Most of us who drive adapted vans haven’t thought of taking them out on the racetrack. But that’s probably just because we haven’t met Chris Karson.
“I thought to myself, if I’m going to be escorted around in a wheelchair van, it’s going to be the coolest van around,” says Karson, 40, of Portage, Ind. After sustaining a C4-5 spinal cord injury in an auto accident in 1989, Karson was heading home from a rehab appointment when he spotted a 1972 Chevy van sitting in a used-car lot. It was love at first sight. “Before my injury I was always tinkering on ’60s and ’70s hot rods. The passion was rooted deep,” he says. “The old van was not pretty, but it was a gem in my eyes.”
With the help of family, friends and a few supportive businesses, Karson began what would become a 20-year process of transforming the van from worn-out beater, to hot rod, to full-blown racecar.
He began simply, by installing a swivel seat on the passenger side so that he could transfer on his own. “In the early ’90s we drove the van all over the place,” he says. “The uniqueness of the van became an icebreaker for conversations with people who were at first uncomfortable talking with a person with a disability.”
A few more metamorphoses later, the van today is a 1,000-horsepower “monster” able to conquer a quarter-mile in under 10 seconds. Karson and his van are a common fixture at racetracks and car shows throughout the Midwest. “The spectators are in awe of what it has become,” he says. Once again a licensed driver, Karson has set as his next goal fitting the van with hand controls. “Prior to modifying the van, I was told by doctors that I would never drive again.”
To find out more about Karson and his van, go to www.karsonracing.com.
Let’s face it: Vans — even souped-up ones — don’t fit everyone’s self-image. Motorcycles have a mystique all their own. If you’re a wheelchair user, and your idea of mobility leans more toward Hell’s Angel than soccer mom, it used to take a lot of ingenuity to get you on the road in style. Nowadays, however, more and more manufacturers are offering adapted motorcycles.
In March of this year, Mobility Works of Akron, Ohio, announced that it has obtained exclusive U.S. manufacturing and distribution rights for the British-designed Martin Conquest accessible motorcycle.
“We look forward to helping members of our community reconnect with their passion for riding motorcycles,” says Mark Allen Roberts, head of the newly formed U.S.-based Mobility Conquest. “Statistically, 4 percent of the population ride motorcycles, and we are excited to provide our Conquest to help consumers with physical disabilities enjoy the ride again.” In the first three months, the company has already received more than 300 inquiries.
The Conquest can go from zero to 60 in just 7.8 seconds and has a top speed of 105 mph. Access for the driver is via a remote-controlled ramp at the rear of the chassis. It includes a wheelchair locking system with a push-button release, as well as a thumb-controlled clutch and hydraulic front and rear racing disc brakes. The Conquest also features full reverse and an electronic parking brake.
Another variation is the Liberator Trike. It uses a swiveling transfer seat rather than a tie-down, but includes a rear storage compartment for wheelchairs, with an open-frame front end design and a rear-mounted V-8 engine. Mark Kalhoff of Canby, Minn., owner of Liberator Trikes, designed his first motorcycle for one of his regular customers, a T10 paraplegic for whom he had done several vehicle modifications: “He came to me one day and said, ‘I’d like to ride a motorcycle again’. I backed him up in his wheelchair and chalked [the design] out on a board, and from that the Liberator Trike evolved.”
Kalhoff — a 25-year veteran of the auto racing scene who has developed vehicles for drag and dirt-track racing around the country — originally thought of marketing the Liberator toward newly injured veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. He soon found, however, that it struck a chord with earlier generations of vets as well. “I hadn’t anticipated the response I would get from Vietnam veterans, Korean veterans — we even built one for a World War II veteran,” he says. “It’s really gratifying.”