Braille Monitor                                               October 2013

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The Blind Driver Challenge™, the Quest for the Salt, and the Continued Journey of Innovation and Adventure

by Mark A. Riccobono

From the Editor: In a world where there is always more need than resource, an oft-repeated question we must address is how best to use our limited money and talent to advance the cause of blind people. Some argue for the bold and suggest we focus on those projects others dare not attempt; others suggest that, as long as the blind face so much poverty and unemployment, we should focus our efforts exclusively on improving education and rehabilitation. Acknowledging the arguments on both sides and those arguments that fall between, we strive to meet the needs of today while looking to the future we want to see for the blind.

Mark Riccobono is the first blind person ever to drive a vehicle without sighted assistance in front of thousands at a public event. Here is his most recent experience, this time as an observer, as we try incrementally to tackle one of the most persistent barriers faced by the blind—transportation:

Dan Parker and Mark Riccobono pose with the motorcycle that made Salt Flats history.In 2011 we held the first public demonstration of technologies built under the Blind Driver Challenge™ (BDC) of the NFB. It took almost a decade of dreaming out loud, tolerating friendly nods by individuals who thought we were out of our minds, and overcoming our own uneasiness before we were able to secure partners to work with us on the vision for blind drivers that our president, Marc Maurer, laid out for us. When we finally had the breakthrough with bright partners who were prepared to go the distance with us, we knew we needed a place for the first demonstration that fit the significance of the moment. The famed Daytona International Speedway had the type of reputation equal to the challenge, and we prepared for a public demonstration that would help the rest of the world notice our capacity as blind people. Federationists came from all parts of the country to share the moment, even though some were still uncertain about the outcome and whether it was worth the sacrifice of resources that might be used for other important goals.

As you know, at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, January 29, 2011, I jumped into our NFB Blind Driver Challenge car, gave a thumbs up, honked the horn, and drove 1.5 miles of the Daytona road course. People often ask me, “What was it like to drive at Daytona?” And I still have trouble describing it exactly. Until this week I never fully understood why. This article is partially a report on the progress of our Blind Driver Challenge initiative, partially the story of our second critical milestone in that effort, and partially an open reflection of why the Daytona question has been hard to answer.

Since the Daytona demonstration we have continued to present our vision for the “intersection of innovation,” wherein blind people actively participate in building cutting-edge technologies side by side with the most creative inventors we can find. Sometimes we have discussed the next component needed to make blind driving a reality for all. At other times we have speculated about how our experience and perspective will intersect with the general direction of driving technology (both in the driverless car movement and within the traditional model of today's transportation systems). We have talked with universities, technology companies, designers, car companies, and hundreds of individuals whose perspective has been changed as a result of getting to know our blind driver work. Flying airplanes, riding bikes, and enhancing traditional navigation techniques are just some of the topics we have explored. While many ideas continue to get kicked around, some proposals slowly circulate, and an increasing number of important connections get made every month, there is not an immediate Daytona-like milestone identified in the immediate future. The true innovative nature of the Federation is that we are always seeking to expand the horizons of independence. It is our organizational readiness that allows us to quickly take advantage of the right strategic partners when they come.

Enter Dan Parker—a sighted drag racer who hit a wall at 175 MPH on March 31, 2012, leaving him completely blind, along with other significant injuries. After eight months of recuperating and lying around not knowing what he could do as a blind person, Dan made up his mind. He had been riding motorcycles since he was eight, and he had extensive experience around, on, and in cars and motorcycles. He had always had a dream of racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Dan decided that the way to overcome the fears and limitations he had associated with blindness was to pursue his quest for the Salt—to build and independently run his own motorcycle out on the Salt Flats at a sanctioned event.

Dan wrote to me because he wanted to learn more about our Blind Driver Challenge work. Before I could get back to Dan, he got in touch with Joanne Wilson. Joanne called me and asked if I would talk to Dan. Knowing that Joanne is not fooled easily, I said I would call him. Admittedly, the only thing that stuck in my head was that a guy went blind not long ago, has had no training as a blind person, and wants to race a motorcycle. I wondered to myself whether this guy was just trying to avoid the fact that he was blind or whether he really had a good plan. It did not take long during my first telephone conversation with Dan to realize that I was speaking to a guy who is humble, driven, ready to learn, and eager to give back. Since that first call I have had the opportunity to break bread with Dan, talk in depth about his quest and his hopes for the future, and speculate with him about where we might go next. Dan quickly found his local NFB chapter in Columbus, Georgia, and his spirit, actions, and words naturally resemble those of longtime Federationists even though he has known the organization for only a short time.

For true racers "running at the Salt" is a big deal. The Bonneville Salt Flats is a densely packed salt pan that sits at an elevation of 4,219 feet in northwestern Utah. The area is said to be a remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, and, at forty square miles in size, it is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake. The property is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and it was first tested for driving in 1907. The first land speed record was set at Bonneville in 1914 by Teddy Tetzlaff.

The Bonneville Speedway—as it is commonly known—is frequently misunderstood to be a space for drag racing. Since the salt is somewhat slick, maintaining traction is a major concern of every racer. Therefore, the salt surface is not ideal for the objective of drag racing—rapid acceleration over a short period of time. The objective for racers at Bonneville is tremendous speeds achieved over great distances. Cars start slower than many expect, but they ultimately achieve mind-blowing speeds. With the tremendous open space at the flats there is plenty of room to get up to speed and decelerate safely.

Five major land-speed events take place at the Bonneville Salt Flats (many other club and private events take place during the year). Three of these events welcome cars, trucks, and motorcycles—Speed Week (mid-August), World of Speed (September), and World Finals (early October). World records are contested at the Mike Cook ShootOut in September. The fifth event is the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials, which is exclusively for motorcycles. A series of timing associations organize events and certify speed records.

Dan came to the NFB Jernigan Institute to learn more about the techniques and technologies used in our Blind Driver Challenge vehicle. Dan shared his quest with Dr. Maurer, including his plan to build his own customized motorcycle (doing the design and machining himself), equipping it with a GPS guidance system allowing him to drive the two-mile course independently, and entering it into the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials. No blind person had ever entered the BUB event, and Dan had already successfully lobbied the organizers of the event to accept his application. After meeting with Dan extensively and recognizing that his quest fit within the vision for our NFB Blind Driver Challenge initiative, Dr. Maurer agreed to the NFB’s sponsoring Dan’s quest. While Dan had made significant progress on his own, he credits the NFB sponsorship for giving his quest the resources it needed to make it the final mile and giving him a support network and credibility that are unparalleled.

At Dr. Maurer’s direction I began working closely with Dan, providing him with the experience of our previous blind-driver work and receiving regular updates on his testing. About one week out from the BUB event, we all agreed that Dan and his machine were ready for prime time. I made my plans to head to the Salt Flats, along with Ilana Posner from our Jernigan Institute staff. Despite our advance work we really had no idea what to expect.

Events at the Salt are different from anything I have ever encountered. It starts with the drive to the Salt. We took Interstate 80, exit 4, toward Bonneville/Speedway. We turned left on Leppy Pass Road. Then we made a slight right onto Bonneville Speedway Road—which stretched out for five miles, at which point the ground around us was desert-like. The five-mile trip brought us to a cul-de-sac where we had to secure admission to the BUB event. At that point we were permitted to enter the Salt, which started out slightly bumpy but quickly smoothed to a relatively flat, hard surface. Ilana said she could not see anything in the distance besides the white salt stretching on for miles. The only objects visible on the surface were the orange cones that were strategically placed to guide cars to the pit area. In the middle of nowhere on the salt we found a temporary racing community.

A pit area stretched on for a mile. The tech area could be found at the end of the pits. Tech was where motorcycles were reviewed and approved to run. Beyond tech was the pre-staging area where motorcycles, trailers carrying motorcycles, chase trucks, and other support vehicles lined up before going to the final staging before their run. In the far distance a five-mile and seven-mile straight-line track was set up to accommodate one racer at a time. A short, ten-foot-high observation tower sat on the side of the track for race officials. A small food area and even a radio station booth could also be found in the pit area (event activities were broadcast on the local 89.7 FM station).

The salt itself is hard packed and gets on everything. Coats of sunscreen are needed to protect from the sun and the reflection of the sun. Lots of drinking water is required since just being out there you can taste the salt on your lips. When the wind picks up with any gusto, you can imagine what happens. Dan explained to me that, after running his motorcycle on the flats, he will have to replace all of the bolts because of the tremendous corrosion caused by the salt.

Dan's first task was to get approval from the tech officials for him and his motorcycle to run. High speed is what events on the Salt are known for, and safety is a central issue for all drivers. Having a blind man wanting to drive independently on the track raised a lot of questions. It took all of the first day (Sunday) to get the motorcycle ready and tested before the tech folks were prepared to look at it. One advantage of the Salt is that there is a lot of open space. The tech officials allowed the team to set up a temporary quarter-mile track for Dan to practice on and to demonstrate the motorcycle to the tech officials.

Dan designed the motorcycle in his head based on his experience with vehicles and after talking to experienced Salt riders. The motorcycle was a beautiful, red, three-wheel-trike configuration. Dan machined much of the frame himself. His machine included an Aprilia RS50 engine, a five-speed transmission, and all Airtech streamlining. A small disc-shaped GPS unit was mounted on the front of the motorcycle. Sponsor logos, including those of the NFB and our Blind Driver Challenge, were displayed prominently on the body of the machine. The bike is driven with the rider lying on his chest in a racing position. A chest pad supports the weight of the upper torso, freeing the rider’s arms to feel the bike’s movements for better control. Small supports provide comfort to the rider’s shins. The seat of the motorcycle is also red and in Dan’s words “is not built for comfort.”

Dan Parker on his bikeOn Sunday afternoon we observed Dan on his machine for the first time. Sporting a cool set of protective leathers with the NFB logos, including Whozit, Dan climbed on his machine and prepared to ride. This time I was the spectator, and I began reflecting upon all of my own feelings when learning to master driving with the blind driver technologies. All of us who were on Dan’s team believed in what was possible, but I wondered whether the officials would have the same faith in a blind guy. When Dan cranked up and took the quarter mile at a speed slightly better than thirty miles an hour, I knew that, if the officials were open-minded, there was a good chance Dan would be permitted to run. After he took a number of other practice rides, my excitement grew, anticipating the real event to come.

Late Sunday evening, after the official BUB events were over for the day, Dan had the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and approach. Now is the time to pause to say that all of the event staff and officials from the BUB, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), and the The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM—International Motorcycling Federation)—who interacted with the Parker team were extremely professional, helpful, and keenly interested. It was clear that some were not really sure why a blind person would want to do what Dan was seeking to do. It was equally clear that some did not know exactly how to deal with this first-ever set of circumstances. At no time did I sense that any of the race officials were reluctant to let Dan into the event based on blindness. If Dan could demonstrate that his approach worked and that adequate safety controls were in place, they would give him a chance based on a strong code of conduct among the racing community at the Salt.

Dan's demonstration runs in front of the officials had two distinct disadvantages. The first was the roughness of the Salt. While the Salt is relatively flat, it is not well-groomed like the official track area. The second disadvantage was the wind. As evening draws closer, the winds at the Salt pick up—most riders try to make their runs early in the morning to avoid wind interference with their speed-record attempts. Dan would have to demonstrate his motorcycle at 7 p.m. when a fair amount of crosswind was blowing. Despite these two disadvantages, Dan showed true Federation determination and confidence.

After explaining the system, the safety fallbacks, and the machine’s components, Dan mounted for his demonstration ride. Dan’s guidance system is comprised of a GPS unit programmed to keep him on the centerline of his track. As he veers to the left or right of the centerline, an increasingly louder frequency sounds in the left or right ear, indicating which side of the centerline he is on. If Dan drives too far off the centerline, the motorcycle automatically shuts off. The guidance approach is effectively the audio equivalent to the drive grip in our BDC car. Since Dan would have a closed course with no obstacles, his primary job was to drive as straight as he could to find a groove where he could get the speed up as high as possible.

Dan nailed the first demonstration run, and the officials asked him to do it again. On the second run Dan just tripped the outer limit of his left boundary and the motorcycle automatically shut off. It turned out that this was useful because the officials wanted to know that this safety feature worked as the team claimed. On the next run they had the motorcycle intentionally driven toward the boundary to confirm that it would again shut down automatically. Then a couple of the officials tested the bike and Dan’s navigation system. The event officials were impressed, and they quickly approved Dan to make an official pass on Monday.

On Monday the team got to the Salt early. After prepping the motorcycle and testing all of the components, the team headed to the pre-staging area. Dan would be followed on the course by a chase truck. The primary purpose of the chase truck was to deliver the motorcycle to the starting line and get it off the course as soon as the run was over. However, the chase truck also allowed the team to monitor the system for problems and to be close to the action. Dan would have to drive a two-mile-long stretch. Mile one is to build speed, while the actual speed of the run is measured based on the start and end times achieved in mile two. Plenty of room is available after mile two to come to a safe stop. During mile one the chase truck would be directly behind Dan, but the truck would have to pull to the side before mile two to avoid tripping the timing devices.

I was honored that Dan offered me a seat in the chase truck, along with Ronnie, a key team member and the driver of the chase truck; Jennifer, Dan’s girlfriend; Patrick, the engineer who built the guidance system; and Matthew and Terry, who provided support for the motorcycle. The staging area was a classic case of “hurry up and wait.” Once the line of riders in front of us began making runs, things started happening very quickly. It reminded me a lot of waiting and waiting in the pits at Daytona until 10:55 a.m. came and things moved without any time to think. The symbolism was not lost on me as the clock advanced towards 11 a.m. local time and Dan’s turn approached.

Let me return to Daytona for a moment. People often ask me about the experience of driving at Daytona. It was truly unparalleled. It was one of the most intense, yet one of the calmest moments of my life. Maybe it is hard to describe because the adrenaline was flowing so intensely. Maybe it is difficult to articulate because I had a job to do, and, while it was fun, it was also the most pressure-filled assignment Dr. Maurer has ever given me. Maybe it is hard to capture in words because it just cannot be adequately described. All of those things are probably true, but, as I sat in the chase truck, I reflected on how different the world is after Daytona. People asked me what I was going to say when I got out of the car at the finish line in Daytona, and I had a stock of great one-liners. When the real moment came and I hit the brake, put the car in park, and honked the horn, no words were equal to the demonstration itself.

As I sat with the next person to advance our blind driver work, I finally understood why I could not adequately answer that question about Daytona. The reason is that my own thinking about the world transformed in that 1.5-mile drive around the Daytona road course. When I got out of the car and met Dr. Maurer, I no longer knew what the limits are for us as blind people. My perspective on the world changed during that drive. My understanding of the capacity we have as blind people, the tremendous imagination and innovation we can harness when we work together in the Federation, and the faith we share with each other in testing those limits transformed my whole outlook on where we can go next. In fact, it focused me on what is next and how we get there. I cannot answer the Daytona question adequately because Daytona is not the biggest thing we have done. The biggest thing is yet to come, and, if we spend too much time looking back, we might miss what is coming next.

As I ran through these reflections in my mind, I pulled my Louis Braille coin out of my pocket. I reflected that, in the moments before the drive at Daytona, I was keenly aware that I was the only person that could screw the whole thing up, but that there could be no greater opportunity than to be a pioneer. That coin was with me during my drive at Daytona. I quietly handed Dan my Braille coin and asked him to carry it with him as a symbol of the bond of faith that we share with each other in the Federation.

At approximately 11 a.m. mountain time on Monday, August 26, Dan Parker kicked off from the starting line and headed off on mile one. He started at a steady pace and, as he approached the beginning of mile two, he began to find his groove. He was going fast enough that the chase truck had lost pace and needed to hustle to catch back up. Early in mile one Dan was, at most, fourteen feet off the centerline. During mile two Dan stayed within four feet of the centerline, and toward the end he began to “let it out” and push his bike to go faster. He completed the first historic independent run by a blind person at Bonneville with an officially recorded speed of 55.331 MPH.

Dan poses triumphantly with his bike and his long white cane.This blind driver was inspired by what I witnessed on the Salt that day. Dan handed me my coin back, and I wondered where we might go next. Dan and I spent some time speculating about creating a Blind Driver Challenge Racing League out on the Salt, getting a junior dragster equipped with technology so blind youth could run the Salt, and all sorts of other wonderful ideas. Dan never did get to make a second run due to time constraints, and I am certain he would have bettered his speed by at least ten miles per hour on the second pass. Nevertheless, we had an opportunity to speculate about what is ahead for us as blind people and how we might get there. In Dan’s words, “We achieved what we came to do, and we can now begin thinking about what is next.”

I did not bother to press Dan on what it felt like to race Bonneville. In one sense I am certain it was one of the most thrilling experiences he has ever had in his life. In another sense I am certain that he will not be able adequately to articulate it. Dan Parker is a member of the NFB. His spirit, determination, and eagerness to give back radiate from every conversation. I am quite certain he is focused on what is next. If I were willing to bet my Louis Braille coin on it, I am certain that the blind will not be disappointed with the road ahead. Our Federation continues our journey of innovation and adventure. We can now add high-speed racing to our suite of blind driver achievements and a new Federationist ready to put his foot on the accelerator of progress. When you meet Dan Parker at an upcoming Federation event, remember to welcome him to the Federation before you press him on what it was like to run the Salt.

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