Braille Monitor                 June 2022

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Getting Back on Track: Dan Parker's 200+ mph Guinness World Record

by Phillip Thomas

Phillip ThomasFrom the Editor: How wonderful it is that a sighted professional whose business it is to write about the automotive industry wrote an article for several publications about Dan Parker and the National Federation of the Blind. When asked if we could use one of them for this magazine, he volunteered to write an article specifically tailored to us. We get the beauty of the phraseology of auto enthusiasts and professionals and at the same time a glimpse of the way a sighted person believes this can change the world for the blind and others with challenges.

Phillip Thomas is an automotive journalist with an obsession for motorsports and the people involved. Carrying over a decade of experience building, racing, and photo shooting the machines and minds, he focuses on unique pursuits of speed whenever possible. ... It was never about the cars, it turns out. It was always the people. Here is the splendid piece Phillip Thomas has written for us:

As the crew stared down a runway flanked by high winds and columns of rain, Dan Parker rested in the driver's seat. Around him, a half-dozen gearheads finessed his 2008 Chevy Corvette for the turn-around, a contingency in the tradition of land speed, the final record would stand as an average of two runs in opposing directions made within an hour.

Inside the cockpit, still strapped in, Dan focused while listening to the nuanced clunk and bumps, the notched confirmation of a satisfied torque wrench, the rustling of coolant fittings behind him to chill the motor down. Despite being blind, Dan was here to reset a Guinness World Record at over 200 mph. All doubts had been erased early in the morning with a relaxed 205 mph test pass that flew through the previously-staked 200.5 mph record set by Mike Newman in 2003, but he still needed to run two passes above the old record within an hour, or it all counted for nothing.
His trajectory to this moment began ten years earlier when Dan lost his sight after damaging his optic nerve during a brutal crash in a Pro Mod Corvette. The cause was never fully understood; the Corvette rotated like a rudder towards the wall during a test pass, violently scattering into pieces on impact. Despite reportedly being responsive, Dan doesn't remember much of anything about the moment, but the weeks and months afterwards are forever burned into his memory after waking from a two-week coma.

Kevin Peckam gives Dan and Jason the final thumbs-up before the record pass.

Dan persevered and outlined a goal for Bonneville's Speed Week, setting a time, place, and a barrier to break. Within a few months, work began on a trike that would debut in 2013 and return in 2014 to secure a 50cc AMA record run during the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials—a first for a blind driver at the Salt Flats, even with no exemptions made for his lack of sight. And sure, the record might've not even broken the speed limit, but the effort had winched Dan out of a hole he wasn't originally sure he could escape.

Around this time, Dan came into the National Federation of the Blind and their Blind Driver Challenge, an experimental program helmed by the NFB's Mark Riccobono and Anil Lewis that relied on driver assist systems that translated guidance instructions into haptic feedback. "The idea was to get engineers interested in working on innovative non-visual interfaces," said Mark. "It's a very hard problem, right? First thing is getting engineers to believe in the blind people themselves, because they could trust that they could build the technology, but could they trust it in the hands of a person who can't see? So, we've been able to use the Blind Driver Challenge to insert ourselves in the conversation, especially in autonomous cars." The NFB's Blind Driver Challenge has been crucial in breaking down these apprehensions and directly engaging transportation engineers, leading to the partnership with companies like Cruise, which develops autonomous taxi services with feedback from efforts like Dan's to tailor their interfaces for all types of passengers, including the blind. The ultimate land speed record for a blind driver became the natural target, and Dan's experience behind Pro Mods, along with the NFB's development of driver assistant technologies, proved to be a formidable team. "If nobody had ever done what they'd done, it would've never opened the doors for drivers like me," Dan mentioned.

Dan uses earbuds to hear audible cues given by the guidance system developed by Patrick Johnson. In fact, his helmet's foam insert forms an ear muff to seal out noise, and Dan installed several mufflers on the Corvette to bring the noise floor down while running the audio guidance system.

In 2017 the Corvette was purchased and prep began. Dan, having been a chassis builder for much of his life, was still hands-on with every aspect of the design. The chassis was modified to accept a bolt-on aluminum belly pan, while the rear suspension was converted to coil-overs. Horsepower would eventually appear in the form of a 440ci LS3-based unit from 3V Performance, churning out 785 horsepower and 645 lb-ft of torque. Nitrous was also added to the mix to fine-tune the power delivery, rolling into spray during second- and third-gear. Everything would be programmed to the Pro EFI ECU—nitrous activation, gear shifts, parachutes—removing distractions for Dan and allowing those actions to happen at predictable moments.

A cage was added, of course, but notably for this record attempt, it was built for two drivers: Dan planned to have a co-driver in the car with him, controls duplicated, in case anything went awry during the 200 mph attempt. The East Coast Timing Association would open their doors to Dan during practice attempts with the Corvette, with series owner Steve Strupp lined-up to co-drive with Dan, but things would change ahead of this year's run at Spaceport America while Strupp recovered from a long battle with Covid, placing ECTA racer Jason White alongside Dan. As a fellow Corvette land speed racer, and one who'd proven his skill and tenacity in the past, Jason's role would essentially serve as a protector, assisting in final judgment calls and crew chiefing where necessary to ensure Dan had the best opportunity possible at the record.

The car's controls are duplicated via a chain system. Dan piloted the vehicle through the timed sector for the record, however co-driver Jason White had the ability to take over the Corvette in the event of an emergency.

Dan's record attempt was assisted primarily with GPS-based guidance. Dan has a pair of earbuds under his helmet to listen for a rising-pitch tone out of the left or right side, which indicates to him how far off-center he is while on course. "Where they had haptic feedback [in the Blind Driver Challenge], I have a lot of nerve damage in my hands from the accident, so I can't feel the haptic feedback they used," Dan elaborated on the decision to go with audio cues. If things go too far sideways, then his co-driver, Jason White, could grab the duplicated controls and bring the Corvette back in line.

Patrick Johnson was responsible for developing Dan's guidance system. Based on Linux, the system takes high-speed GPS data along with input from various motion and direction sensors to accurately locate Dan within a few millimeters of reality, and provide the feedback that helps to guide him back on course. It's a system that began development with Dan's AMA record run during the 2013 BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials at Bonneville, uniquely developed by Dan and Patrick for the speeds needed to break the record—when you're crossing a football field every second at 200 mph, an accurate and fast-responding navigation system is crucial.

At the end of March, Dan and his crew trucked to Spaceport America, an aerospace testing and launch facility near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Dan and Jason White, along with Dan's wife Jennifer, trucked in with the tow rig from Columbus, Georgia. Meanwhile, his crew—consisting of Clyde Carlson, Mark Dalquist, Mike DeFazio, Simon and Patrick Foley, Patrick Johnson, Jeremy Lehr, Errol McCollum, Rick Head, Kevin Peckam, and Jeff Pope—descended from all over the United States to the Wild West. The motley crew of gearheads came from many places in Dan's life, some friends from before the accident, others that joined along the way, many meeting each other for the first time as they began setting up shop on the apron of Spaceport America's runway.

Dan routinely checks progress on the car by taking laps around it, listening for what he can't otherwise feel.

Their week started off on an uncertain note, however. Western New Mexico was displaying its springtime weather with scattered thunderstorms being pushed across the plains by heavy-handed winds, not the ideal conditions for skimming the earth at over 200 mph. The first day was written off as a relaxed start to the week, giving the crew time to get acquainted with the car and begin making adjustments in the tune for the altitude. While the forecast showed that wind and rain were still to be expected, their second day would begin with a few low-speed passes in Dan's personal car, a C4 Corvette with a similar audio guidance system to his land speed C6 Corvette, while Jason took the C6 for 150 mph shakedown passes. The day served to help shake off some nerves for Dan, who'd had relatively limited time to practice with the guidance system.

Starting off with soft passes, a mile at the most, Dan finally began pushing the Corvette up the scale of speed. Without nitrous, his first pass of 158 with a follow-up of 176 proved to be a solid shakedown. They'd found that the converter was a bit too tight, bogging the 440ci LS off the line, though the Corvette quickly found momentum through first gear and clicked off the next two with no complaints. First 158, then 176—and the turn-around between passes was going smoothly too. Crosswinds would try to toss them around, but Dan managed to reel the Corvette back to center, proving the navigation system's effectiveness. Another blast down Spaceport America would result in a 175 and 187 mph result, but issues with the transmission ended the day on a misstep as the team worked into the night digging around for the issue: a broken connector.

In land speed racing, the run times are short enough that active cooling isn't a total requirement, and many racers would rather trade room under the hood (making space for the ram-air intake here) for additional ballast weight, meaning water reservoirs are common, acting as heat sinks. This creates a challenge during a one-hour turn-around, as the water in the system has to be exchanged through an external radiator. Here, crewmembers Jeremy Lehr and Mark Dalquist attach the coolant fittings while Jeff Pope readies the battery charger, which just keeps everything topped off. Meanwhile, Clyde Carlson and Kevin inspect the Corvette for any issues.

The following morning, March 31, 2021, the tone changed slightly around the pits. Many uncertainties lay ahead. The shifting issues hadn't been checked yet, and while we all knew the Corvette had the power to hit its number, the fact of the matter is that they hadn't broken 200 mph yet, and the runway rental was due to end at 5 o'clock that night. Thankfully, the day's first run out delivered a 205 mph sigh of relief, unofficially breaking the record.

One technicality is that the Guinness World Record is for the fastest blindfolded driver, despite the previous record holder also being fully blind, like Dan. To meet the rules, Dan's visor is blacked out and the NFB logo was placed front and center.Dan wasn't ready to push his luck. Adamant but pragmatic, he drew the team back to the pits to give the car a final once-over, nut-and-bolting every fastener they could think of, and making tweaks to the suspension while also slipping in a slightly more aggressive nitrous routine. They returned to Spaceport America's runway determined and dialed-in for a full-tilt attempt, a shot that first returned a 210 mph result. As soon as he crossed the timing beams, Dan's hour began on the turn-around before his crew quickly began exchanging water out of the cooling reservoir and inspecting the car for any signs of debris or failure. In the worst possible timing, the pump that exchanged the water in the Corvette's cooling system with an external cold water tank failed, leaving the crew scrambling to scoop cool water back into the car's reservoir—water bottles, funnels, coffee cups—a bucket brigade on the runway. Behind them, storms continued to flank the airfield from the North, and gusts of wind began sweeping the runway as everyone completed their tasks, hopefully one last time.

From the tone of the engine itself, we could hear that it was chasing more RPM than heard all week. The answer was clear that Dan backed the record even before the radio call came from Loring Timing Association's Tim Kelly, who'd arrived with the timing equipment needed to help certify the runs with Guinness World Records. Even with the 212 mph follow-up shot across Spaceport America confirmed on paper, Guinness still had to review the video footage and confirm for themselves too that Dan piloted the timed 100-foot speed trap. Once the formalities were set aside, it was officially announced: 211.043 mph, a new record for the World's Fastest Blind Driver. Not only that, he broke the record on the day of the tenth-year anniversary of his life-changing accident.

There was no bigger smile on that day than Dan's, accepting the Guinness Record on the 10-year anniversary of his accident.

And as succinctly as one could explain it, Dan told the crew in the midst of a dozen hugs, "Y'all, yesterday we said we can. ... Today, we said we did!"

It doesn't have to be blindness; Dan's trajectory is familiar to many. Losses in life will be encountered, often so far outside our control even in the most benign circumstances. Defining yourself through measured struggle is one of the only ways we evolve as people, and for Dan, it served as not just a method to elevate himself out of a dark place, but to bring up those around him who also share his tenacity. By proving that the once impossible was still in his grasp, Dan reset the limits for what anyone can achieve.

"This project is so much more than just a number," said Dan. "This is about affecting society's opinion of the blind, giving blind people hope that we can live the life we want and go after our dream. And to not let society or people's opinions stop you from chasing those dreams, you've got to think outside the box."

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