Especially at Riverhead in a 35-lapper. If you are going to make a list of hardest races to win, winning from the back at Riverhead would be on there. It just doesn't happen often there in such a short race. I had never done that before. Most of my wins at Riverhead have come starting somewhere near the front."
Outside of the moment, the real meaning of the victory started to set in.
"Winning the race was cool for me but then I stopped and thought about it afterwards and I thought, wow, that is just what these guys needed and it made me feel good.
"It was nice to know that I had a part in brightening up a part of those guys' season and spirits right now. Especially Wayne. To lift his guys up is cool. They are a little down because they want Wayne to drive the car and want Wayne to be healthy. They have a good group of guys that have been together for a long time."
Anderson was elated but admitted that the win was different.
"I felt like a car owner," said Anderson about the big night. "I was very happy because I was sitting with my sponsor. We hadn't won in a while, but have led laps and been up front. I told Donny to drive it like you own it. Whatever happens, happens. I was cheering for him all the way and it was nice to have everyone in victory lane."
Racing a Modified was never on Lia's radar this season, but the unique situation made the decision to strap-in to the 600-horsepower ground-pounder a no-brainer.
"I've always liked Wayne and respected him," says Lia. "To be honest, racing a Modified wasn't on the list of things to do this year. I really want to put 100-percent of my focus on the Truck. My goal is to run up front every week in the Truck series. I had no intentions of racing a Modified. To race at Riverhead and to help Wayne out is different."
Although only separated by approximately 30 miles of roadway, Lia and Anderson grew up two completely different lives. Lia, the son of a automobile dealership owner and a late bloomer in the racing world. Anderson, the son of a Modified legend, operating the family towing business and racing most of his life. However, the two drivers will be forever linked in the history of Long Island Motorsport. Anderson and Lia are the only Long Island drivers to win a NASCAR National Championship. Lia has two NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championships (2007 & 2009), while Anderson was the first to put Long Island on the national title map in 1994.
"It's cool that we are the only two Long Island drivers to ever win a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship," admits Lia. "There are so many good drivers that have come from Long Island, so to be one of only two that have done it, it's special."
While Lia shifts his focus to the highly competitive Truck Series, Anderson is on the mend. Wayne plans to get back in his #15 K-Mart Stores Modified as soon as possible.
"I have to go June 30th to have a stent put in," says Anderson. "After that they say I am good to go and that I'm good to race. I'm looking forward to it. I'm trying to get the appointment moved up so I can get back in the racecar sooner.
"It's been a big up and down. I was looking forward to this year so much. Then, that happened, and suddenly I'm a car owner. I'm looking forward to getting back in the car so bad. I'm sure my age is working against me but I don't feel that it is prohibiting me now. I still think I can do it."
The life-changing night of May 15th has given the second generation Modified driver a different outlook.
"I'd like to thank everyone for the consideration and all the cards, and everything else," said a humble Anderson. "Without a doubt it was a real nice feeling to me that so many people cared and so many people in the Modified ranks thought about me.
"Funny thing, if it went the other way," laughed Wayne, "and I would have passed away I wouldn't know nothing. This way I made it through, I'm not seriously hurt, I'm ready to go back and now I know that I do have a lot of friends."
Wayne Anderson now knows his car is ready to win when he gets healthy enough to put on his trademark open-faced helmet to do battle again. Donny Lia proved that, while revisiting the invigorating feeling of victory himself.
"Winning is the best medicine," adds Lia. "It is the cure-all no matter what the situation is."
No author could write a better ending, nor pharmacist a better prescription.