Shaun Holtorf was quite literal when he described the prospects of having his sprint racing career come to a screeching halt last December as "heart crushing."
"It's my passion," the 30-year-old Bellingham driver said in a phone interview. "It's what I live and breathe. It's my job, but it was also a little scary having that hanging over my shoulder."
"That" was a malfunctioning valve in his heart - the product of a heart defect Holtorf was born with.
In November, Holtorf had surgery to insert a stent, and one month later he would have to undergo open-heart surgery to replace the valve.
The type of valve used as a replacement made all the difference in whether Holtorf would get to continue racing or not.
"It was really rough, because they didn't know what type of valve they were going to be able to use," Holtorf said. "If they chose a mechanical valve, I'd have to be on blood thinners, like Coumadin, and that would prevent me from racing anymore, because some real serious things can happen if something were to happen to me in the car. That led us to the pig valve, and that allowed me to keep racing."
And race he has.
After missing the season opener at Deming Speedway in April, Holtorf has clawed his way back to 11th in the 600 class points standings at Deming Speedway with four top-five finishes, including his first feature win of the season on June 28.
Holtorf hopes to add another win or two this weekend during the 30th Annual Clay Cup Nationals - the annual three-night summer showcase event at the 1/6-mile clay oval. Preliminary nights for the 1,200, 600 and - new this year - 600 restricted classes will be held Thursday and Friday, July 18-19, as drivers try to pick up enough points to earn good starting sports for championship night on Saturday, July 20.
The $40,000 purse draws some of the top dirt-track drivers from around the region to take on the Deming regulars.
"Just the competitiveness of Clay Cup is amazing," said Holtorf, who drives a car sponsored by Nymo Signs and Plates, Pacific Power Batteries, 3B Chassis, SpeedMart, Northwest Credit Union and HD Fowler. "It's a nationwide deal, so you're going up against some pretty good drivers. If you set a goal to finish in the top 10 and accomplish it, it's a pretty cool feeling."
It's a feeling Holtorf got to experience last year, as he placed 10th on championship night at Clay Cup, after he won the B Main and worked his way up through the field on championship night.
"It's a long race," Holtorf said. "You've got to stay patient and wait for people to make mistakes and make your move."
By doing so, Holtorf is hoping to at least duplicate last year's showing.
And after what he's been through since last season, it would probably mean even more.
Holtorf spent five rough days in the hospital after the surgery in December, but said he was cleared to drive a car on the street three weeks after the surgery and was told his chest plate had completely healed after six weeks, so it didn't affect his racing schedule this year.
But it definitely affected how he looked at everything, including racing.
"It really changes your perspective on life," Holtorf said. "You don't realize how something can change everything else. It was definitely a surreal deal for me."
It's something Holtorf likely will have to undergo again.
Though the pig heart valve allowed him to stay off blood thinners and continue to race, Holtorf was told the valves usually only last about 15 years, meaning he'll likely have the valve replaced again in his mid 40s.
"I'm gambling on technology," Holtorf said. "They think by then, they might have something where they don't have to split my chest open and can instead go in through the femoral artery in my leg."
Until then, he plans to continue living life to its fullest and fastest.
"It's just such an adrenaline rush, racing," Holtorf said. "It's something me and my dad we do most of the stuff on our car. We build our own motors and fabricate any pieces we need. We like to come up with stuff to go even faster. When it works, it's really rewarding to know you did everything. That really gets your blood flowing."
Holtorf actually got his start in racing on a KX60 motorcycle in 1993 at Hannegan Speedway and raced there for six years.
He and his father, Brad, are still into motorcycle racing in a way, as they own Pro Mod Repair and Pro Mod Racing Engines near the track and have run hotrodminibike.com for the past six years.
"I really enjoyed racing motorcycles, but I broke too many bones," Holtorf said. "We figured it was safer racing in a cage."
In 1999 the Holtorfs moved from two wheels to four and started racing at Deming.
Though he's had a number of strong seasons, he won his first season points championship in 2007 in the 250s.
"That was what you call a dream season," Holtorf said. "We placed in the top three in 17 out of 19 races they had that year, but it still went down to the last race. We blew up that last race, and the guy we were racing won the race, and we thought he beat us. But he weighed in too light, and we ended up getting it anyways. Sometimes you've got to be good, and sometimes you've just got to be lucky. That's what I love about this sport."
You could definitely say Holtorf has the heart of a racer.
30TH ANNUAL CLAY CUP NATIONALS
Preliminaries: Thursday and Friday, July 18-19
Championship: Saturday, July 20
Site: Deming Speedway
Gates open: 5 p.m.
Racing starts: 7 p.m.
Tickets: Preliminaries - Adult $14, juniors (8-17) and seniors (65 and older) $12, children (7 and younger) $5. Championship - Adults $17, juniors $14, seniors $12, children $7.
PREVIOUS CLAY CUP CHAMPIONS
2012: Liam Ryan
2011: Brock Lemley
2010: Brock Lemley
2009: Brock Lemley
2008: Derek Holmwood
2007: Aaron Fell
2006: Brock Lemley
2005: Eric Fisher
2004: Brock Lemley
2003: Kiel Vaillant
2002: Ron Cox
2001: Danny Bullock
2000: Stan Yockey
1999: Danny Bullock
1998: Greg Bragg
1997: Reg Vaillant
1996: Reg Vaillant
1995: Harold Holz
1994: Harold Holz
1993: Jim Carter
1992: Fred Holz
1991: Eric Rossi
1990: Reg Vaillant
1989: Darren Massie
1988: Mark Holz
1987: Reg Vaillant
1986: Darcy Vaillant
1985: Harry Styker
1984: Ray Campbell
2012: Heath Duinkerken
2011: Michael Faccinto
2010: Reece Goetz
2009: Colton Heath
2008: Logan Forler
2007: Jared Peterson
2006: Cory Eliason
2005: Ben Hogarth
2004: Kyle Johnson
2003: Stan Yockey
2002: Brian Gard
2001: Rob Grice
Reach David Rasbach at 360-715-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org .