DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — This week, as we honor our veterans for their service, ASA Racing is proud to share the story of a veteran who competes at Norway Speedway, an ASA Member Track in Norway, MI. ASA Racing thanks all of our competitors, officials, track owners and fans who have served in the United States military. We thank you for your dedication and service.
There is a smile on his face. There is laughter in the air along with his mother smiling and being his biggest cheerleader. The smile, the laughter, and his mother are only a few things that catch your attention. His purple and yellow #33 Super Stock catches your eye. All of these things make you want to walk up and start a conversation with Derek Gagne. What you learn from that conversation will make your heart swell with pride and proud to know the driver of the “Purple Heart Express.”
Gagne competes every Friday night at Norway Speedway during the summer. The 25-year-old driver from Menominee, MI recently completed his fifth season of racing. It is a fun adventure for him, compared to the adventures he endured in November 2006 and on January 22, 2007.
While stationed near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, Gagne lost his hearing in his left ear in November 2006 after he was near a mortar blast. He would stay at his base and continue the positive work he was doing there.
On January 22, 2007, ”We were coming back from dropping off some Humvee’s to get fitted for more armor,” Gagne recalled. “On the way back, our vehicle got hit by an EFP (Energy Force Projectile).”
Gagne said that an EFP is the worst version of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). It shoots at an object and blasts the Humvee at the same time, doing a lot of damage.
He was the gunner and saw it coming, “I saw some guys sitting off to the side and by the time I could open my mouth…BOOM! At least I got to say I love you to my driver before he lost his life. But at least I got to say that to him.”
He lost half of his left foot, his right leg below the knee, vision in his left eye, whole nasal cavity, nose and a lot of scarring from shrapnel. He would spend nine months recovering and going through rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The doctors told him he would not walk for 18 months. He was walking in three months. “It’s bad to tell me that I can’t do something, because I am going to prove them wrong.”
When he came home from leave at WRAMC, he sat in his truck and told his dad that he was going to teach himself how to drive the truck with a manual transmission. “I told my dad that I am going to learn how to drive it,” he recalled. “I spent 18 hours making sure I can drive it. I only stalled it once but I was happy when I accomplished that. I said to myself, if I can do this, I could do anything.”
He grew up watching his father race at the local short tracks and thought to himself that he could do that as well. He would go out and buy a Slammer car and in 2008, strapped into the car and started his racing career.
“I was pretty nervous getting on the race track for the first time,” Gagne said. “I didn’t want to hit anybody and get them mad at me. I was just worried.”
He has to do more than his fellow competitors while behind the wheel. “I watch my foot a lot more making sure I don’t miss my pedals,” he said. “I do a lot more head moving than other drivers out there.”
For him, getting behind the wheel has helped his long recovery. “It makes me learn more about my depth perception every time I get on the track. With only having one eye, my depth perception was so messed up. When you think you are two feet away, you are actually ten feet. Racing is making me get better. My instincts are coming back, and it is helping my brain’s healing process.”
His “Purple Heart Express” is dedicated those who sacrificed their lives for this country, some who were good friends.
“A purple heart is not a medal that people seek, but it carries the most honor. I have two purple hearts and a bronze star,” Gagne explained. “I race as a dedication to my fallen heroes. That is why my car is called the Purple Heart Express and that is why I race.”
Earlier this year, he won his first race of the season at Sands Speedway in Marquette, MI. It wasn’t a main event win, but it was a win. It was a win that brought tears to his mother’s eyes and a personal victory.
The emotion he felt with that win was the same emotion he felt when serving over in Iraq. He gave up a basketball scholarship to go over with his local National Guard unit. He was not over there to fight a war, but help a country in need of his help.
“When we were over there, we helped start schools, especially where women could go past sixth to eighth grade. Now they get to go to at least 12 full grades and more,” Gagne said. “80% of the country cannot read and they follow the people in power that can read. Those 20% in power can claim that the Koran says things that it actually doesn’t, and we are helping to change that.”
Another thing he remembers helping the children over there. “We did some basketball and soccer tournaments for the kids. A lot of the Iraqi kids can play soccer very well. They would help us out over there by telling us where the bad people were and where they were hiding weapons.”
He has absolutely no regrets of going over to Iraq, in fact, he is very proud of what he did over there. He feels he made a very positive impact in Iraq.
Today he is a racecar driver, homeowner, golfer, a basketball player and much more. He may not win every time he is out there, but he will give it his all and still smile when he drives under the checkered flag.
Derek’s Native American name is “Soaring Eagle.” It is safe to say that what he does on the track and in his life that this fits him very well.
No matter if he is the first one to cross the finish line, Derek Gagne is a winner. His “Purple Heart Express” reminds us all of more winners who served our country and made the ultimate sacrifice.
“We salute Derek and everyone in the military who has made a sacrifice for this great country,” Dennis Huth, ASA President said. “We have many veterans who compete at our ASA Member Tracks and Series and we are very proud to share one of their stories.”
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