NASCAR Meets Accessible Racing

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By Morgan Stanfield

Brian Hanaford felt sorry for himself. He had his reasons. After a serious head injury ended his career as a champion runner, he was temporarily paralyzed and spent years slowly reclaiming everyday abilities. By the time he was in his forties, he had painstakingly regained most of his physical capacities, but little joy in life. Then, in 2002, the son of New Hampshire racecar driver Harold "Hard Luck" Hanaford was participating in a NASCAR-style drive-along event when he met Cameron Shaw-Doran, who was newly confined to a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury. Hanaford invited him to ride along in the passenger seat of his racecar. That ride changed Hanafords life.

Lt.(ret) Ian James Brown said, Opportunities like this one are a rare commodity. The day was amazing. The support, effort, and care of everyone involved was well beyond anything we could have hoped for. Photo ©Huntstock.com
Lt.(ret) Ian James Brown said, Opportunities like this one are a rare commodity. The day was amazing. The support, effort, and care of everyone involved was well beyond anything we could have hoped for. Photo ©Huntstock.com

"Hearing the ecstasy in the sound of [Cameron's] voice and seeing the tears streaming down his face made me realize that life was not just about feeling sorry for yourself," Hanaford said. That moment has driven him ever since to realize a dream-offering that moment of ecstasy to other people with disabilities, and giving them the long-term skills to feel confident behind the wheel of any car, no matter how fast.

"I jumped in over my head and told [Cameron] he could drive a racecar next time. I didn't realize how big of a deal that really was." It took almost eight years for Hanaford to collect the right combination of donors, volunteers, equipment, and funding to seat disabled drivers in a functioning accessible racecar. Peter Ruprecht, president of Drive-Master, Fairfield, New Jersey, was the key to getting one of the first accessible racecars on the track. "He listened to my story," Hanaford recalled, "and he said, 'Bring the car down, and well put it together and make it work.'"

That car is a $100,000 National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) Busch Series racecar with a Laughlin chassis and over 400 horsepower under the hood. It is, as Hanaford describes it, "the same type of car that you see driving on TV on Sunday afternoon"-with some major modifications. The cars manual transmission was stripped out and replaced with a pushbutton automatic. "It's kind of like the Rondo Oven deal; you set it and forget it," Hanaford said. The car has a door, instead of window entry, and interchangeable control options that include a horizontal steering wheel, standard steering wheel, backup pumps, and another steering wheel and brake on the instructors side.

Madonna Long, of Pennsylvania, who has T-4 paraplegia, enters the $100,000 NASCAR racecar developed by Accessible Racing and Peter Ruprecht of Drive-Master. Photo ©Huntstock.com
Madonna Long, of Pennsylvania, who has T-4 paraplegia, enters the $100,000 NASCAR racecar developed by Accessible Racing and Peter Ruprecht of Drive-Master. Photo ©Huntstock.com

Under the moniker "Accessible Racing," Hanaford and his "pit crew" recently produced their first participatory event, bringing five drivers with disabilities onto the track. On June 13, the drivers arrived at North Andover, Massachusetts, to begin their high-speed odyssey. Hanaford explained that Accessible Racings goal isn't just to provide an experience, but to "teach driver development, so that people will actually leave our experience with more skill than they had when they got there." The participants, all of whom hold drivers licenses, started on an autocross-style skidpad, working with instructors to navigate Volvo sedans around a slalom course of tightly spaced orange cones. After mastering the cones, they took on skills such as race-style trailbreaking, throttle techniques, and high-speed driving, before graduating to the oval track and the racecar.

Participant driver Madonna Long described the event as "the wildest and most spectacular thing I have ever done." Tom Muxie said it "enabled me to finally experience a lifelong dream that I was sure would never happen after my injury!" Lt. (ret) Ian James Brown said, "The support, effort, and care of everyone involved was well beyond anything we could have hoped for. The instruction was clear, informative, and applicable. All in all, this was nearly the most fun I have had in my six years post injury."

Thus far, Hanaford has relied upon private funding and donated time to modify the car and put on the June event. However, Accessible Racing attained 501c3 non-profit status at the end of June and is seeking donations toward new events. Hanaford envisions producing a mixed-ability racing series, with emphasis on bringing newly discharged disabled veterans onto the track. All cars in the series, he says, will be equipped with hand controls, and then, he says, "if an able-bodied person wants to drive, then welcome to our world, get used to driving with hand controls. And well do that on road courses and oval tracks." Drivers in the proposed series would be taught by professional racing instructors, including Ray Paprota, a professional driver on the NASCAR circuit who drives using hand-controls and who is currently Accessible Racings director of driver development, and "Dynamite" Dave Dion of the Dion Brothers racing team, who instructed drivers on June 13.

When asked about the top speed allowed in the series, Hanaford demurred, saying that the point of his events is ability and skills. Kim Barreda, who drove in the event, went further. "To me, it's about getting even one person out of bed and into the car," she told the Whitefish Pilot newspaper. "It's a success if one kid with a disability sees this on TV and thinks, 'Maybe I can do that, too.'"