by Dan Parker
From the Editor: Those who attend concerts know that the way one makes an entrance is important in setting the stage for the show. Not since former President Maurer entered the hall driving a small crane has the convention of the National Federation of the Blind witnessed the spectacle of the kind that started the Sunday morning session of the 2014 Convention as Dan Parker entered the hall on his motorcycle, reached the stage, and turned off his machine after two short revs of the engine. Here is what he said to the convention:
Good morning, Federationists. I hope the smell of a little racing gas is okay this early in the morning. My name is Dan Parker, I'm from Salem, Alabama, and I'm honored to be here to share my life story.
I look at my life in the same way that I look at chapters in a book. Chapter one was before blindness, and chapter two is after blindness. In chapter one I was born in Columbus, Georgia, raised by a racecar driver, and my father (who is seventy-one) still races today. In my adult years I studied machine work, welding, fabrication, and built race cars and motorcycles all across the United States and as far away as the country of Qatar. In 2005 I was the ADRL Pro Nitrous Champion, reaching top speeds of 224 miles an hour in the quarter mile.
On March 31, 2012, I started chapter two. It was like any other day I'd been through a thousand times before. My team and I went to Steele, Alabama, to test a brand-new racing engine that was 864 cubic inches plus four stages of nitrous oxide. On the third pass the car made a horrible right turn. It cut the car completely in half—from the dash forward there was nothing—No motor, no transmission, no steering wheel, nothing. Two weeks later I woke from an induced coma at the University of Alabama, and my family and girlfriend realized that I was totally blind. It took months of physical therapy, rehab, and numerous surgeries for me to get to a point in my life where I could think about trying to get out of the house, much less race again. During one of those sleepless nights a dream came to me, and that dream was that I would not let blindness define me and stop my racing.
I had always known about the famed Bonneville Salt Flats, which are in Wendover, Utah, 120 miles west of Salt Lake City, where men have been setting land speed records since the 1930s. Cars have traveled at speeds over 650 mph, and motorcycles have been over 300. This was my new goal in life: to become the first blind man to race the Bonneville Salt Flats. [Applause]
I had a goal, but I didn't have a path to get there. I had to figure this out. Through some research I was lucky enough to learn about the Blind Driver Challenge, Mark Riccobono, and the programs of the NFB. When I first called the NFB, I thought they might think I was crazy, but I got Joanne Wilson on the phone, shared my story with her, and she got me in touch with Mark Riccobono. I went to the NFB, met with Mark Riccobono, Dr. Maurer, and we decided this was an achievable goal. In ten short months we embarked on an aggressive mission to build the first motorcycle to race the Bonneville Salt Flats by a blind man.
We started the project, and, as with many aggressive projects, friends and family asked me if I was crazy and was trying to get myself killed. I explained to them, "This ain't about dying; this is about living." I had a lot of volunteers come to the house, and I'm proud to say that I fabricated and designed about 50 or 60 percent of the motorcycle myself. I still run my milling machine, my lathe, and all my bending equipment. I built my jigs on the frame machine and did everything to build this motorcycle. For those who can't see it, the motorcycle is a red three-wheel bike, two wheels on the back, a real aerodynamic body, with a 70 cc engine and a five-speed transmission. Realistically it has a top speed of about 85 mph.
A few weeks before the Salt Flats in August, we got the motorcycle together, and it was crunch time—it was time to test. My engineer, Patrick Johnson, who built the guidance system along with me and the team, met at an airport in North Alabama to test. The first day we had some problems, but we came back, regrouped, redesigned the guidance system, and, with one week to go, we tested successfully at the airport. I was successful on the very first pass and did so 100 percent independently. [Applause]
When we got to Bonneville, Mark Riccobono was there with us, and we had to demonstrate our capabilities and to prove to racing officials that blindness was not the obstacle that was going to stop us. The race officials were absolutely impressed with our entire team, our organization, how we went about it, the guidance system—everything—and they granted us permission to race the Salt Flats. On the morning of August 26, 2013, we embarked on a mission that was successful. At eleven o'clock in the morning we made a pass down the Salt. The Salt is ten miles wide by twenty miles long, so you have two miles to accelerate on the short course, one mile to drive at average speed. I started off at mile marker one, accelerated at mile marker two, and between mile marker two and three I did not vary four feet from center with the audible cues that my guidance system gave me. I averaged 55.331 mph, setting a record for the fastest blind man on the Salt Flats, along with being the first blind man on the Salt Flats.
That night at dinner Mark Riccobono, Bill Clap, my team—everybody was celebrating, and we said to ourselves "This morning on the way to the Salt, we were saying that we could; tonight we're saying that we did!"
In the next few months my life had slowed down a lot, and I had to reflect on what the next chapter was going to be. I was reading a book by racing legend Smokey Yunick. Smokey, in his later days, was a little depressed about the way his life had went—was wanting to give up—and his wife brought him home a picture frame with a message in it: "A man without a problem to solve is out of the game." I think Smokey's wife put it in a picture frame because she knows us men: if she didn't nail it to the wall, we'd forget about it. But, if you think about that message, a problem to solve is a challenge, and if you're out of the game, you're on the sidelines of life.My current challenge is that I am now at the Louisiana Center for the Blind receiving proper training—that's right, LCB. That quote stands true for all of us. We all have a problem to solve to better ourselves every day, to reach out to other blind people, and to prove to ourselves and to prove to society that infinite possibilities are only defined by ourselves, not others. So when we leave here tomorrow and everybody starts heading home, I wish you all would take that one quote with you: "A man without a problem to solve is out of the game," and everybody here, we're going to stay in the game. Thank you very much.