by Lorraine Sommerfeld
From the Editor: Lorraine Sommerfeld is a special reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper. She published the following story in the online publication, Wheels, on June 4, 2011. We have published stories in the past about blind motor mechanics and at least one about a blind man who drove a car in a demolition derby. But this is a remarkable report of a young Canadian who repairs cars and whose dream of driving was fulfilled in an amazing way. Here it is:
The morning sun streams through the raised garage door at Bruce Kitchen Automotive. Dust particles dance in the air, and the lighting over each workbench seems muted in the strength of the May sunshine. Aaron Prevost, twenty, stands under a '82 Porsche 924, having positioned the hoist and raised it to working level. He can discern this sunlight, but only as a contrast shadow. It takes a moment to realize he is blind.
He doesn't turn his head to place wheel nuts on the table next to him; he deftly deposits them in a precise order so he can find them again later. A quick count around the freed rim with his other hand, he then lifts the tire from its mount. He drops a nut, freezes as he listens to where it lands, then drops down quickly and grabs it. Everything about Prevost is ordinary, and yet nothing is. Being an auto mechanic is a precise business, and potential hazards are everywhere. Prevost, sightless since birth, walks freely and without a cane, finding hoisted cars and the curled hoses of compressors.
At first glance his workbench looks like any other, but as he snaps through drawers searching for a mallet, his hands skimming the contents, you realize he knows exactly where everything is. A misplaced tool costs time, and time costs money; Prevost insists on being treated as an equal to the sighted mechanics. This isn't a job of repetition. The garage specializes in imports, and each car has unique issues. For a kid who started by ripping apart lawnmowers, it's a story about the capacity of his memory and his ability to learn, but most of all, about his determination.
At age ten Prevost was pulling apart and rebuilding small engines with the guidance of his older brother Ben, now twenty-six. Ben too is blind, born with the same damage to the optic nerve. “Well, we mostly put back together the stuff we tore apart,” says Aaron with a smile. Soon they were working on the family cars, and there were no concerns about their abilities.
The logistics of moving through a dark world does not concern a young man who's known no different. The secret to his positive attitude is that Aaron Prevost simply determines what he can do rather than what he can't. Frustration peeks out only in that he is passionate about cars but can't drive. Raised in rural Cornwall, Ontario, he did what most country kids do: hopped on anything with an engine and drove it anyway. “We'd take out the four-wheeler, and my sister would stand behind me and she'd turn my shoulders,” he explains. “It's pretty effective, though it can get a little crazy when you have to keep the throttle on to make sure you don't get stuck.”
For the last twelve years Prevost has been a student at W. Ross MacDonald School for the Blind, a residential school in Brantford. His older brother was already there, making a tough change a little easier. Prevost shrugs it off, wearing his independence not so much as a badge but like a well worn pair of jeans. “I try to do it all,” he says. And he does. He's lived off campus for two years now, renting a house with a friend.
Outside the shop a riding lawnmower sits on a trailer, the housing off. Shop owner Bruce Kitchen told his neighbor to bring the broken machine in because he has just the guy to fix it. Prevost reaches into the machinery with one surgically-gloved hand, discerns where a metal part is eroding a plastic one, and makes the diagnosis.
Kitchen vetoes the suggestion that having Prevost on board as a co-op placement student might slow down the shop. “He has his specialties—brakes and rotors—and unlike a standard garage the turnaround times are a little more flexible,” he says. His voice drops a bit. “Look. It's just right. He's earned his place here. He's a fine mechanic. His first day here he had the cylinder head off a Triumph Spitfire and changed the head gasket. The only thing he couldn't do was set the foot-pound numbers.”
The shop is filled with exotics of every vintage. Prevost is loosening up the rusted brake drums on the Porsche. “If you had your sight for 10 minutes, what would you do?” I ask him.
He doesn't hesitate for a moment: “Drive!”
Mosport—A long line of Porsches wait their turn obediently at Mosport International Raceway. It's a driving school day; owners will learn what their cars can do. Aaron Prevost, twenty and blind since birth, will find out what a racetrack feels like. He can't see the rolling green countryside, but he can feel a light breeze that steals the promising heat from the sun. As a mechanic he knows how the high-performance machines work. Today he'll learn how that translates into the thrust of a dropped accelerator, the squeal of the tires in complex corners, and the exhilaration of a long straightaway.
Maybe Prevost can't drive, but he can certainly be the passenger in a car racing around one of the best tracks in North America. “My boss, Bruce, warned me about G forces,” he says. “I really want to experience that.”
As if on cue, Rick Bye pulls up in a 2012 Porsche Boxster. Bye is in charge of Porsche Canada's press fleet of cars, and he is also a long-time Porsche racer. He knows Mosport like the back of his hand. At the track's test pad Bye puts the car through stop-start exercises, describing carefully to Prevost all that he's doing. After a few tests Bye gets out. “Aaron's going to try it now,” he says. Prevost grins as he pops open the door.
With a reassuring hand on the wheel, Bye describes to his young student everything the car will be doing and how it will respond. Within minutes the kid who can't see has the accelerator to the floor of the sports car and quickly brings it to a full stop. They repeat the exercise several times, Prevost learning the car; Bye learning his pupil. Bye will say later that “Aaron was a perfect student.” That's a direct quote: Perfect. “He was keen, and he listened. He responded exactly to what I was telling him. If we'd had more time, we could have done more.”
Back on pit row the track clears for lunch. Bye stands waiting for the all-clear, while Aaron stays in the passenger seat, his hands showing him every stitch, every button, every lever. “Hey, you get a lot of stations on this radio,” he reports. It's not idle chatter. Aaron is absorbing this car. With a wave from the official, Bye buckles in.
The Boxster roars, and they're off, alone on the track. When the car hits the back straightaway, the sweet crescendo hangs in the midday air. It returns to zoom past the pits, and you can see Prevost smiling broadly. After the fifth lap they cruise into the pits. “Tell her how many times you've done this,” says the kid. Considering this is his home track, Bye estimates he's put in about 30,000 laps.
But it's the next ones that will be a first, even for this seasoned pro. They switch seats. Maintaining the same steady direction, Bye tells Prevost to position the steering, to get comfortable. It's this reassuring voice that now leads the sightless driver, with Bye's left hand lightly on the wheel. By the second lap with Prevost behind the wheel, everyone is heading out to watch. The sound of the engine registers its location on the track, and there are only the same two questions in mind: how fast are they going to hit the straight, and how on earth are they going to negotiate turn 5? It's actually two turns, one after another. It's difficult to do if you can see. It's difficult to do if you're a pro. But a blind kid with no license? Even with a professional hand shadowing his, Aaron is placing full trust in a man he met an hour before. Maybe even more amazing, that man is doing the same thing.
It's not until later that Bye will reveal the only slip-up of the day—on the challenging turn 5, Prevost carried too much speed. Bye simply repeated “more brake, more brake” until his student corrected without hitting the grass. Apparently Rick Bye never once raised his voice that day.
It's a complicated, beautiful thing to process. The Boxter returns past the stands and then sets off again, and again. When it eventually pulls in and comes to a halt in the pits, Prevost finally takes his hand from the wheel to shake the outstretched hands of the astonished pit crew. In the crush the quietest pair is Aaron Prevost and Rick Bye. In the midst of the power and the speed and the ballet of a racetrack, a great gift has been given—to both men.
Prevost completed five laps of Mosport International Raceway that day. He hit a top speed of 205 km/h on that famed back straight, as fast as most anyone. Bye said later that Prevost was so attentive and responsive that the instructor actually took his own hand off the wheel several times. Prevost said later he got a little anxious only when Bye did this. The idea that he was in complete control of the vehicle, even for a few seconds at a time, left him awestruck. The fact Bye never had to take over the steering amazed everyone else. The kid who wants to do it all finally got to drive.
When we leave for Brantford, I ask him what he's thinking. “30,000 times,” he says. “Rick has been able to do that 30,000 times.”
For Bye, he recognized something far different. “We all only see the world from our place on the grid,” he said later. “So many people only see the negative; that kid is so far up front, it's remarkable.”