After making the transition from amateur to dirt bike pro in 2019, Derek Drake tried everything to step up his cardio until he was diagnosed with a heart condition that was harming his health, and his sporting potential. Undergoing surgery in 2021, Drake is back on the bike, and talked exclusively to M&F during February’s American Heart month, to explain why even elite athletes can be tested by their tickers.
“My dad got me into it when I was a little kid,” recalls Drake, who now races for Team BarX Suzuki. “I got my first motorcycle on my third birthday. So, I started riding on my third birthday and I just never looked back, really. I never once gave it up or anything like that.” Indeed, Drake took to biking like a duck to water and was a top 10 racer in the amateurs, ranking well in the AMA Monster Energy Supercross Championship and other prestigious competitions.
Of course, dirt bike racing is not for the faint of heart and Drake has picked up numerous injuries during scary collisions and slips during his career, but is well adept at jumping right back on the saddle, as soon as he is heeled. Right now, Drake is getting ready to race again following a fracture to his left humeral bone in his shoulder. “That’s racin’ for ya,” he commented on Instagram following the accident.
“Luckily, this last injury wasn’t bad,” says Drake, who races in the 250SX class. “It could have been worse, with the ligaments and stuff in my shoulder, but nothing was torn. The fracture has heeled up nicely and we should be good to go!” Having recovered from heart surgery last year, a broken bone is a walk in the park for this racer.
Derek Drake was knocked off track by an irregular heart rate
“I had a great amateur career,” says Drake. “In amateurs we only have four or five big races each year, but when you turn pro it’s pretty much a race every weekend. I never really noticed (problems with the heart) because amateurs are only five to seven lap races, and the longest race that we do is 20 minutes long at Loretta Lynn’s. It never really got to me there. I knew that my heart rate was high, compared to others, but I didn’t think that it would be a problem going into professional racing. But as soon as I turned pro, I just noticed that once the 20-minute mark hit, I went backwards and all these other guys were getting faster and faster.
“I thought something must be wrong. Like, I’m doing all the training and the same exact things that my other competitors are doing; cycling during the week, and gym, eating all the right things, but I’m just getting tired. We chased out tails a little bit trying to figure it out. We tried a betablocker, which slowed my heart rate for sure but it wasn’t going to work for the long term and I was still having fatigue issues. In training during the week, I wasn’t able to get strong. My heart rate was in the 160s just for a normal bike ride, whereas it should have been in the 120s or 130s. I was never able to gain that endurance, I was just weak, and it was taking a lot out of me.”
Because Drake was overtraining himself, he was also losing weight. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a heart condition that required two heart surgeries. The first surgery was an SVT (Supraventricular tachycardia) ablation. This involves the use of cold or heat energy to make scar tissue on the heart, in order to block and kill faulty electrical signals so that a regular heart rhythm can be restored. “It worked good for about two weeks,” says the daredevil. “My heartrate was solid but then it slowly started to go back. The nerves started to grow back, so I had a second SVT done (around ten months later.)” Fortunately, the second attempt seems to have held and Drake’s heartrate is back in the normal range.
Derek Drake is back on the bike following heart surgery
“The recovery was pretty good,” says Drake. “They go in with catheters through your main (coronary) artery. They put a medicine in your IV to make your heart beat faster and they find the nerves that are overreacting and the cells that are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and they kill them. But then after, I had some burn marks from the inside out, through my chest. I got up the next day, took it easy for the next few weeks and after about a month I got back to normal training again and I feel good.”
So how did Drake’s family feel about his return to dirt bike racing? “I think my family are gonna let me do what they know I want to do,” says the committed athlete. “Same with my fiancé, she’s great and she has stuck by me ever since we were little kids, and we are having a great time with this so we’re just gonna keep on going.” With his heart now fully in the game, Drake is more motivated than ever before to progress with his pro career in a rapidly changing sport. “This year they implemented the new Super Motocross combination,” beams the racer. “It’s really good for the sport and I’m excited for it. More racing, and more fans and we have these three new venues (zMax Dragway in Charlotte, Chicagoland Speedway, and LA Memorial Coliseum) that are really cool. Supercross is in the closed dome, so it’s real tight. And then you have the outdoor series that is open, natural terrain, bigger tracks, higher speeds and all that stuff, so what do you do when you combine both series? You gotta make a hybrid track! I’m excited to be back and racing under those lights.”