by Dan Parker
From the Editor: Sometimes I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am to be at the right place at the right time and observing something spectacular. This was the case on July 8 when I was a part of the audience listening to the words of Dan Parker as he described setting a Guinness World Record in a car he designed for the competition of land speed racing. Dan lives in Columbus, Georgia, and unlike some of the folks we help, he does not see the Federation as simply a sponsor but as an integral part of what he has done, what he intends to do, and who he intends to benefit from our work together. Here is the presentation Dan gave to a spellbound audience on that special Friday afternoon:
MARK RICCOBONO: I won't spend too much time introducing this next item, but before I introduce the speaker, we have a short audio presentation.
SPEAKER: And this is just the beginning. This is the start of it.
DIFFERENT SPEAKER: We are good to go. Proceed when you are ready.
DAN PARKER: Out to the racetrack.
MARK RICCOBONO: Officially amazing.
SPEAKER: Race car is ready. Race car is ready.
DAN PARKER: Is the track clear?
Is the course clear for Tim?
SPEAKER: Course is clear.
MARK RICCOBONO: So part of the excitement is there's an important chain of history and mentoring happening here. The founders of the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 could not have really even imagined that we would be standing here today. They laid a foundation of blind people organizing, working together, self-determining our own future, taking control of our own destinies.
PAM ALLEN: I am Pam Allen, and I am the director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and we are so proud of Dan as a graduate of our program.
ANIL LEWIS: The thing that really brings me here is not just the job, it's just being able to be part of something this dynamic. This is mind blowing.
DAN PARKER: As a racer, this is just another day. But when you only have one chance to set history, you know the pressures get enormous.
SPEAKER: We're here at the north end of the runway, and we've just made our first pass with Dan driving. Dan hit a top speed of 187 on this pass.
After the first run on the nitrous, Dan asked the tuner, Erroll, if he would delay the nitrous just a little bit longer to get more miles per hour, and that helped make the car more stable. The next round will be faster.
When Erroll got out of the truck he said, “Dan made the call. I did just what he asked, and he hit 205. He's such a racer.”
(Race car accelerating, leveling off, and then decelerating)
SPEAKER: Dan, today you hit a speed of 211.043 miles per hour, a new Guinness World Record title! [Cheers and applause] Here is your certificate. You are officially amazing! Great job! [More applause]
MARK RICCOBONO: You know, I think the only other thing to say, Dan, is let's go build the Federation.
DAN PARKER: Let's do it together.
MARK RICCOBONO: During the Presidential Report, you heard the sound from the outside of the car, and in the audio piece you heard what it was like for Dan inside the car. I don't know that there's too much more to say to introduce our next speaker except here is Dan Parker [applause]
(Music playing, "Kryptonite")
DAN PARKER: Thank you, everybody. I think I want to hear a replay of that motor singing at seven thousand RPM and making almost one thousand horsepower to go 211 miles an hour. That's pure music to my ears.
I'm honored to be here today. It's been a special occasion. It's been a special year. And I ask everybody the question: who here has seen the movie The Field of Dreams? [Applause]
It's a good movie. For those who haven't, you need to go back and watch it. In the movie the character Ray, played by Kevin Costner, is an Iowa corn farmer on the verge of bankruptcy, and he hears a whisper while he's working in the fields: "If you build it, they will come."
And against all odds, with family ridicule, and on the verge of bankruptcy, he cut a baseball diamond in his corn field, and the ghosts of baseball legends past appeared, including Shoeless Joe Jackson. Today I want to share with you my field of dreams.
I was born into a racing family. I get emotional thinking about it. I'm sorry. [is crying a bit and receives applause] I was born into a racing family. Early on I realized I absolutely sucked at stick and ball sports, but I was attracted to anything mechanical: bicycles, mini bikes, go carts, you name it. If it had an engine, I wanted to rev it up. After high school I started bracket racing on a weekly basis under my father's guidance. He taught me how to maximize efficiency of combinations, to be a true racer, to be a sportsman. In late 1999 I became the official driver for Bill George Motor Sports and in 2005 we won the ADRL (American Drag Racing League) Pro Nitrous World Championship.
A pro modified car is the fastest car on the planet Earth that still has a working left door and a short wheel base. It is a three thousand horsepower car, requiring real handling to say the least. They can accelerate from zero to one hundred miles per hour in a little over one second. That is 3.2Gs out of the starting line.
On March 31 we were testing a new motor combination, and on the first full pass the car made a hard right turn into the wall, tore it down, went to tumbling, and cut the car in half. They tried to life flight me out of there. They couldn't because there was a storm between the University of Alabama (UAB) Hospital and the racetrack. So they put me in an ambulance with my girlfriend riding shotgun. They bounced off the speedometer to try to keep me alive until they got to UAB. They did something I never heard before nor since. I was in such bad shape that they called ahead and had another ambulance meet mine on the side of the highway for that EMT to get into the ambulance and help my EMT keep me alive.
I suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung—my whole right arm was completely destroyed. I have a skin graft site on my leg to repair a patch in my armpit and numerous other injuries. I came home with a traumatic brain injury, which is by far the worst injury.
When I woke up, my family noticed that my eyes didn't look right. My pupils stayed dilated. They weren't constricting. When somebody would walk by my hospital bed, it would startle me when they spoke. The neuro-ophthalmologist was called in the next day, and I was given the news that I was now 100 percent blind for life. My optic nerve had been compressed while my brain was swollen and cut it off, and that was it: That was the ballgame.
I spent another two weeks in the hospital and came home into my new world of darkness—broke, beaten up, and blind. I fell into a deep depression. I did not want to live. I don't say that to be tragic today or to be dramatic. But somewhere here today I know we have somebody who is newly adjusting to blindness or may be new at a training center, and you're scared. But I promise you one thing: you are right where you need to be. [Applause] You are here in your family of blind brothers. Today is your opportunity to network with other blind individuals, successful blind individuals, and those who have achieved great things: lawyers, teachers, musicians, whatever it is. You're in the right place.
So after about six months of depression, one night I went to bed thinking about my late brother and my late mother. My brother absolutely loved the Bonneville Salt Flats, a dry lake bed 120 miles west of Salt Lake City, where people have been setting land speed records since 1914. So my field of dreams came in the middle of the night. I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a complete vision that I would become the first blind man to race the Bonneville Salt Flats. [Applause]
So I had my vision; I had my dream; but I didn't have a path. I didn't know what to do or how to accomplish this. Needless to say, when I proudly announced to my family and some of my friends what I was going to do, that went over like a whoopee cushion in church. [Laughter] So here I was, broke, blind, and trying to build a motorcycle after almost dying just six or seven months earlier, but I started doing research, and I found the Blind Driver Challenge. I listened to that video so many times on my phone that I had just gotten and started learning how to use.
One day I made the phone call that changed my trajectory. One day I called the National Headquarters in Baltimore. I told the receptionist what I wanted to do and what my ideas were, and she put me on the phone with Joanne Wilson. That day changed my life forever. [Applause] Joanne listened to my story. About every month or so she would call and check on me, and I would give her a progress report. I would call her and give her a progress report. The motorcycle was coming along, and we decided with my friend Patrick Johnson that we were going to be able to get a guidance system with audible feedback so I knew how to correct my steering. Following the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind and the Blind Driver Challenge, we would do this independently.
As we got closer, Joanne invited me to come to Baltimore, meet then President Maurer, Mark Riccobono, and share with them my vision, my project, and my goal. They agreed to sponsor me, so in 2013 we went to Bonneville. Mark Riccobono was there with us as the executive director of the Jernigan Institute. We made history together, with me becoming the first blind man to race Bonneville independently with a speed of 55.331 miles per hour. [Applause]
Something special happened that day. Right before I made my historic run, Mr. Riccobono handed me a Louis Braille coin that President Maurer handed him when he drove in the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle in Daytona. I returned it to him after that significant day.
I returned the next year and set my F.I.M. (Fédération Internationale De Motorcyclisme) class record for the first blind man to ever hold official F.I.M. class record with no exemptions for blindness as I raced against my sighted peers with no human assistance. This time I hit 62.05 miles per hour. [Applause] During that time I was enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind--Go LCB. I graduated on March 31, 2015, exactly three years to the day of the wreck. It was then I had my Freedom Bell.
Once I came home, I knew there was more fruit hanging on the tree for land speed racing: the title for the Guinness World Record for the World's Fastest Car Driven Blindfolded, also known as the World's Fastest Blind Man, held by Mike Newman in England at 200.51 miles per hour.
So I set out on a four-year journey to prove that blind people can design a race car. We can be involved in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. And we can control our own destiny. [Applause] I did not choose the easy path. The easy path would have been to go rent a Lamborghini or Ferrari or whatever it is to show off my helmet and fire suit and go for the record. But I designed the car 100 percent myself, and with friends and volunteers, we built it over the next three years. The car is a 2008 Corvette. It's painted bright red. It has a full belly pan undercarriage that is belly painted for aerodynamics, a Ram-Air I designed for aerodynamics, a full safety cage, and duel steering wheels so that while we were testing the guidance system, I'd have a passenger. We put in an onboard fire extinguisher system, and a nitrous oxide system. The nitrous and the motor together makes over one thousand horsepower.
In the fall of 2019, the car was getting close. The producers of Jay Leno's Garage approached me; they were intrigued by my story and wanted to film an episode. The latest they could film was February of 2020, and luckily the East Coast Timing Association was having an event at the Spaceport which was invitation only. We finished the car, and on my first full pass, which was the pass I had to film for Leno, I went 153.8 miles per hour. [Applause]
Then COVID hit and affected everything we know in our lives, including me. Racing stopped. Everything came to a halt. I didn't know what the future of my car was.
But late in 2020 I got the call that changed my life forever. President Riccobono called me and asked me if we wanted to get the band back together for one more run. [Laughter] Did we want to go for the Guinness Book of World Records for the ten-year anniversary of the Blind Driver Challenge. Of course, yes!
In March of 2020 I brought this car to the Arkansas East Coast Timing Association to try to test it. I had two horrible runs, and I knew I had to go back and figure out a plan. I knew that, just like anything, practice makes perfect. I knew I needed a car that I could practice with on a weekly basis because the race car is like a thoroughbred: you can't just take her out around the block.
A friend sold me a 1994 Corvette cheap. We built a second guidance system and put it in. Patrick flew in from Huntsville. We took it out to a local drag strip. We beat the car up about two hours at a time. Then Patrick would fly his plane back home.
I was getting prepared, and we were hoping to set the record in November of 2021, the ten-year anniversary of the Blind Driver Challenge. But sadly, Steve Struck, the owner of the East Coast Timing Association, who was going to provide the insurance, got COVID and was on a ventilator. He was in bad shape, but by a miracle of God, he came home. [Applause]
So we postponed our attempted world record event to March of 2022 because the weather reports for January and February were not conducive to racing, between snow and extreme cold. We could only rent the track Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, so we chose the end of March for the best chance for having good weather.
Prior to the race—three weeks—the car had no motor, no transmission, and a hole in the transmission tunnel about a foot big to prepare for the new transmission I felt was going to be more reliable for us. We worked twenty-four-hour days from time to time, but we got it done. Dynoed the car just in time to head out on a twenty-eight-hour nonstop path to the Spaceport.
The team convened on Monday, the 26th, as our teams consisted of volunteers who sacrificed their vacations from California to New Hampshire, to Florida, to North Dakota, to Huntsville, Alabama. We had engineers, land speed gurus to engine specialists, and everything in between. We went over the car, and we found a problem. I had ordered the torque converter too tight, so that means when you drop it in gear, the motor wants to stall. Tuesday the winds were horrible. We had fifty-miles-per-hour side winds; typically land speed racing has to stop at seventeen miles per hour. So we couldn't practice on Tuesday. I took the test car out, made multiple runs around 110-120 miles per hour, staying in a ten-foot-wide path with a fifty-miles-per-hour side wind. I knew I could do it; we just needed a little luck on our side.
On Wednesday the car was getting closer. I made a half-mile pass at 158, turned it around, started it at the three-quarter mile mark, and went 176 miles per hour. When the dust settled Wednesday afternoon, I had not been up to two hundred miles per hour. I did not sleep hardly at all Wednesday night. I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, and I designed a push bar in my head that we could build with what tools and material I had in the trailer. So if I couldn't get the car to leave the start line, we would push it with the practice Corvette up to thirty miles per hour, and I would drop it in gear. You see, “quit” was not in our vocabulary. We were going to do whatever it took to come home with an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. [Applause]
As the sun was rising on that Thursday, the last day, me and the team were grinding. I was in the trailer grinding on parts and deburring parts while Jeff Pope was out with blankets, covering the welder because the wind was messing up the welding. We finished the push bar. Jason continued testing.
At 12:00, I had still not been over two hundred miles per hour. I was getting really worried. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. But I felt no pressure from my brotherhood in the Federation. Everybody was there supporting me. They had faith. They said, "We know you can do it. We're here for you." That gave me peace of mind that we were in this together.
At 12:30 or so, Jason came to me and said, "It's ready. The car is yours."
We took the car to the top of the runway. The next pass was 205. [Dan's voice breaks, and the crowd applauds.] The clock was ticking. We only had the Spaceport rented until five o'clock. I went to Alice and Chris Lopez and I said, "Listen, I know our lease is up at five, but we have insurance. What are our options?" They told me, "You just keep fighting. We'll worry about this."
On the 205 pass, I felt something was just not right with the car. It had what was called bump steer; when I hit a bump, the car wanted to move to the right. I told Jason to take it back to the pits, jack it up, and put three rounds of compression on all four shocks. We worked on the steering. We installed a moon disk which is an aerodynamic wheel cover that gives you more top speed. We put a fresh nitrous bottle in it, and it was showtime.
We towed the car to the top end of the runway. We wanted to go against the wind on our first run so we would know how to adjust for the backup run. For the Guinness World Record, you don't do it one time; you have to do one pass and within one hour turn the car around, and make a return run. The average of your two runs is your Guinness record. My first full pass was clocked at over 210 miles per hour. [Applause] We got the car turned around on the top end and the team jumped on: packing the parachutes, changing the water in the cooling system, while I sat in the car trying to maintain my calm. I didn't take off my helmet; I didn't even take off my seat belt or racing gloves. I told Jennifer, my fiancée, "Just try to be my gatekeeper. Don't let anybody distract me. This is showtime. I must maintain my focus."
So the coolant cart lost its prime. I had no idea. The team was back there drastically trying to change fifteen gallons of water from one water tank into the car. They were using Solo cups, water bottles—anything they could to transfer the water.
When we cranked up the car, we had twelve minutes left on our one-hour turnaround time. So I ease into the throttle and at about the three-hundred-foot mark, I was able to go wide open. The sound of RPMs was music to my ears. I went through the finish line. The guidance system calls out and I deploy the parachutes with my pinky finger. We were running out of runway because the brakes were heat soaked. They were fading fast. But we brought it to a stop with only about three-hundred feet left on the runway.
Immediately the Guinness officials came up, took the SIM card out of the GoPro cameras to prove the in-car shot that I was the one in control going for the record. Immediately we took the car to the trailer to the applause from all the NFB family there cheering me on. The Guinness official looked at all the GoPro videos and the laptop, and then certified our record—211.043 miles per hour. [Applause]
But that record—you know, the racer side of me recognized that 211.043 as an important number—but that's just a small part of this record. This record is about every one of us in this room, everyone watching on LiveStream, everyone in the blind community. That record is to prove what we can do. If we're given an accessible world, we can compete with our sighted peers in the workplace, at school, or on the racetrack. [Applause]
We all have our own field of dreams, something deep in our heart we want to accomplish. As we all start going our different ways on Monday, know that your Federation is behind you. Take it one day at a time. Take the doubters out of your life. Surround yourself with supporters. Anything is possible. [Applause] I know we will continue to work for the National Federation of the Blind and the Blind Driver Challenge, and together we will build the Federation. [Applause]
President Riccobono earlier was talking about the museum, and a little while back I called him and told him that when the museum is built, I will donate the motorcycle for the display of the Blind Driver Challenge. [Applause] We still have more records to set with that Corvette. [Laughter] One day hopefully it will be there too, but it ain't over with yet for it.
Today I want to present President Riccobono and the NFB one of the moon disks, one of those aerodynamic wheel covers that made the difference between the 205 and the 210 and the 212 passes that came off the car. It has an inscription; I'll have Beth read it to us in a minute, but I have more. Erroll, the tuner of the car, has a son, and he printed a plaque with all the wording on the moon disk in Braille. So when President Riccobono takes it back to Baltimore and they put it on the wall, right beside it will be the Braille inscription of exactly what the significance is of that wheel cover and the meaning and historical part of the Blind Driver Challenge it played. So Beth, are you here?
BETH BRAUN: I am. Do you want to hold it? And this one also, President Riccobono?
DAN PARKER: This wheel cover is spun aluminum with a dome shape to it with six holes where it bolts to the wheels so we can take them on and off to service the wheels and brakes, etc.
BETH BRAUN: “On March 31, 2022, Dan Parker, representing the National Federation of the Blind, the Blind Driver Challenge, and Tragedy to Triumph racing, set the Guinness World Record for the fastest car driven blindfolded, 211.043 miles per hour." Then there's the Blind Driver Challenge logo, the National Federation of the Blind logo, and the Guinness logo. And it says, "This moon disk was a race-used wheel cover that provided an aerodynamic improvement on the record run.” [Applause]
DAN PARKER: Thank you so much to everybody. I know we're so blessed to be back in person at convention. The energy here this week has been great. As I sat here behind President Riccobono listening today, it's just amazing what we have accomplished together. I'm a proud member of the NFB, and we're going to continue working for everything we have to do. [Applause]
MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, sir! Great job! Great job! [Applause]