The driving force in Alan Ludovici’s life has remained constant. His drive to be independent and productive has helped him, at 43, not only to climb the ranks in the fast-paced sport of go-kart racing, but also to fight back from the brink of death more than once. And somehow it all funnels into his becoming a leader in wheelchair design and engineering.
Growing up in Providence, R.I., an only child with divorced parents, Ludovici caught the racing bug from his uncle Ed, a former sports car racer who bought three go-karts for his sons when they were about Ludovici’s age. A parking lot tested the boys’ desire to compete, and by the time Ludovici was 13, he was organizing racing at local tracks.
By his late teens, kart racing had become a consuming passion. This single-minded focus eventually led him to earn two associate degrees, one in machine process and one in machine design from the Community College of Rhode Island, where he designed and built a hydraulic brake system for his racing kart– a design that earned him a Society of Manufacturing Engineers award.
At CCRI Ludovici supported himself and his racing habit by working in a machine shop. In between school and work he somehow found the time to design, machine, and build his kart. “Winning is as much or more about engine and chassis setup as it is about driving skill,” he says. “In addition to squeezing every bit of power out of the engine, you are constantly changing things–seat position, tire pressure, front end and back end height, just to name a few. It’s the same as setting up an Indy car but without the shock absorbers.”
Ludovici’s machine work and racing were interlinked. His work progressed from drafting, prototype design, and research and development to fabrication–on anything from printing presses to parts for nuclear power plants; meanwhile his racing skill had progressed as well. He moved up to the 100 cubic centimeter piston port class of race karts, capable of speeds in excess of 110 mph. “Which seems insanely fast when your head is only 18 inches off the ground,” he says.
Competitive on a national level in kart racing and working a good job, Ludovici married Cheyrol Hunt in January 1984. Six months later on a rainy Saturday morning in June, things came crashing down. Ludovici, 24 at the time, was doing a practice lap at Bryor Motor Speedway in Louden, N.H. (now the New Hampshire International Speedway). On the straightaway he drifted and hit the turn too fast. His brakes failed, and the kart swapped ends on the slippery track and slammed backwards into a wall at 90 mph. Ludovici landed face down in the wreckage, soaked in gasoline from the ruptured fuel tanks. His kart was destroyed and he had a collapsed lung, internal bleeding, broken back and a head injury. He spent the next nine days in intensive care before his vital signs were stable enough for doctors to operate. Diagnosis: T12 paraplegia.
“I was angry as hell,” says Ludovici, “but I used that anger to push myself really hard to get out of rehab in half the time the doctors predicted.” At the time, he and his wife were living in an inaccessible second-floor apartment. They had health insurance but nothing else, no savings, only credit cards. Before long they found themselves in debt.
Called by Fate
Ludovici continued to steer his anger. “I didn’t want to be a ‘gimp’ so I went out of my way to live life on my own terms and not let the chair get in the way.” He built himself a motorized standing frame, went back to work as a machinist within a year of his injury but found standing and operating machinery all day to be very taxing. Around this time he took up wheelchair basketball. To improve speed and handling of his chair, he started making custom parts. “I was really jazzed by basketball at the time. I wasn’t the fastest natural athlete on the court but I could make up for it with the performance I designed into my chair.”
A local wheelchair dealer liked Ludovici’s custom parts and started purchasing them. Ludovici ran with the idea, quit his machinist’s job, set up his own shop where he could operate the machines from his chair and started Mobility Concepts. At first he specialized in custom parts, but the business took off, allowing him to build a few basketball chairs, race chairs and some institutional chairs. Before long he had three machinists working for him. Financial security loomed on the horizon.
Then came a realization that set his course in life: “I figured my fate was to take my abilities and give back to a lot of people by making better wheelchairs.” As if scripted, he got an offer to be vice president of engineering for Fortress Wheelchairs, exactly what he needed to push his wheelchair designs. But the offer came with a complication: He and Cheyrol and their 1-month-old son, Robert, would have to move cross-country to Fortress headquarters in Fresno, Calif.
It was too much too soon. “We were in a new place without any support from family or friends, I was working long hours and in the two years we were in Fresno I think Cheyrol and I only went out twice.” Their marriage fell apart when Robert was 2, Ludovici’s age when his parents divorced. As his marriage was ending, so was his job–Fortress was sold. Ludovici took a job as engineering manager for Kuschall Wheelchairs, located in Camarillo, Calif., a four-hour drive from his son. “I was determined to be more of a father to Robert than my dad was to me. I would put in long weeks at work, then drive four hours to Fresno and spend 24 hours with Robert, drive four hours back to Camarillo and start the work week all over again. I was running ragged.”
He started developing chest pains, took a stress test and was pronounced OK by his cardiologist. Then on Jan. 8, 1995, at age 35, he woke up at 3 a.m. with chest pains, unable to sleep, drenched in sweat. “Around 6 a.m. I called 911 and was rushed to the hospital. The doctor took one look at my blood work and said, ‘You’re having a heart attack.'” He was given an injection to break up the blood clot, filled with painkillers and sent to intensive care.
Ludovici’s doctors thought he had a 50 percent chance of making it through the night, but with the help of an angioplasty, he recovered. His heart muscle, now able to pump at only 70 percent of normal capacity, had been permanently damaged. He was told to quit work and go on permanent disability. “I was so weak I could hardly get around, so I took their advice, quit Kuschall and moved in with my mom and stepdad. Talk about motivation–I love them, but they drove me nuts! I worked my ass off, eating right, working out. It took nine months just to build the strength to stay awake for more than eight hours a day, but I kept at it.”
A year later he had developed enough strength to get off disability, move out and take a full-time job as an engineer in the specialized project department for Quickie’s Fresno headquarters, but the gig was short-lived. Jim Knaub, five-time winner of the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon, wanted Ludovici as lead engineer for bicycle-manufacturer Cannondale Corp.’s new wheelchair division.
“A really cool job,” recalls Ludovici, “but I had to move to Bethel, Conn., and be away from my son. It was tough getting and affording an apartment. But it was a big opportunity, not only to be on the ground floor, but also to learn more about computer aided design systems, and Cannondale had the best.”
Not only did he learn CAD, he developed a system that could create a computer-controlled laser cut after a tube was bent, a process that culminated in creating a perfect joint. Unfortunately, Cannondale changed its business plan and pulled the plug on the wheelchair project, focusing on getting into the motorcycle industry.
Still, Knaub and Ludovici knew they were onto a revolutionary idea. In 1997 the two met with others from TiSport–which was manufacturing titanium sports equipment for the nondisabled market at the time–and created a different kind of business plan. The end result? Ludovici accepted the job of vice president of engineering and did another coast-to-coast move, this time to Kennewick, Wash., to design TiSport’s first titanium wheelchairs.
Knaub and Ludovici asked legendary long-distance wheeler Marty Ball to come on board, but at first he declined: “I was happy selling cushions and figured everything that could be done with a chair was done.” Then he got a glimpse of the chairs Ludovici had designed. “I just fell in love with them,” says Ball, who signed on as vice president of sales.
Ball likes Ludovici’s humble attitude. “Alan is a very quiet guy about all of his accomplishments when he could easily blow his horn. He’s done a lot for people who use wheelchairs and a lot for the wheelchair industry.” TiSport’s first production chairs–later to be renamed TiLite wheelchairs–came out in early 1999, and the rest is wheelchair history.
Others praise Ludovici’s accomplishments. On a factory tour last summer, David Lippes, president and CEO of TiSport, pointed out a computer program that Ludovici wrote. The program allows him to plug in or change any dimension in a stock or custom chair, and in a matter of moments the program does a half-million calculations to generate a 3-D computer model and create and print full-sized plans for the chair.
Return to First Love
In early 2000 Iain Bampton, fabrication supervisor for TiLite wheelchairs and a kart racing fan, convinced Ludovici to try a Honda Odyssey, an off-road go-kart with hand controls. Ludovici took off into the desert. “It was such a blast I let out this loud, yahoo!” he says. The racing bug had bitten him again.
Ludovici bought his own kart and started setting it up. Bampton, who now crews and works the pits at Ludovici’s races, says, “Alan did the design work and I put the hand controls together. It’s all class-A work. He has an amazing way of seeing things in three dimensions. He creates things out of thin air, sits down at a computer and draws it up. When you look at a TiLite chair design, it’s all Alan, every bend, nut and bolt.”
With his new kart, Ludovici entered a dirt track race, lapped the field and won. Immediately he set his sights on competing in Masters class at the Tri City Kart Club track in Kennewick. “The toughest thing was figuring out ways to pad my legs and hips so they don’t flop around when I’m racing.” Drivers are not strapped in as they pull 2.5 g’s around corners, the same g forces that Indy racers contend with.
“Driving with hand controls gives me better finesse, a better feel for the track,” says Ludovici, “and smooth driving wins races.” A paddle on the left of the steering wheel controls the throttle, and a paddle on the right controls the brake. Racing is a workout, and his extra arm strength from pushing his chair gives him another advantage. However, his reduced heart capacity hinders him in longer races, where he fights fatigue.
Smooth driving and control paid off for Ludovici in 2001–he was the Masters Class Season Champion. But high-end racing has its dangers. In an early 2002 race Ludovici was closing in on a driver when the kart in front of him stalled and sent Ludovici’s kart flipping through the air, leaving Ludovici with serious bruises and a bad shoulder. Now he’s working on another kart in a slightly slower class where smoothness and finesse are even more important. He plans to race it on more of a recreational level.
In the summer of 2003 Ludovici married Amanda Bradford and became an instant dad to 4-year-old Noelle. “There are nights when I feel really cruddy or I’m in a lot of pain and Noelle will come in and I’ll read her a book and she’ll start joking around or snuggle up and I feel much better.” He also tries to visit his son Robert, now 12, when he has a chance.
As Ludovici’s life comes full circle, he recognizes an important synergy: “Some of the parts on my kart are from a wheelchair and some of my concepts for wheelchair designs come from karting.” Also, many of his TiLite working buddies have racing backgrounds. “Putting in long hours to get things done right is in our blood.”
Ludovici admits having made mistakes in his life but tries to learn from them and stay positively focused. Today he sees his life as an opportunity to begin anew. “I’ve been close to death twice, so I feel like I’m on my third childhood,” he says. “I’ve learned to live every day to its fullest.”