John Cozza won't let cancer and other serious health issues get in the way of his racing.
Not only does he have a trophy that exemplifies his resolve, he has the well wishes of the hundreds he inspired on the last night of racing at Riverhead Raceway this season.
Going for the 4/6 Cylinder Truck Enduro title last Saturday, all Cozza (the 2008 Grand Enduro champion and 1989 Blunderbust titleholder) needed to do was complete one lap to secure the points championship and collect his hardware.
Without another race for a few months, Cozza wasn't going to let an opportunity to circle the track go - especially after his intricate preparation to combat rectal cancer.
Six weeks ago, Cozza had surgery to insert a port in his chest for chemotherapy. He receives radiation treatment every day. With his doctor's hesitant blessing, Cozza continued to race with a foam pad to protect the port (his five-point seatbelt goes right over that spot on his chest), while strapping a chemotherapy bottle to his leg.
"People out of the racing circle think it's crazy," the 46-year-old Medford resident said. "But it's not a hobby for us. It's a way of life. I look at it as just another day at the track, with a few inconveniences."
Last Saturday, Cozza showed that determination to a crowd that included his wife, Janet, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily. He not only completed the race, but won it, his fourth victory in six races this season (he was second in the other two).
"It's just another challenge," said Cozza, who receives treatment at Sloan Kettering in Commack. "We just face it in different ways."
Despite being fatigued from treatments, Cozza's familiar spot at the front of the pack gave him a shot of energy.
"I was really wiped out," he said, "but once I got in the lead, I thought 'there's no way I'm pulling in now.' "
Cozza keeps himself fit, doesn't drink or smoke and eats right. So though he admits the pain from the treatment sometimes feels "like somebody punched you in the stomach," Cozza is confident he can maneuver through what will be an 8-12 month treatment period. His close friends think he will do it, too.
"Most of us abuse the hell out of our bodies and he's the one to get sick, go figure," said Dan Jones, the owner of Blue Point Auto Body, which has both sponsored and raced against Cozza for the past 10 years. "But you'd never know he was ill on the track."
People couldn't miss his dire state on the track Sept. 23, 2006, when just before a race, Cozza's heart rate sped up to 270 beats per minute. He was rushed to Peconic Bay Hospital with heart arrhythmia.
"If I would have gotten in my car that night, I probably would have died," Cozza said.
It was later determined that Cozza had an extra electrical pathway to his heart and had to have catheter ablation surgery. Yet five days after the surgery, Cozza was back on the track, winning the NEETS (North East Enduro Tour Series) championship in Pennsylvania.
"If I get knocked down, I get right back up," Cozza said. "I try not to let anything affect my lifestyle."
It's a lifestyle that has always included many hours at the track. The warm reception he received last Saturday was a testament to his fortitude.
"The place was going crazy," said Bob Finan, who announces the races. "John Cozza is a racer's racer."
Said Cozza: "Everything sunk in. I didn't expect that. I didn't realize the magnitude of it."