These days paralysis, or the inability to use feet or legs while driving, is not a hindrance to safe operation of virtually any type of motorized vehicle. This includes vehicles used for racing and other motorsports. Motorsports are enjoyed by millions of people around the world who watch on television or attend events each year, and some of those who are competing are using hand controls to do so.
Individuals who drive with hand controls have many avenues for participating in motorsports. Racing is one type of motor-sports event, but there are also other events where drivers can test their skills on tracks by themselves and compete against the clock. For those, there is no risk to the driver involved or their vehicle.
Many drivers use their everyday vehicles while enjoying high performance lapping events without making expensive modifications to them. Jay Brickey, a T11 para from Redmond, Wash., recommends joining one of the local car club drivers’ skills days at a High Performance Driver Education event and then coming back for a lapping day when drivers with all levels of experience can take to the track.
Besides enjoying HPDE events in his modified BMW M3 coupe, Brickey is an instructor for such events, which he attends throughout the Northwest and Northern California eight to 10 times per year. Instructors introduce new drivers to the experience of riding along with a skilled driver in a high performance car to help them understand how important it is to develop their skills through practice. As their skills develop, drivers are approved for sharing the track with others. Brickey’s philosophy in regard to the value of skill development in high performance driving is simple. “Fast cars don’t make fast drivers,” he says, “drivers make cars fast.”
With years of high performance driving background in a variety of cars, Brickey has some advice for those who want to get involved and go faster. “Don’t scrimp on safety and positioning gear. Get a seat that fits and install the correct restraints. Build slowly, start with a stock, or mostly stock, car and go from the wheels up,” he advises, “and the motor should be the last thing you touch, not the first.”
You Can Use Your Own Car
Derek Mortland was an experienced motorcycle endurance racer from Columbus, Ohio, when he had a racing accident in 1997 that left him with paraplegia at the T9 level. He discovered, over a decade later, that it was possible to continue competing in motorsports while using the same car he used for daily transportation. He took his 2005 Ford Focus to a HPDE event put on by the National Auto Sports Association. The only modifications he has made to that car are a stiffer suspension and a racing harness for the driver. Since he now competes almost every weekend during the summer months, Derek has become an instructor in order to keep his costs down and to give back to others who want to try the sport.
The family sedan or van might be all that is needed to participate in some other types of motorsports as well. Sports Car Club of America autocross (asphalt) and rallycross (dirt) events are driving skill contests that emphasize the driver’s ability and the car’s handling characteristics. This is accomplished by driving a course that is designated by traffic cones in a low hazard location, such as a parking lot or inactive airstrip. Autocross course layouts are changed, and drivers often run them backwards, multiple times during the day.
Autocross is not a contact sport, as only one vehicle is on the course at a time. Pushing the cars to their limits while staying within the boundaries marked by the cones tests driver’s abilities and lessens the risk of high-speed crashes or injuries. Many drivers step up to higher-horsepower performance vehicles as their skills grow.
Some autocross competitors were racers in other sports prior to getting more involved with autocross. Lance Magin, a para from Holtville, Calif., raced the Baja 500 on a motorcycle in June, 1974, then was injured while racing in October of that year. He became the first paraplegic to compete and win his category while driving a “buggy” in several more Baja races. Magin later switched to off-road truck racing, winning his category in a truck he built, in the Best of the Desert Racing Series in 2006.
Magin partnered with the San Diego chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America in 2008 to set up a racing venue at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. There are currently five individuals who use hand controls competing in that program open to all drivers, and Magin was the track champion for 2015.
Other Racing Options
Drivers who might not like to go around in circles have options, too. Patrick Cottini, a C7 quad from Chico, Calif., plans to build a car to race on the Bonneville salt flats, where he hopes to set a speed record for quadriplegic drivers. In the meantime, he enjoys heading to a nearby drag strip where he can race his CanAm motorcycle.
Circles are very familiar to James Bonifant, from Houston, where he does oval dirt track stock car racing. A paraplegic due to cerebral palsy, he shares his grandfather’s love for the sport, as he was also a stock car racer. Bonifant knows that racing can be an expensive sport, especially at the professional level, but there are many ways to get involved on limited budgets. “I paid $200 for my first stock car,” he says, “and spent a year getting it ready to race. That included fabrication of custom hand controls and designing a movable roll cage that allows me to transfer from my wheelchair through the door — avoiding the need to crawl through a window.” His total outlay of $2,000 preparing that ‘99 Pontiac Grand Am for dirt track racing paid off, as he won the track championship in his first year of competition.
Another inexpensive way to give motorsports a try is kart racing. Many of the best racing drivers in the world include kart racing as part of their résumés, as tracks dedicated to the sport have been established throughout the country. Some of those facilities are indoor, which allows drivers to compete year-round. Several tracks have also equipped rental karts with hand controls; the Unser Karting facility in Colorado has gone beyond that by installing transfer benches for use by those who need their wheelchairs to get to trackside.
There are several types of off-road racing, on closed courses and across open desert. Steve “Wheels” Bucaro, a para from Las Vegas, has raced on closed courses in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series for several years, driving his Honda Pilot. “I chose the Honda because it is relatively inexpensive and is already equipped with a roll cage,” he says. “All I had to do was add hand controls, some safety items and a racing harness and I was good to go.” Bucaro is currently building a new off-road truck that will allow him to compete in the Pro Light category next year.
Rob Parsons, aka “Chairslayer,” is a professional driver who competes in drifting. Originally from Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Parsons was paralyzed due to a dirt bike accident in 2011. Drift races are held on a variety of courses where drivers in high performance automobiles push their cars to the limit while using the throttle, brakes, clutch, gear shift and steering to keep the car in a state of oversteer while cornering. Those races are marked by plenty of blue smoke from squealing tires. Parsons says that, while drifting originated in Japan, the United States has definitely beefed it up.
Like many of his peers, Parsons is a skilled mechanic who rebuilt his current ‘89 Nissan with a Vortech Supercharged 600 hp engine, and in the process developed an electronic shifter and clutch to accompany a modified set of Monarch hand controls. “I am fortunate in one regard,” he says, “as I have Achilles Radial Tires as primary sponsor.” That can come in handy when a set of tires might only survive a couple of laps.
Parsons established the Chairslayer Foundation and has built a special drifting car that he will take to disability and veterans’ events around the continent to open the doors to what is possible for those who need to use hand controls. At those events he provides rides to individuals with disabilities and gives drivers the opportunity to learn firsthand by actually driving the car. Parsons enjoys spending winter months skiing in Park City. This year he will be working on a project to film a competition with other “racing paras” in other types of sports.
Getting Serious About Racing
Ricky James, a T7 para from Oceanside, Calif., grew up with motorcycles as part of his everyday life. By age 13 James was routinely beating his dad on the motorcycle. Two years later he had earned sponsorship to race for Honda on a motocross team. An accident while racing resulted in his SCI in 2005, but immediately after being discharged from rehab, he went riding on the same bike that he had been using at the time of the crash. Since then, James has raced in local Southern California NASCAR Series, competed in the X Games and raced off-road trucks in the Lucas Oil Series. Since hand controls for racing should be as similar to everyday-driver hand controls as possible, for truck racing James uses MPS controls plus MasterShift for shifting of a manual four-speed transmission.
He puts as much effort into fitness as he does in developing his racing skills. In recent years he has competed in 10 Ironman-length triathlons, and in 2014 was the hand cycling champion at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship. He has continued with wheelchair racing and still loves to ride his motorcycle but knows that there’s a risk that he might damage his racing career if he should have an accident doing so. James is currently recovering from another broken bone; this time it is a leg break that was caused by a spill during a high-speed “walk” with his pet Husky.
Michael Johnson of Mount Morris, Mich., races professionally and is the first paraplegic driver licensed to drive in the IndyCar racing series. Johnson first worked his way up through the ranks of driving by racing motorcycles, where he won several national championships before being paralyzed at the T5-6 level as a result of a racing crash at age 14. After recovering, he switched to karts and several classes of race cars. He was successful in all of them, with an even brighter future ahead.
Johnson’s successful racing career was interrupted when, in March 2015, his steering gave out during a practice lap and he crashed head-on into a wall in Saint Petersburg, Fla., at an estimated speed of 100 mph. Injuries included two broken bones, and the impact left him unconscious for two weeks. In 2016 he will be taking on a new kind of challenge when he resumes competition racing in the Mazda Sportscar series with a co-driver.
Obviously racing can be dangerous, which is why race cars are equipped with so many features to protect drivers and spectators. Combining motorsports with paralysis can be tricky, as there is always the possibility of getting a pressure sore from transferring or from sitting in a car or truck seat while traversing rough terrain for hours at a time. However, other sports have inherent risks as well, and the many drivers using hand controls in competition have proven that they are capable of handling risk successfully.
• Accessible Racing, 603/960-4402; www.accessibleracing.com
• Cal-Diego PVA, 858/450-1443; www.caldiegopva.org
• Chairslayer Foundation, chairslayer.com/robparsons/
• Conquer Paralysis Now, 609/737-1919; www.conquerparalysisnow.org
• Guidosimplex hand controls, 888/599-8267; www.guidosimplexusa.com
• High Performance Driving video, www.nasaproracing.com/hpde/index.html
• MasterShift, 888/658-2727; www.supercarsllc.com/newmastershift/
• Monarch Hand Controls, 800/243-4051; mps-handcontrols.com
• National Auto Sport Association, 510/232-6272; www.nasaproracing.com
• Pacific Grand Prix Karting, 253/639-7223; www.pacificgp.com
• Pole Position Raceway, www.polepositionraceway.com
• Racing4Vets, www.racing4vets.org
• Ricky James website, www.rickyjames824.com/home.html
• Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, 317/209-0099; www.spmindycar.com
• Sports Car Club of America, 800/770-2055; www.scca.org
• Unser Karting & Events, 720/282-5000; unserkarting.com/kart-racing/adaptive-kart-racing/