VIRGINIA, Minn. (AP) — Nearly 13 months ago, Virginia's Gus Phillipich underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in a nine-hour procedure.
His health was, of course, the main concern, but longtime drag racer Phillipich's thoughts quickly turned to returning to the race track.
He was released from the hospital five days later and his doctor said he could go to the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway a few days later and "spectate."
Phillipich was definitely thinking about it because he didn't want to miss the event for the first time in 37 years.
"It's hard enough to get out of the recliner" while still recovering, Phillipich said, so he decided against the venture.
Efforts like that one to get to the track with his family and race over the years haven't gone unnoticed.
Upon returning to the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd last month, the 73-year-old Phillipich was a class winner in his 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass and also got a big surprise.
That turned out to be the Never Rest Performer Award, which had Phillipich surprised to say the least.
"I was kind of dumbfounded," the veteran drag racer told the Mesabi Daily News. The division director's assistant was in on it and even told Phillipich, "every once in a while we have a protest."
He was extremely proud to be recognized with such an award.
"To me it's one of those things that you know that somebody appreciates how hard you work on the things and how long you keep trying at it even though you're not as successful as some of the other guys."
The award was more than just an individual prize, as well.
"It's not just an award for me. It's an award for the whole family," he said of his wife Sandy and daughter Jodi. "That's the way racing has always been for us. It's always been a family affair."
Gus and Sandy have been married for 53 years, but they were going drag racing even before that. Early on, Phillipich wanted to know his soon-to-be wife was all in on racing like he was.
"I told her then. I said if you don't like the racing say so now to save us both time and grief."
In addition, Jodi has been at the track with her parents since she was 6-7 months old.
"She's been at the race track her whole life," Phillipich said.
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Phillipich started drag racing in 1964 at the Minnesota Dragways in the Anoka area and has had the need for speed ever since.
"It's almost 55 years now that we've been doing this," he stated at his shop — Flip's Automotive in Virginia.
From Minnesota Dragways, he moved on to divisional races in Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere. By the early 1980s, they were traveling quite a bit to places like Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Denver; Topeka, Kansas; Chicago and Indianapolis.
It was easier to get to the races back then, he said, because "you could just lock the door and leave." However, now he drives a Virginia school bus each day, which makes it harder to hit the road and make it to the tracks.
Over the years, he accumulated 15 other class winner trophies, but is still after the bigger trophy that comes with winning the overall eliminations at national events. He added that he came close at one race in Topeka, where he ended up the runner-up in the final race.
"That's the one you have to keep trying to get. We have some time yet to do it," said Phillipich, who turns 74 this month.
How long does Phillipich plan to continue racing?
He said he'll do it as long as he can and as long as he still enjoys it. He never wants it to feel like a job, he added.
He still loves the sport, but doesn't go as often or work as hard on his car. "It takes a little longer to do everything now (like change a transmission) I guess between age and the heart problem."
While he loves racing, the trips to all the different tracks is more about enjoying the friendships made along the way and visiting with people from other parts of the country, he stated.
As far as racing, Phillipich does have several streaks going.
He missed racing at BIR in August 2018, but he competed in July before his surgery, which kept a mark of nearly 50-straight years alive. "I have raced at that facility every year that it has been opened," he said, but BIR was closed for a couple years in the early '70s.
His first race back competing after the surgery came in June in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at the Rock Falls Raceway, which is celebrating its 50th year of drag races.
Phillipich's health was not a concern back in June because he has been back to doing normal things since October-November of 2018. At the same time, he has noticed he takes naps he never used to and has less energy.
"I keep telling the doctor I used to be an 18-19 hour per day person. And if you fixed me, why am I getting tired after so many hours and have to take a nap? He said it will get better as you go along."
Phillipich doesn't let that bother him and said he and the family will be racing again this month at the Tri State Raceway in Earlville, Iowa.
"And Brainerd has one after that," said the Never Rest Performer.
Information from: Mesabi Daily News, http://www.virginiamn.com