Back from the ashes, racing

Local community helps veteran driver get back on the track

A devastating fire nearly five months ago charred Kenny O’Keefe’s Algona home and destroyed his garage, taking with it his treasured championship hot rod.

His pride and joy, the 1969 Chevelle had powered O’Keefe to more than 200 wins and three divisional series titles on the quarter-mile drag strip, in a gratifying sportsman racing career that has spanned more than 35 years. It was the same, street-legal car that brought him to work, the same Chevrolet he drove to pick up his daughter from the hospital.

“Lost it,” O’Keefe said, fighting back tears, unable to speak about the setback. He valued the pro bracket race car at $35,000.

But from the ashes rose a phoenix. Another ‘69 Chevelle was found, and O’Keefe quickly shaped the car into another winner, thanks to overwhelming support from the tight-knit racing community, his sponsors, family and friends.

“Couldn’t have done it without them,” said the humble, 56-year-old O’Keefe, a truck driver by trade and a race-car mechanic and competitor by passion. O’Keefe, who grew up on Kent’s East Hill and graduated in 1978 from Kent-Meridian High School, has lived in the valley his entire life.

“The fire could have been a lot worse. We’re fortunate,” O’Keefe said. “There are so many people to thank. I’ve had a lot of help.”

Beginning with area firefighters.

Swift-responding units from the Valley Regional Fire Authority – with help from South King Fire & Rescue – immediately doused and contained the garage fire before it could spread to O’Keefe’s or the neighbor’s homes. But the blaze destroyed O’Keefe’s garage and most everything in it. The O’Keefes’ two vehicles parked outside the garage sustained

heat damage but were saved.

The O’Keefe were not home at the time of the fire. A short in a wire between the race car’s battery and alternator triggered the fire, a freak thing, O’Keefe said.

Fortunately, no one was injured.

“The fact the house is still standing and the neighbors’ … and we’re still here … is amazing,” said O’Keefe’s wife, Sandi. “I say this over and over, ‘I’m not sure who to thank more, God or the firefighters.’”

Family, friends and sponsors stepped in.

Bob Eckles, a longtime racer and friend, found a neglected Chevy in Eatonville. The O’Keefes bought it for $3,500 and immediately set to work restoring it. They salvaged the engine and rear end from the old car and rebuilt the transmission. More work needs to be done, especially on the exterior.

A Pacific Raceways-organized Kash for Kenny fundraiser at The Sports Page, took in $2,000. A GoFundMe account raised $4,000.

“There were friends I hadn’t seen for years who came out to support us,” O’Keefe said.

Good insurance and Cypress Home Improvement made the new garage possible.

Getting back on the track as quickly as possible was important to O’Keefe. The Chevelle, powered by a 355 cubic-inch stock engine, has responded. An aggressive, “foot-braking” racer known for cutting great reaction times at the starting light, O’Keefe has won three All-Star Auto Glass Sportsman races in the Swift Tool ET Series and takes his Division 6 category points lead into Sunday’s eliminations at Pacific Raceways in Kent.

Through ups and downs, O’Keefe’s OLite Race Team has been backed by sponsors Budget Blinds; Sunrise Dental; United Rentals; G&M Honest Performance; Pearson Chiropractic & Rehabilitation Center; HMS Photography; and Federal Way Automotive & Radiator.

O’Keefe, the driver, hasn’t lost his touch, even though he lost his longtime car. For him, drag racing is an addiction. He has raced at every regional racetrack sprinkled on the NHRA Division 6 map – from his hometown track to storied drag strips in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia.

“It’s an adrenaline rush in eliminations. Either you’re being chased or you’re chasing somebody,” he said of competing. “There are so many things you have to think about at a split second. … And when that win light comes on, you start screaming and hollering.”

Old-time racers are fading away, O’Keefe said, or cutting back and racing slower, more affordable cars. O’Keefe hopes to keep on charging for as long as he can.

“I’ve been doing it for so long. I guess it’s what’s kept me sane all these years.”

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