by Chris Danielsen
From the Editor: This is one of the most thorough articles I've ever read, and it transports me to Truth or Consequences in a way that only good writing can. People always ask if there is a word limit for articles in the Monitor. The answer is always no as long as the article remains interesting. Chris shows us how it is done. Enjoy his craftsmanship as you enjoy our journey together:
If you are a fairly recent addition to our Federation family—say within the last five years or so—and your perusal of back issues of this magazine is limited, then you could be forgiven for having reached the year 2021 with little to no idea of the Blind Driver Challenge™ and its significance in our collective history. Perhaps, even if you did know the story, you thought it was a glorious moment in our recent past but not an ongoing effort that would see yet more milestones. Even as you heard that a Federationist named Dan Parker would attempt to achieve a Guinness World Records® title described as "fastest speed by a car driven blindfolded," you might not have connected it to the goal of a car that blind people can drive. You might still think that idea to be a bit of a stretch as you read this paragraph. But if you have the curiosity and patience to read on, I will do my best to explain how the individual dream of a race car driver blinded in a horrific accident and the collective dream of members of the National Federation of the Blind to create a blind-drivable car converged on March 31, 2022. Hopefully, you will also learn how what took place on that momentous day is already changing perceptions—both inside and outside the blind community—of what is possible as the age of partially or fully autonomous vehicles continues to approach.
When in 2001 the National Federation of the Blind broke ground for a major addition to our headquarters facility, the NFB Jernigan Institute, our then President Dr. Marc Maurer speculated on what research projects we might explore. One was a handheld device that could quickly read any printed material to a blind person. That technology, which until recently was called the KNFB Reader and is now known as OneStep Reader, can today be used by any blind person with a smartphone, and products that use similar technology with comparable results are also available. The second was a car that could be driven independently by a blind person. Unlike the reader, which was conceivable to many who had used OCR technology and knew that it needed only to be made much more portable, the blind-drivable car seemed a distant dream, if indeed it could ever be achieved at all. Yet, by 2007 innovators at the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech had agreed to collaborate with us to see if it could be accomplished, at least as an initial proof of concept.
By 2009, audio technology that could help a blind driver accurately steer had been incorporated into a dune buggy, and some of us were able to drive this little vehicle on carefully mapped terrain. By 2011, the guidance technology had been incorporated into a Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle, with the audio prompts replaced by haptic feedback via vibrations in a seat strip and special driving grips worn on the hands. On January 29, 2011, Mark Riccobono, who is now President of the National Federation of the Blind, used this technology to successfully navigate the road course at the Daytona International Speedway, avoid dynamic obstacles thrown into the vehicle's path, and pass another vehicle safely. Gary Wunder recorded the historic event for the Braille Monitor in its March 2011 issue, and his article is available at https://nfb.org/sites/nfb.org/files/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm11/bm1103/bm110302.htm.
Even as we celebrated this achievement, witnessed by some three hundred Federationists and thousands of other Daytona spectators, we were not entirely sure what would come next. The faculty and graduate students who had helped us create the modified SUV moved on to other places and projects, and for a time what we had come to call the Blind Driver Challenge faded into the background of our collective work. Dan Parker, the Columbus, Georgia-based drag racer, who would shoulder a large part of the effort needed to advance the Blind Driver Challenge to its next milestones, was not yet a member of our organization. In fact, he wasn't even blind. Quite naturally, it had not yet occurred to him that he would want or need to think about how a blind person might drive.
That suddenly changed on March 31, 2012. On that day, Dan's car made an unexpected hard-right turn, for reasons that are still unknown, and slammed into a concrete wall at an estimated 175 miles per hour. The catastrophic crash sent the car tumbling and ripped it apart. Dan sustained multiple life-threatening injuries. The trauma was so severe that he does not remember the accident or even the day of the race for which he was qualifying.
After two weeks in a medically-induced coma, Dan woke up and was able to hear the voices of his loved ones. But he was startled whenever they spoke to him, because, he realized, he was experiencing no other indication of their presence. An eye examination revealed that brain swelling had compressed his optic nerves, causing irreversible damage. He would be blind for the rest of his life.
The sudden loss of vision is often a dramatic emotional blow, but since driving has long been considered one of the tasks that blind people cannot perform, it must have seemed especially cruel to Dan Parker. He had been racing vehicles in one form or another since he was eight years old, continuing a family tradition. Dan's father Jimmy raced professionally until 2021, and his late mother, he proudly recounts, won a drag race while she was pregnant with him. Dan himself won the American Drag Racing League Pro-Nitrous World Championship in 2005. So, perhaps even more acutely than most other newly blind people, Dan felt that his life as he had known it was over. He even told his girlfriend Jennifer to move back to her home in Birmingham, Alabama, and forget him, since he did not know how he would make a living. He thought racing was out of the question, and he was not sure how he would continue his business of designing and building race cars either. Jennifer, however, refused to abandon him.
It's worth noting that his accident also left Dan with traumatic brain injury (TBI), some symptoms of which include incapacitating headaches and extreme fatigue. With the perspective he has gained over time, Dan now says that the challenges associated with the TBI are much greater than those that arose from his blindness. He told me that, if medical professionals told him that they could cure one condition but not both, he would be quite content to continue living as a blind person without TBI. If it does not surprise us that a blind person can achieve what Dan has, it is nonetheless worth remembering that his achievements have taken place as he faced an additional challenge.
For six months Dan fought depression and suicidal thoughts, he told Rick and Bubba University Podcast. Then one evening, he went to sleep thinking about a long-held ambition to race a motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats (The Salt) in Utah and had a vivid dream of doing so. He woke up determined to achieve this goal, the setting of which, he believes, saved his life.
As a first step, Dan contacted his friend Patrick Johnson, an engineer with Boeing Phantom Works. Dan's immediate concern was being able to keep a motorcycle on course, given that he could not see the track. Patrick promised to design a GPS-based guidance system that would plot a centerline on the course, use audio guidance to keep Dan from straying too far from it, and automatically shut down the engine if he did. With that assurance, Dan began acquiring the money and parts he would need to build the motorcycle. He also set about the difficult task of convincing the relevant sanctioning authorities that he could safely conquer "The Salt."
As he began work on his bike, Dan also learned to use his iPhone nonvisually, the better to engage in what he has described as a one-man social-media marketing campaign to acquire sponsors, donations, and other support. He contacted the National Federation of the Blind when he learned of the Blind Driver Challenge demonstration at Daytona. After speaking initially with Joanne Wilson, he connected with Mark Riccobono and then visited the NFB Jernigan Institute. President Maurer spoke with Dan and agreed that the Federation would sponsor the "Quest for the Salt." The result of that effort was that on August 26, 2013, Dan Parker completed the first historic independent run by a blind person at the Bonneville Salt Flats with an officially recorded speed of 55.331 mph. A complete report of the event was provided by Mark Riccobono for the October 2013 issue of the Braille Monitor and is available at https://nfb.org//sites/default/files/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm13/bm1309/bm130902.htm.
Dan's achievement was duly celebrated by his new Federation family at the 2014 National Convention, when he began the general session by riding his racing motorcycle into the convention hall.
But Dan had no intention of stopping there, and he looked for a new challenge. On August 13, 2014, just a month after Dan thrilled the convention by roaring down the aisle on his racing bike, a blind man in England, Mike Newman, set an official Guinness World Records title of "Fastest Speed for a Car Driven Blindfolded" on a Yorkshire airfield, reaching a speed of 200.51 miles per hour. Dan decided to bring the World Records title to America.
As he began the slow and steady work of acquiring a car and rebuilding it to his specifications, other developments were accelerating too. Car companies and other players in the technology and transportation industries ramped up efforts to create fully autonomous vehicles. Uber and Lyft experimented with autonomous vehicle technology, hoping to someday replace their human drivers with automated vehicles that could respond to passenger requests sent over the internet. Technology companies like Google and Apple were also discussing creating or enhancing autonomous-vehicle technology, and car manufacturers began to incorporate some "self-driving" features, such as automated parking assistance, into their existing models. These efforts continue to advance, and while the age of autonomous vehicles is not approaching as quickly as some predicted, both the development of the technologies and of policy proposals on how to regulate them are ongoing.
Advocates argue that the primary benefit of self-driving technology is safety. Under many circumstances, computers driven by input from high-tech sensors and cameras make better driving decisions than humans do. Autonomous vehicles will, therefore, increase road safety and cut down on, if not eliminate, automobile accidents. Another common argument advanced for this technology is its potential to enhance mobility for people with disabilities, and the blind are often specifically mentioned.
While the National Federation of the Blind had emphasized the idea of a car actively driven by a blind person rather than a fully autonomous vehicle that would simply drive a blind person around, we realized that we did not want to be excluded from the autonomous vehicle revolution if and when it occurred. We further realized that being included in that revolution would require two things. First, autonomous vehicles would need to be designed with user interfaces that were nonvisually accessible, allowing blind people to identify them, instruct them as to the desired destination, and monitor their operations. Second, the public would need to accept the idea that it was safe for a blind person to be the operator of these vehicles; their miraculous technology alone might not be enough. Licensing laws and other regulations would have to prohibit discrimination against blind drivers.
With these goals in mind, the Federation began to leverage our existing relationships with transportation and technology companies, as well as with the Auto Innovators, formerly the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers—a relationship begun during our days of advocating for the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. We also established new partnerships, such as with Cruise, a spinoff from General Motors, specifically dedicated to the building of autonomous cars. We joined some of these new allies in pushing for legislation that would advance the technology. The Federation's primary objective was that any such legislation both require accessibility and prohibit discrimination.
Meanwhile, Dan Parker continued his own mission. He achieved another important milestone on March 31, 2015, exactly three years after the date of his accident, when he graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Dan appreciates all of his blindness skills, but specifically working in the Center's wood shop is what he credits with increasing his self-confidence and teaching him ways to use power tools as a blind person. This, in turn, has increased his ability to do hands-on work in his own machine shop at home in Columbus.
In 2017 Dan acquired a flood-salvaged 2008 Corvette C6 and set about repurposing the gutted car to seek the Guinness World Records title. Over the next three years, he equipped the vehicle with a roll cage, an eight hundred-horsepower racing engine, a parachute, and other parts that he purchased with sponsorship funds or received as donations. Race cars have brakes, of course, but a parachute is also deployed to slow them down as they approach the end of a run. He also designed and machined several important features of the car himself. Race cars do not have radiators to constantly cool the engine as they move, since they must be aerodynamically designed, making a radiator grill impractical. Dan replaced the car's radiator grill with an air-intake system that he designed so that air flowing into the engine would help to propel the vehicle in much the way a jet engine propels an airplane. He also engineered a wing extending from the rear of the vehicle and a flat "belly pan" for its undercarriage. Both of these elements would help resist lift so that the quick acceleration and high speed would not cause the car to become dangerously airborne. Unlike many race cars, the Corvette was also equipped with mufflers; it needed to be quieter than similar vehicles to help Dan hear the cues from his audio guidance system.
The guidance system itself had evolved from the one used for the racing motorcycle. While that system used voice prompts, Dan and Patrick ultimately decided on audio tones in the left or right ear to signal deviation from the centerline plotted for each course. In addition to using GPS coordinates and external censors, the guidance system incorporates input from the car's own internal gyroscope, giving the computer that powers the system granular information about the car's "yaw" (side-to-side movement) so that it can recalculate the car's position relative to the centerline hundreds of times per second.
Dan's efforts continued to attract national and international attention, including from the internet TV show Jay Leno's Garage. This program set up a demonstration that took place in February of 2020 at Spaceport America. Billed as the first United States commercial spaceport, this facility occupies 18,000 acres on a high desert plain in southern New Mexico, between the cities of Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences. It has made news for hosting the highly-publicized and expensive "space tourism" flights of the Virgin Galactic Blue Origin space plane. That plane is housed inside the facility's dome-shaped, state-of-the art terminal and hangar facility. Crucial for Dan's purpose, Spaceport America's runway is twelve thousand feet long and two hundred feet wide, ideal for the record attempt. The lessons learned and the relationships with Spaceport America officials forged during the Jay Leno's Garage filming would set the stage for the record attempt that would occur there a little over two years later.
In late 2020 President Riccobono reached out to Dan to ask if he would like to try to achieve the record attempt under the rubric of the Blind Driver Challenge. Cruise, the autonomous-vehicle manufacturer mentioned above, was eager to sponsor the effort. The planned record attempt was jointly announced by the NFB, Dan Parker, and Cruise on April 5, 2021.
While Dan continued to make his own preparations in Columbus, a staff team from the NFB Jernigan Institute held regular meetings with Cruise to discuss publicizing the effort, acquiring sponsors, and creating branded assets (such as the racing gear and helmet Dan would wear and the "wrap" featuring NFB, Cruise, and other sponsor logos that would envelop the car itself). On the NFB side, this effort was led by Anil Lewis, the executive director for Blindness Initiatives, and Stephanie Cascone, our director of communications and marketing. Other regular participants in the meetings included myself and Danielle McCann, the NFB social media coordinator, along with Anna Adler, assistant to Outreach Director Patti Chang. Michael Campbell, Cruise's public affairs manager, took charge on the company's side, with Sophia Morales of the company's marketing department and Hannah Lindo from its press team also participating. One of the earliest and most exciting contributions from the Cruise team was a "trailer" video previewing the record attempt and featuring the highlights of Dan's personal story. This thrilling video, complete with audio description, can still be viewed at www.blinddriverchallenge.org.
Our Blindness Initiatives Department also handled the crucial task of setting a contract with Guinness World Records (GWR) to officially certify the record title if achieved. GWR sets criteria for each record it certifies and requires either that certification be done on-site by its own adjudicator or that specific evidence be provided. GWR Adjudicator Michael Empric was at Spaceport America for the the three days that were set for record attempts to be made. The participation of an official timekeeper from the Loring Timing Association (LTA)—an official certifying organization for many land speed races and records—to accurately measure the speed of the car was also secured.
The GWR criteria for Dan's record were that two passes must be made going in opposite directions within one hour, with the average speed over those passes to be the one recorded as official for certification if successful. This ensured, among other things, that any advantage gained from the wind helping to push the car forward would be counteracted on the return pass. GWR also required that video evidence of Dan operating the vehicle as it achieved the peak speeds be provided. The three-day time window was set so that multiple practice passes to test and prepare the car for the official attempts could be made. Dan also originally hoped to make more than one attempt, with the best speed achieved being the one certified for the record title.
The initial plan was to achieve the record title in the fall of 2021, possibly even on the eighty-first birthday of the National Federation of the Blind on November 16. But the summer 2021 emergence of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus and other factors put that plan out of reach. This led to the final effort being set for the period March 29 through March 31, 2022.
Early in the week of the planned attempts, Dan Parker and his support team converged on New Mexico. The effort required not only the movement of people but of equipment, including a trailer serving as a fully equipped repair shop; another smaller one to carry tools and supplies to maintain the race car during its pit stops between passes; an older, commercial Corvette for practice runs; and, of course, the red 2008 Corvette in which Dan would make the record attempt. The support team included Patrick Johnson, the Boeing Phantom Works engineer who had designed the guidance system and who would also run the laptop that would power it and track the race car's movements. Jason White, a racer himself, also came along to be Dan's safety driver and perform other duties. Dan had equipped the car with an additional steering wheel and control pedals on the passenger side so that Jason could, theoretically, take over in case of an emergency. Such a crisis was not expected to occur, but getting insurance for the event and sanctioning from everyone involved required the precaution. Approximately ten other individuals from all over the country, experts in various areas having to do with race cars and their operation, joined the crew as well.
Federationists also began to converge on Las Cruces. Anil Lewis flew from his home in Atlanta. On Monday, March 28, Stephanie Cascone, Danielle McCann, Will Schwatka (our audio/video manager), and I flew from Baltimore to El Paso, Texas. There, we picked up a rented fifteen-passenger van, which would be needed to transport the other Federationists who were flying in to attend the event, and Will drove us in that vehicle to Las Cruces.
The next day, Tuesday, was set for initial practice runs and, for the NFB team, our first visit to Spaceport America. At 10:00 a.m. Mountain Time, our communications crew, along with Anil and Michael Empric from GWR, made the roughly one-hour drive to Spaceport America from Las Cruces, with Will once again at the wheel. We had already been warned that strong winds might be a general problem, and the weather forecast for that Tuesday predicted gusts of forty to fifty miles per hour. Therefore, we already knew that record attempts were unlikely that day. By the time we arrived at Spaceport America, the wind was indeed ferocious. It took our breath away, sent hats aloft, and drove sand, dust, and other stinging debris from the desert surroundings flying into our faces. When some of the most powerful gusts hit, it was a real effort to stand upright or walk forward. We therefore spent most of our time in the partial shelter of Dan's trailer, talking with him and his team and also conferring with our two main Spaceport America liaisons, Site Operations Director Chris Lopez and Public Relations Coordinator Alice Caruth.
I was able to lean into the interior of the race car and touch the seat that Dan would occupy and the head containment devices affixed to its back in lieu of the headrests we see in commercial cars. In a race car the seat is very low to the floor to accommodate the roll cage and hopefully prevent the driver's head from smashing into the roof if the vehicle flips over. I also touched the rear wing on the back of the vehicle that Dan had designed in order to increase drag and help avoid just such a catastrophe. A photographer from the global news service Agence France-Presse (AFP) was also on hand. But once Dan and his team made it clear that only runs with the practice car, if anything, were likely that day, most of us grabbed lunch from a food truck that we had hired for the occasion and retreated to the van to eat it. We then drove back to our hotel, and later we learned that Dan was able to make some runs in the practice car, reaching a maximum speed of 116 mph and getting the feel of the Spaceport runway. The speed was impressive given the limitations of the practice car and the ferocious crosswinds that did indeed reach fifty miles per hour.
While some of us were heading back to the hotel from this first foray into the Southern New Mexico desert, President Riccobono was on a plane to El Paso with Kyle Walls, another NFB staff member, especially well known to Washington Seminar participants, who would serve as another driver and provide additional support. That night, they joined us for dinner at the hotel, along with board members Norma Crosby and her husband Glenn, from Texas; Ever Lee Hairston, from California; and Adelmo Vigil with his wife Soledad, who live in Las Cruces. Later that evening, first vice president Pam Allen and her husband Roland arrived from Louisiana, along with Carla McQuillan from Oregon.
The next morning, the whole crew left the hotel at 8 a.m. to be at Spaceport America by around nine. We were joined at the facility by Michael Campbell and Sophia Morales of Cruise and Scott Schmidt of Auto Innovators. Bleachers and a small stage had been set up for our comfort and for some presentations we planned to make and broadcast on Facebook Live while waiting for record attempts to be made on the runway. We began one of those presentations, a panel on the importance of blindness skills training, around noon, but learned before we had completed it that a first run with the race car was about to take place, despite the fact that wind conditions, although much better than the day before with gusts only around fifteen to twenty mph, were still not ideal. We shut down the Facebook Live feed and waited for the action to begin. Chris Lopez took charge of our microphone and described the scene to us as a pickup truck that had accompanied Dan from Columbus towed the car, via a towing strap affixed to its roof, to the designated starting point on the runway. The tow strap was then removed, and Dan made the first run. The car reached a speed of 158 miles per hour using only its 800-horsepower engine. This was a promising first run, especially since the plan for the official attempts was for the engine's power to be supplemented via the injection of nitrous oxide, or simply "nitrous" in racing lingo. Commonly known as laughing gas and used as an anesthetic, a modified form of nitrous oxide can serve as a fuel oxidizer in internal combustion engines; in other words, it increases the oxygen supply and thus allows the engine to burn fuel more quickly, boosting the engine's power. Dan estimated that the injection of nitrous would increase the engine's horsepower from eight hundred to over one thousand horsepower.
It was now a little before 1:00 p.m., and our food truck was only contracted to stay for another hour, so most of us went to grab lunch. Afterwards, with another attempt not immediately planned, Chris Lopez offered to take us inside the terminal hangar facility and see the exhibits there. Intended to symbolize the journey from Earth to space, this unique building has an entrance that is below ground level and accessed via a kind of alleyway where one can experience the steel walls of the structure rising on either side before entering its main door. Once inside, visitors enter an exhibit space with various items, including an extensive wall mural depicting the history of space observation and experimentation in New Mexico, which is more extensive than many realize. (Robert Goddard conducted early rocket experiments in the area, and there is a testing facility for NASA rockets at White Sands, which is also an alternative landing site for the agency's spacecraft.) We passed a window from which the actual Blue Origin space plane itself could be glimpsed through artificial fog that constantly swirls around it for security reasons. Another section of the building, not accessible to the general public, is for Spaceport America's commercial passengers and is equipped with a lounge, restaurant, and other amenities. Inside the facility, we completed the interrupted Facebook Live presentation about blindness skills training and then headed back outdoors.
Dan had made another run in the Corvette, again without nitrous, reaching a speed of 176 mph. By now, however, official closing time was approaching, so although Dan and his team were permitted to continue work, most of us left and headed toward the nearby town of Truth or Consequences, or "T'rC" as the locals call it, to collect souvenirs. In a typical example of the generous support we received from Spaceport America, one of its security officers escorted us there in his personal vehicle on his way home. We stopped to take some scenic photos at the Elephant Butte Dam, one of the earliest WPA projects from the Great Depression (predating even the Hoover Dam) and then proceeded to the town proper. After a stop for postcards and snacks, we headed back to Las Cruces.
Everyone had been hoping that by now, the end of March 30, at least one record attempt would have already occurred, but since a day of practice runs had been lost to the unfavorable wind conditions on March 29, the effort was behind schedule. Dan's team was therefore unable to join us for what could have been a celebratory dinner after a first successful attempt. The rest of us feasted at a tropical-themed Mexican restaurant that Adelmo and Soledad Vigil recommended. We were all tired, and some of us who had not worn our Blind Driver Challenge hats or uniformly applied sunscreen were noticing the sunburn that the cool wind had kept us from feeling while at Spaceport. But we were encouraged by the progress that had already been made. While eating dinner, however, we got bad news. During a quick check-in with Dan by text message, Anil learned that a problem had developed that was preventing the car from switching gears properly. Although some of us assumed this might be a transmission problem and shuddered at the thought, we learned later that the issue was actually a malfunctioning torque converter. Dan's team planned to work through the night, if needed, to resolve the issue. Despite this setback and the late hours it would entail, Dan maintained his characteristic optimism. "If race cars were easy," he texted Anil, "they'd sell them at Kmart."
Dan got little sleep that night. At 1:30 a.m., he awoke with a solution. He mentally designed a "push bar" mechanism so that, if needed, the practice car could roll the race car along the runway until it gained sufficient speed to drop into gear, bypassing the torque converter. Dan's team arose at sunrise and headed to Spaceport, where the push bar was welded in the shop trailer. By the time the rest of us arrived at Spaceport, the problem appeared to be solved, with no time to spare. This was the last day that we could use the facility. The record would be broken today, or not at all.
Thus began several hours of anxious waiting. With the wind finally at manageable levels—though with gusts still reaching twenty miles per hour, conditions that would probably have canceled a traditional land speed race—we set up a tent that we had procured for the occasion, bedecked with NFB and sponsor logos. Some of us sheltered there from the sun, which was still blistering despite the relatively cool air temperature. Others sat on the bleachers provided by Spaceport. We were all wearing our Blind Driver Challenge t-shirts and hats, and by late morning jackets were no longer required. The first practice run that tested the engine with nitrous oxide injected took place at around 11:30 a.m., and the Corvette achieved a speed of 181 mph. And as it turned out, the push bar was not needed, the team having discovered that keeping the temperature of the engine at 120 degrees prevented the torque converter from shutting it down.
The challenges of flight scheduling and the need to meet other commitments meant that President Riccobono and Pam and Roland Allen had to leave Spaceport America around noon that day to get back to the El Paso airport. Before leaving, President Riccobono ceremoniously gave Dan his personal Louis Braille coin. He had also given it to Dan before the run on the Salt Flats, and Dan had the coin in his pocket during that ride. With this good-luck token exchanged, President Riccobono and the Allens reluctantly departed.
Dan made another practice run shortly afterwards. This time, with the nitrous again applied, the car reached 205 mph. After this pass, the car was towed back to the shop trailer. Dan knew that it was now or never. But the car was still driving too rough for his liking, so he instructed the crew to jack it up for some shock adjustments and laid out the plan for what he hoped would be the final and successful runs. With our new friend Chris Lopez having reluctantly given up the microphone to attend an unrelated Zoom meeting, I was charged with doing my best to emcee the proceedings as he had been doing. I positioned myself near the trailer, where Patrick Johnson would be stationed to monitor the guidance system from his laptop while the rest of the team served as pit crew on the runway and listened as Dan gave his instructions.
As I observed this final huddle, it was clear to me, if I had ever had any doubt, that we were not simply plopping a blind former drag-racer into a car to achieve a world record for publicity. Although he was characteristically polite, humble, and soft-spoken, Dan was definitely the man in charge of the project, and his team clearly respected his expertise and authority. They listened attentively, then quickly went to work to help him make the final adjustments. It was Dan's vision and capacity that had brought us to this moment and would determine its final success. His crew was assisting on the technical side, and the National Federation of the Blind and our partners at Cruise and Auto Innovators had provided funding, swag, publicity, and moral support. But in this decisive moment, Dan was in the driver's seat, literally and metaphorically.
The adjustments to the shocks and other final fixes necessitated the removal of all four wheels, but with a dozen or so team members all working at full tilt, the procedure took only an hour or so. By this time, it was around 3:30 p.m. The car was towed to its starting point on the runway. We all waited, quietly, so that we could hear its passage. As we heard the exhilarating sound of its powerful engine coming toward us—a satisfying growl rather than the high whine associated with some racing engines—we cheered and waved. It then proceeded out of our sight and hearing again. All of us would have loved to be closer, but Spaceport America restricts who can be on or near the runway. Our video crew, however, was close to the action, having previously completed Spaceport safety training, and their operation included a camera drone flying over the car's path of travel.
The car stopped at the other end of its course, which used about a mile and a half of the runway. Chris Lopez, having just completed his meeting, walked over to me. He whispered that he had heard the call over the radio in the trailer; Dan had achieved roughly 210 mph, which by itself would shatter Mike Newman's record if confirmed. I announced this to uproarious applause, but reminded everyone that nothing was official. According to the rules set by Guinness World Records, Dan still had to make his return pass. Anxiously, we waited again.
A bit of perspective is perhaps in order here. Most of us cannot really imagine traveling at over two hundred miles per hour. Dan told me that this means that a car is traveling the length of two football fields every second. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have driven a car that fast. Also worth noting: Dan's audio guidance system was so precise that he did not deviate any more than ten feet in either direction from the centerline he sought to maintain. This is acceptable for anyone driving at such high speeds, including in sanctioned races, blind or sighted.
It was at least forty-three minutes before Dan commenced his return pass. The team appeared too busy to do much communicating, so Patrick wasn't able to provide minute-by-minute information. With time ticking by, and knowing that both runs must be completed within an hour, we were all nervous, and we would have been more so had we known what was going on at the far end of the course. The car's engine had to be cooled for the return run. The maintenance trailer on the runway had two deep-sea fishing coolers full of water, a total of fifteen gallons, to accomplish this. But the pumping mechanism meant to transfer the water from the coolers to the engine's water tank malfunctioned, so Dan's crew had to manually conduct the operation, using cups, water bottles, and whatever other containers were at hand, while also re-packing the parachute. At the time, Dan didn't know this himself. To save time, he had remained inside the car, still wearing his helmet and with his molded noise-canceling earbuds still in his ears. He could not hear the chaos around him, and his friends did not bother him with the information, fearing that it would distract him. They simply and miraculously got the job done.
Dan made his return run, and once again we waited to hear his engine and cheered when we did. A few seconds later, Patrick gave me the final, though still unofficial number: 212 mph. Dan later related that Tim Kelly, the timekeeper from Loring Timing Association, had said, "Take her back to the trailer, boys; you did it." But this message wasn't conveyed to home base, because any numbers were still unofficial until the final evidence review was conducted.
When the race car returned to park next to the trailer, the crew's immediate task was to remove its internal camera and hand off the memory card to Michael Empric, who needed to review the video to verify that Dan had been the driver when the car achieved its maximum speeds. We waited about ten minutes as Michael reviewed the video and calculated the average of the going and returning times. Michael was then joined on the small stage by Dan, Anil, our remaining board members, and Alice Caruth of Spaceport for the final announcement. Danielle started a Facebook Live feed on her phone, and I used my own phone to call President Riccobono so that he could hear the news.
"Congratulations!" Empric told Dan as he handed over an official certificate. "You are officially amazing!" Dan had achieved an average speed of 211.043 miles per hour, not just breaking the old record, but shattering it.
After over five years of work, Dan had achieved in an hour what he set out to achieve, on behalf of himself and of all blind Americans. He had also done it ten years to the day after the accident that temporarily convinced him he would never race again and seven years to the day after graduating from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Dan's own determination, expertise, and blindness skills training, along with the collective support provided by members of the National Federation of the Blind, had transformed his individual dream of racing again and our collective dream of demonstrating more independent access to transportation into reality.
It has been said by many Federationists that the real barrier to blind people driving is not technology, and that seems evident even at this early stage. Our real struggle, as in so many other things, will be raising the expectations of the public, and even of blind people ourselves, so that the idea of a blind person operating a road vehicle is perceived as a real possibility rather than a punch line. We have now demonstrated the capacity of blind people to drive twice, and in the second demonstration the blind driver achieved a speed that most drivers never will, in a car of his own design and shaped significantly with his own hands, tools, and expertise.
Will this make an impression on a cynical public? Perhaps it already has. Almost immediately upon our return from New Mexico, we learned that CBS news reporter Steve Hartman wanted to do a story about Dan's accomplishment. Hartman is known for his segment On the Road, which highlights interesting stories about people across our nation, so in one sense this was not surprising. What was interesting is how Mr. Hartman approached the story. When it aired on April 8, Hartman began, "You're welcome to listen in, but I chose this week's story mainly for an audience of one—Ted, my twelve-year-old nephew who says his blindness sometimes feels insurmountable." Then viewers heard Ted's voice saying, "I thought, like, I was doomed. Although that does sound a little immature. I really want to be like everybody sometimes." Hartman continued: "And that's why, when I heard about a drag racer attempting to set a new world speed record, I thought Ted and others like him had to meet the driver, Dan Parker." The story then cut to quotations from Dan and shots of the record attempt, provided through arrangement with the Film Shark Media video crew. The final scene was a meeting between Ted and Dan that Hartman had arranged, with Dan speaking to Ted directly: "Ted, I want you to know that blindness is not what is stopping you. Surround yourself with believers, and go for your dreams. You can make excuses, or you can make it happen." The story closed with Ted's reaction: "If he can do that," Ted said, "Well then I think I could easily pursue my dream." He added, "Maybe flying an airplane?" And a pleased Hartman responded, "That's exactly what I wanted to come out of this."
The fact that Steve Hartman wanted to encourage his nephew is commendable and unsurprising. What I find interesting is that he chose for his nephew to meet a man who has done the very thing that has long been considered impossible for the blind: driving a car, and not just any car, but a race car that was designed to achieve record-shattering speeds.
The Blind Driver Challenge is and has always been, among other things, an effort to expand the limits of independence and raise expectations, including the expectations that we as blind people have for ourselves. If Steve Hartman, his nephew Ted, and even a fraction of his millions of viewers now see the possibility of blind people driving or flying airplanes as a possibility, then we have not only shattered a record but, perhaps, begun to shift a paradigm. I can remember it being said, even within the Federation, that blind people can do virtually everything, with driving listed as the rare exception to the rule. In contrast, President Riccobono has observed that the original Blind Driver Challenge demonstration at Daytona made him realize that he no longer knew what the limits of independence were and that his understanding of them could, and should, continue to expand. Over ten years after that demonstration, an even more dramatic one is expanding our imagination and the imagination of the public. There is, no doubt, much more work to be done, and one reporter's effort to encourage his nephew does not single-handedly knock down all the barriers we may face. Yet it proves once again that there are members of the public who will meet our most ambitious dreams with open hearts and minds, and it suggests that their number is growing. Along with the significant achievement of a second Guinness World Records title in the name of the National Federation of the Blind, that is something we should celebrate.
I'll close with some thoughts from three of my fellow Federationists who attended the New Mexico event. Norma Crosby, writing for her affiliate's mentoring newsletter, said: "While this was a monumental achievement for Dan, it also demonstrated the capacity of blind people to exceed expectations. Dan not only drove the car, but he designed it and did much of the machine work necessary to build and install the parts that made it work.
I had the honor of being present for the world record attempt, and it was something that I'll never forget. As Dan accepted the certificate from Michael Empric of Guinness World Records, Federation leaders cheered because they understood that Dan's work made it more likely that there will be a future where blind people can access autonomous vehicles just like everyone else. ... So, as Neil Armstrong said when he landed on the moon, 'It's one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.' In this case, the man was blind, and so is the community that will benefit from his work."
Ever Lee Hairston shared these thoughts: "After graduating from the Louisiana Center for the Blind Training Center in 1991, I began to make extraordinary changes in my life. As a result of the intense training, I acquired courage and developed new skills and began a new transformation. Transformation cannot happen unless one is open to new experiences and willing to consider a variety of new perspectives. It was a phenomenal opportunity to witness Dan Parker's transformation on March 31, 2022, at Spaceport, New Mexico, where he succeeded in beating the Guinness World Record. I believe Dan Parker's training at LCB contributes to his courage.
Thanks to Mr. Parker for inspiring me and helping other blind people to believe in their hopes and dreams. Words are inadequate to express the excitement and joy I feel for Dan and the blind of this nation."
Finally, my friend and colleague Anil Lewis summed up the results of the effort this way: "Working collectively to break a world record is a tremendous public demonstration of the capacity of blind people, and it highlights how our expertise and lived experiences can create opportunities for blind people to live the lives we want while also improving the lives of others. NFB staff and our partners at Cruise put a lot of time and effort into planning the marketing and execution of the event. Our communications team, despite the unpredictable weather—wind and dust storms and various technical issues—did a wonderful job of managing on-site to capture audio, video, and narrative information to promote the purpose of the event and the philosophy of the NFB. Having President Riccobono and members of our NFB National Board of Directors present at the Spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico, highlighted the importance of the event. The staff at the Spaceport were supportive and fully engaged in our quest. As a result, they have already begun to brainstorm ideas for partnering with us in the future. We were also joined on-site by a representative from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, another one of our sponsors. We all gathered to support our blind driver, Dan Parker, a true Federationist who in addition to possessing the courage and skill to drive the vehicle, also demonstrates the capacity and intellect to design and build key components of the technology that allowed the Corvette to comfortably exceed 200 mph, along with his team of experts who, despite their ability to recount numerous automobile collisions, continue to fearlessly develop technologies that push the envelope and challenge perceptions of what is possible. Having the Guinness Book adjudicator present to award us our "Officially Amazing" certificate on-site was an excellent way to celebrate the outcome of all of our hard work that was shared by many of our members and friends using Facebook Live. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the members of the National Federation of the Blind who through their active participation continue to raise expectations and challenge society's negative perceptions of blindness. As a result, working collectively, we did more than just set a new Guinness Book World Record; we continue on our journey to prove to the world that blind people have the capacity, intellect, and drive to be fully participating members of society. The work we conduct through our Blind Driver Challenge strengthens our ability to develop relationships with automobile manufacturers, technology developers, and researchers that allow us to influence the design and development of accessible autonomous vehicle technology. Moreover, it highlights our expertise in nonvisual accessibility and affords us opportunities to positively impact the universal/inclusive design of other products and services that will make life better for everyone."