In December 2016, Rob Parsons traveled from California to Bath, England, to personally install a hand control system into 19-year-old Ben Conolly’s drift race car. It is the first of its kind in the UK, but that is not why Parsons did it. Cancer put Conolly in a wheelchair, but racing gives him back the motivation to dream big.
“It was wrecking him, plaguing him,” Parsons said about Conolly’s struggles. “He got down on himself pretty easily. Race cars pump him up.”
Parsons, 30, understands. A competitive adrenaline junky, Parsons shattered his spine in a 2011 motocross crash. He reset his course during rehabilitation and renewed his focus on drift racing, which features controlled, pinpoint-accurate skids at high speeds.
No one had ever designed hand controls for drift racing. So Parsons – still in the hospital after his accident – trained himself in 3D design with SOLIDWORKS and developed a proprietary handcontrol system so precise that he could drift race with it. Then he rebuilt a 1991 Nissan S13 as a drift car from the seat of his wheelchair.
Still, putting himself back at the wheel was not enough for Parsons. He created The Chairslayer Foundation to motivate other paraplegics to defeat the limitations of their chairs through the power of motorsports.
THE BOND OF SHARED EXPERIENCE
Around the same time Parsons snapped his spine, utility lineman Andy Blood was 40 feet (12 meters) off the ground when the wooden power pole broke and landed him in a wheelchair. Blood, like Parsons, stared into a new future and decided not to settle. He took a hard-fought insurance settlement and launched the Blood Brothers Foundation, which raises money to adapt vehicles for the disabled.
Blood, 37, did not know Parsons when he opened Runnit CNC, a machine shop in Grand Junction, Colorado, but it did not take long for Blood and Parsons to find each other online and join forces. The shop they run devotes much of its time and resources to designing and fabricating adaptive vehicle modifications for the wheelchair-bound.
“People who love to drive always want to have that control,” Blood said.
Dr. Indira Lanig is the former medical director of the North Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital, Blood’s doctor and a board member of No Barriers USA.
STAYING IN CONTROL
Parsons and Blood, unwilling to accept such limitations for themselves or for others, were determined to create more affordable adaptive technologies.
“It’s nice that we have the ability that we do,” Blood said. “We’re building hand controls for off-road and we’re going to start an off-road driving school. We’ve got three or four versions of hand controls and we’re seeing who likes what the best. You’ve got to build to where you’re at.”
Blood and Parsons are not the only gearheads interested in designing around a driver’s unique capabilities. Nevada last year became the first state to issue a restricted driver’s license to a quadriplegic, Verizon IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a racing accident in 2000. Schmidt’s car, a 2014 Corvette Z7 Stingray – the so- called Arrow SAM Car – was modified to shift gears with voice commands, steer with head motions and accelerate and brake through a breath tube.
“The hot topic right now is autonomous vehicles and driverless cars,” said Will Pickard, the lead Arrow Electronics engineer on the SAM car. “From both an engineering and philosophical point of view, driverless cars try to get humans out of the loop. Everything we’re trying to do is to put a driver back in the driver’s seat.
“The crash did not change Sam. He’s still a race car driver, and he was a winning race car driver. He just didn’t have a car to drive. Now we’re getting to a point to design a system toward the capability of the human user. Almost like an athlete.”