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september/october 2007

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Retirement didn’t sit well with Kevin Draper. He already had gotten more than a taste of enforced inactivity in his long fight with esophageal cancer, an ailment he traces back to his Navy days working with Agent Orange and asbestos off the Vietnamese coast. When he finally was forced to sell his Waco turbocharger business, Draper found himself at home only a day or so before he knew doing nothing all day just wasn’t going to work. Life was too slow. When he was finally able to hold a wrench in his hand again, the antidote to life in the slow lane seemed obvious. Speed.

“It should go around 250 miles an hour, maybe 300,” he said.

“It” is a 600-horsepower, open-wheel, blown-fuel Lakester that he intends to drive across the Bonneville Salt Flats in search of a new land speed record for the vehicle’s class. The vehicle looks like a rocket on wheels. Technical specifications and photos of the car and crew may be found on the Web at

“I’ve driven a couple of cars and motorcycles at those high speeds,” Draper said. “I’ve done quite a bit at Bonneville for many years.”

He ran his business, Majestic Turbochargers, for 24 years in Waco, Texas, before being diagnosed with the cancer that brought dramatic change to his life. He had experienced no symptoms and discovered the possibility of cancer only because he came across an old shipmate while traveling the country to take part in drag races.

“He said there was something about [health issues] on the ship’s web site,” Draper said. “I didn’t even know my ship had a web site. When I got back to town, I went to a doctor, and three days later I heard the worst words I’ve ever heard. They said I tested positive for cancer. I let it go too long. I didn’t even know I was sick.”

After the surgery that removed a substantial part of a lung and part of his esophagus, Draper began the long rehabilitation process that continues today. He said he received nourishment through a feeding tube for about 25 weeks and that doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of survival. He is cancer-free now but has been told there’s a significant chance of the disease reoccurring.

“So I sold my business here in Waco and up in Dallas and retired,” he said. “The VA gave me 100 percent disability, but they kind of made it not Agent Orange-related, if you know what I mean. But that’s okay. I’m not complaining. I just want other people who don’t feel well to have it checked out. The only reason I found out about it was that 16 or 17 guys from my ship died of cancer. Back in those days, we didn’t realize the dangers of asbestos and some of the chemicals we were using. I’m not complaining, just living with the cards I was dealt and trying to survive.”

It took eight months of hospitalization and rehab to recover from the surgery. By then, the forced retirement struck Draper as particularly frustrating.

“When you’re home alone, it’s just you and Perry Mason, you know?” he said. “One day I had worked for 24 years, and the next day I could sleep in and do anything I wanted. I didn’t have a job to go to. But I missed the people. I missed the shop and talking to people.”

Then one day an old friend, Benny Bridger, owner of Benny’s Hog Shed, a Harley-Davidson shop in Waco, made a suggestion: “Let’s build this thing and run it on August 11.”

Draper said, “Do you think we can?”

Bridger replied, “We can if we work together.”

So began the American Eagle Racing Team.

Bridger would be the crew chief, supervising the building of the vehicle and the other myriad details involved in such a venture. They have been working on the car about four years.

“When you work on a vehicle that’s this complicated, you have to have one person who’s in charge and who has a sense of what it’s going to look like at the very end,” Draper said.

Involved in racing for nearly a quarter of a century, Draper soon started going to Benny’s Hog Shed every morning after his hour of cancer surgery rehab. “At first, I’d go over there and do maybe four bolts a day,” he said. “Then I started doing more. Benny did me a big favor by letting me work down there every day.”

He feels comfortable in the car. The surgeons told him he’d never be in the same physical shape he was before the surgery, and he says they were right. He tires easily now. But he’s confident he can control the car and feels well protected inside of it.

“I picked this vehicle because I can control it,” he said. “You sit inside. You’re protected. I put a high booster motor in this thing, and it doesn’t weigh very much.” He says the race team is “psyched” for Bonneville and that they’ve had the engine up and running and everything looks good.

“My job is to drive it to the best of my ability,” Draper said. “I’m not scared of it.” When asked if there might be room on the car for a VVA sticker, he said, “Hell, yes!”


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