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In Tragedy, Racer Finds His Purpose

Reggie Showers lost the use of his legs at 14. Now he's a pro motorcyclist and an inspiration.

September 12, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Reggie Showers remembers the colors. Lying numb on top of a boxcar, he forced open his eyes during brief moments of consciousness.

Deep blue sky.

Green electric wire.

He felt no pain from the 13,000 volts of electricity that arced into his body and surged out his feet.

Flat on his back, he turned his head. He was alone. His friends had run for help.

In the distance, coming down a hill toward the train yard, he saw two blue shirts.

"Two Philadelphia police officers," Showers recalls, "on their way to rescue me."

Less electricity has killed convicts on death row. But that day, on top of the train in a makeshift playground for the neighborhood kids, Showers survived.

His legs, however, did not.

The muscles, nerves and tendons were burned too severely to function. The legs were cut off by doctors about six inches below the knee.

Showers was 14.

"I'm a walking, talking, living, breathing example of hope, and hope is so instrumental in the healing process of people who have disabilities, people who have traumatic experiences," says Showers, whose arms remain badly scarred from the third-degree burns that covered 35% of his body. "My purpose in life is to help inspire and encourage the world.

"It was a blessing in disguise."

*

Even before becoming a professional motorcycle racer in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s pro stock bike class, Showers had a fascination with speed. He had it when he played with toy cars as a child, and had it during his first illegal drag race at 19 on a Kawasaki he'd kept hidden from his parents for three years. "I had no clue what I was doing," he says. "I beat the guy. Right there, I was hooked."

Fearing rejection by race officials, Showers always wore long pants and didn't let on to the organized drag racing community that he had prosthetic legs.

"I kept it to myself until I proved myself, that I could compete with, and beat, my able-bodied competitors," Showers says. "After I proved myself, I started to reveal my story, and then I realized it was important for me to share my story with the public."

That story became movie-of-the-week material Sunday. Showers posted his first victory, and it was at drag racing's premier event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

"I still don't understand what I've done here," Showers says. "I've been on an incredible journey.

"I used to know my place. I was a bottom-half qualifier who maybe could luck out and win a race. Now, we're a team that can run with anyone."

Showers is the team owner, the racer and often his own truck driver. On a budget of less than half the $400,000 of some of the top teams, Showers is fifth in the standings, 17 points out of third place entering this week's event in Reading, Pa.

And, that's despite only one win and a time-consuming ulterior motive: Showers visits a Shriners' hospital near each event, giving motivational speeches to disabled or hurting children.

He talks to high school students and church youth groups. Public speaking once terrified him, but now he's Dale Carnegie.

The gist of his speech to the disabled: "We're God's chosen children, and it's our job to overcome, and inspire other people who watch us."

"This," Showers says of inspiring people, "is my job."

*

"I don't know anybody who doesn't like him, doesn't respect him or doesn't look up to him," says Angelle Savoie, who beat Showers in Chicago this season in Showers' first final-round appearance, but was his second-round victim at the Nationals.

By all accounts, Showers is one of the most popular people in the paddock. People want him to succeed. Still, being a good guy doesn't guarantee success. On the drag strip, money equals speed.

But if there were ever a match made in sponsor heaven, it is Showers and Prosthetic Design Inc., which sends its 36-foot mobile lab to every event. If necessary, a new leg for Showers can be made in only 70 minutes -- five minutes less than the time allowed between rounds.

PDI President Tracy Slemker, a racing fan, became aware of Showers when he was competing in the sportsman ranks. After meeting, there was no contract, only a handshake. They've been together for four years.

This season, they formed Reggie Showers Racing, utilizing Star Racing's resources, including crew chief George Bryce, with whom Savoie and John Myers won three championships apiece. Bryce tuned the engines that powered Savoie to her third consecutive title last season.

*

In his walking-around legs, Showers is 6 feet tall and wears a size-10 shoe. In his racing legs, Showers is 5-7 and wears a 5 1/2 shoe, which makes it easier to keep his feet on the foot pegs. That versatility is one of the few benefits of the accident.

At 172 pounds, Showers began this season much heavier than his almost jockey-sized competition; he dropped 14 pounds looking for more speed.

Another handicap is the body of his Suzuki Hayabusa. Its design doesn't funnel as much air into the carburetor as other Suzukis, the TL 1000 and the GSXR 750.

"We could go to a new body style," Showers says, "but once the Hayabusa gets up to speed, it's a missile."

As it is, he is among the fastest riders in the first 60 feet and the last half of the quarter-mile.

"But we [struggle] in the midrange," Showers says. "If the track were a little longer, we'd run everybody down."

But Showers can't change the distance, and he won't change bikes. The Hayabusa, you see, is like Reggie Showers: It has a flaw. To leave it for something else would be to deny himself, to deny the spirit that led him to get on it in the first place, or to leave Lartigue Racing in 1996 to pursue his own team.

"The Hayabusa is a hard body style to make go fast, and I don't want to give up on it," he says. "I hate to bow down to anything in defeat."

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