While many of the events that we writers at RacingJunk cover involve actual racing coverage, there are few as inspiring as the one I had the privilege to attend earlier this week.
New Hampshire based non-profit organization Adaptive Motorsports & Wellness, which offers the world’s only driving experience that meets the needs of the wheelchair community, welcomed disabled military veterans and other physically challenged civilians from all over the U.S.A. to Southside Speedway, south of Richmond, VA, to try their hands at becoming racecar drivers.
Thanks to a racecar that has been adapted to allow both amputees and paralyzed veterans the opportunity to get back on track and even train for what could be the next Paralympic sport, Adaptive Motorsports founder Brian Hanaford and his crew spent the day making dreams come true for a group of the most hope-filled people I have ever met.
One of the most talented amputee drivers I had the pleasure of meeting – and witnessing just how fearless he really is – was Army Sergeant Luis Rosa-Valentin. Luis lost his left arm, both legs and the vision in his left eye just two days before his 25th birthday as he dodged through a firefight to save the life of a fellow officer in Baghdad. After assuring his comrade’s safety, Valentin returned to his mission. While scanning the rooftops for snipers, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded directly next to Valentin.
Valentin spent over a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, his military career coming to an end. Despite losing one dream and having to recover from injuries which could have been insurmountable for some, Valetin is now rediscovering himself and his other talents, like going fast.
“I came from a family of automotive nuts and from this I discovered that I loved cars, especially those that go fast,” said Valentin. “I guess you can say that I am a serial speeder, which made me really interested in seeing if I have any talent driving a race car – and thanks to events like this one, I finally get this opportunity.”
After taking a ride alongside this naturally talented driver, who didn’t even need his legs or feet to push the gas pedals or brakes, it was easy to see that this military veteran (who is also an excellent artist) is a natural on the 1/4-mile.
Joining this brave wounded warrior were 30-year veterans like Fain Grogg, who was injured in a car accident following his service in Desert Storm and has since become a paralyzed athlete who even tried out for the U.S. Paralympic team in 2006 as a wheelchair racer.
“This was my first time behind a racecar, though,” said Grogg. “I lived not far from Bristol Motor Speedway and have always been fascinated with racing and racecars, but never had the opportunity to drive one until this event. What a rush!”
Valentin and Grogg were joined by five other war veterans from as far back as World War II, but these weren’t the only inspiring participants who attended this event to not only get behind the wheel of the racecar, but to help others find their ways back to an independent lifestyle.
One such participant was Daniel Christiana, who became paralyzed from the neck down one month prior to his 18th birthday after wrecking his dirt bike. Despite almost losing his life several times, Christiana is still enjoying his favorite sport, racing, even if it’s sometimes from behind the scenes.
“I have actually always wanted to race,” said Christiana. “After I became paralyzed, I thought that this would never happen. Thanks to people like Brian and even my new friend Mario Bonfante, Jr. I am realizing that I can do this and anything else that I want to do.”
Along with his love for racing, Christiana is making a difference for other quadriplegics through his company Wheels for the Woods, which makes obtaining all-terrain wheel chairs possible for those in need. “I help other quads like me obtain grants and other funding needed to get chairs that will take them anywhere,” he said.
Daniel isn’t the only one who is assuring that others in his place go after their dreams. While Brian Hanaford and his organization provide hope through their unique driving experiences, other paralyzed race car drivers like Mario Bonfante, Jr. are inventing products to take paralyzed racing all the way to the Paralympics.
Bonfante , a California based drift driver, became paralyzed when he was injured in a BMX accident in 2006. Since this time, he has been using his talents to develop all the equipment, including a specialized steering wheel, to put others who suffer from paralysis behind the wheel of a race car.
“My company and I have been experimenting with carbon fiber and other materials to develop an easy-to-use steering wheel and other components to ensure that we are just as competitive as those who have two working legs,” he explained.
With more people like Hanaford and all his friends, I am sure that myself and other writers on this website will be vying for the chance to cover paralyzed racing events all over the country for years to come.
For more information about Adaptive Motorsports & Wellness, including how you can make a donation to this incredible organization, visit accessibleracing.com.