Local blind man sets world record driving motorcycle

September 29, 2013 

"Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see."

That translation of Hebrews 11:1 hangs in Dan Parker's home and resides in his heart.

Parker, who grew up in Columbus and lives in Salem, Ala., has demonstrated those words since he started his journey of recovery 18 months ago, when a horrific drag-racing wreck left him blind. His faith, family and friends enabled him to overcome his disability and set a world record.

On Aug. 26, Parker became the first blind person to independently drive a motorcycle during the annual speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

"You've got to have faith," he said, "because it's so tough not to get discouraged."

From dream to despair

Parker, 43, started drag-racing cars and motorcycles and learning how to make them when he was a teen. He lived his dream as he attained high acclaim and a comfortable living through his shop and competing in semi-pro races. He built the chassis and frame for the sheik of Qatar, and he was the 2005 American Drag Racing League world champion in the Pro Nitrous division.

But none of that success protected him from disaster.

On March 31, 2012, Parker competed in a Pro Modified race at Alabama International Dragway in Steele, Ala. During his third pass that day in a 1963 Corvette he had driven for nine years -- and as he reached 175 mph -- his car inexplicably veered to the right, barely missed his opponent and crashed into the side wall.

The car exploded. The motor flew 100 feet, a valve cover 1,000 feet. Rescue personnel extinguished the flames in time to cut Parker free, but his ordeal had just begun.

Parker's girlfriend, Jennifer Stegall, ran from the stands and knelt beside him on the grass. She tried to hold him still as he thrashed around while the paramedics worked on him. An approaching storm prevented the lifesaving helicopter from landing, so it took 45 minutes via ambulance for

Parker to be rushed to UAB hospital. His condition was so dire, a third EMT met the ambulance en route.

Parker's girlfriend was in the front seat.

"I was worried, but I never imagined the extent of his injuries," said Stegall, an executive assistant at Legacy Chevrolet in Columbus, who has been involved with drag racing for six years.

Parker suffered a traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures, a collapsed lung, a crushed vertebra in his lower back and a chipped one in his neck. He had at least six surgeries, including his gall bladder removed.

Officials have inspected the debris from the car, Parker said, but the crash still is a mystery. And he still is grateful he doesn't remember any of it.

"I wouldn't want to replay that in my mind," he said.

Devastating news

After waking from a two-week, drug-induced coma, Parker couldn't see. A specialist was called in and confirmed the devastating news: The accident compressed Parker's optic nerve and left him completely blind.

"Everything that you have as a normalcy of life is now gone," Parker said. "Me being an active person before, going from wide open to zero was just so hard to accept."

The next several months, Parker kept busy with physical therapy and relearning how to do the basic activities of daily life. When the adrenaline of such tasks had worn off, he faced the reality of his new normal.

"It was tough," Parker said. "It is tough. There's been a lot of really depressing days, a lot of down moments, but I have a really good family and friends that have helped me through so much. My girlfriend, my family, my friends, it hasn't made it easy, but it's made it easier."

Parker didn't waste too much time feeling sorry for himself. He had read about Mark Riccobono, who used a high-tech navigation system in 2011 to become the first blind driver by steering a car 1.5 miles on the Daytona International Speedway road course. So while lying in bed one day last fall, Parker got a jolt of an idea: to become the first blind man to drive a motorcycle, and the best place to try such a feat would be at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats.

Stegall wasn't surprised.

"He has this philosophy," she said. "You can make excuses or make it happen."

Renewed purpose

With help from dozens of people -- local folks and experts from all over the United States and as far away as Italy -- Parker made it happen and didn't spend a penny on building the motorcycle he needed for his attempt. He even made many of the parts by himself, adapting his milling machine, lathe and tools for a blind person.

"This has been the purpose to getting me out to the shop," he said. "It somewhat resembles normal life, getting back to my social group and doing what I've always loved."

The major concession to his disability was agreeing to build a three-wheel motorcycle.

"It still takes a motorcycle license to run," Parker said. "I'm a diehard motorcycle rider, so it was hard for me to accept."

The key was the guidance system electronics engineer Patrick Johnson created for him. It uses GPS to plot the course and gives Parker audible tones whenever he ventures too far off. If he goes beyond the safety zone, and when he crosses the finish line, the system automatically stops the vehicle. As an extra precaution, anyone in the chase truck also can remotely shut off the motorcycle's engine.

Parker chose a 50 cc motor, the slowest kind, because he wanted to be realistic about his limits and didn't want any of the sanctioning bodies to find a reason to deny him the chance. In fact, some skeptics asked him whether he was trying to get himself killed.

"No," he replied. "This isn't about dying; it's about living."

In June, the National Federation of the Blind had heard the buzz about Parker's goal and flew him to the headquarters in Baltimore to offer support.

"That's when it started to really sink in that this could happen this year," Parker said.

Getting through the airports without his sight was scarier than thinking about riding that motorcycle, Parker said with a laugh.

"But it gave me the confidence to continue in other aspects of life," he said.

When the American Motorcyclists Association gave him the final green light, Parker had his reservation at the Flats, but his bike was only halfway finished. By the time his one-of-a-kind machine was done, he had only two weekends to test ride it at a north Alabama airport.

"I don't want to say which one," Parker said with a grin, "because it might get me in trouble."

After a series of successful runs, Parker was ready to pack up and head for Utah.

"From the very beginning, I told the AMA that I'm a racer, so I want to be treated like any other racer," he said. "I don't want to be a sideshow."

Speed trials

The Bonneville Salt Flats, a dry lake bed, is home to the world's premier land speed racing event. It is so vast, Parker said, you can see the curvature of the Earth. Of course, he couldn't see it, but his goal was beyond the horizon of mere mortals.

Before officials would allow Parker to get on the Flats, he had to pass a safety inspection. His team set up a temporary course away from the crowds, and Parker passed. Then the officials had an independent rider from Germany, who was sighted, test Parker's machine and guidance system for verification.

"He intentionally made it go out of bounds," Parker said, "and it shut right off."

The longest course at the Flats is 11 miles and accommodates 200-mph racers. Parker's speed trial was on one of the two short courses, 5 miles long. Officials would measure his performance between mile markers 2 and 3. The course is 90 feet wide, and Parker had 20 feet of wiggle room on either side before his guidance system would shut off his motorcycle.

On speed trial day, Parker took his spot in line with about 300 riders. It was worth the wait, because he got to meet his inspiration, Riccobono, who gave him more motivation. This time it was in the form of a commemorative coin honoring Louis Braille, the inventor of the reading and writing system for the visually impaired.

Riccobono gave him the coin he had with him when he achieved the Blind Driver Challenge. Parker's leathers didn't have any pockets, so he stuffed it in one of his boots.

"That was special," Parker said.

When it finally was Parker's turn for his speed trial, he admitted, he was nervous at the start line.

"But I'd been at this point so many times," he said, "I knew it was time to concentrate."

'The course is yours'

Stegall, his girlfriend, was the soothing voice on the two-way radio in the chase truck. After the starting official gave the go-ahead, Stegall told Parker, "The course is yours."

Parker locked his elbows, eased out the clutch and gradually accelerated as he went through his gears. It's difficult for him to stay straight in the lower gears, but by the time he hit fifth, he had found his center line and didn't waver.

"I knew I was going faster on that bike than I'd ever been because the motor was louder," he said.

The plan was for Stegall to tell him when he had a quarter-mile to go, and she did, but he couldn't hear her because of the noise. Nonetheless, after he zoomed past the finish line, the engine shut off as expected, and he coasted for a few hundred feet before pulling the clutch, applying the brakes and stopping.

He stayed on the motorcycle until the chase truck pulled beside him and he was told he was safe. Stegall hugged him and through her tears hollered, "You did it! You did it!"

And the officials confirmed it. Parker averaged 55.331 mph. He estimated his top speed was about 60-62 mph.

"It was just amazing," he said. "Everything I'd been working for, for 10 months came together. There were a whole bunch of opportunities for it not to happen, but it happened."

Future focus

A month removed from his world record, Parker has reflected on its significance.

"This was about my healing process," he said, "but it also was about giving other blind people hope. I want them to know that there are so many goals. Everybody doesn't have to be a motorcycle racer. There are so many things in life that are obstacles to blind people, but there are ways around them."

Marc Maurer, the National Federation of the Blind president, said in a news release, "Through his own effort, determination and skill, Don once again demonstrated to the public that, given the right tools, a blind person can safely and independently operate a motor vehicle, and he did so at an impressive speed."

Although he has gained national attention, Parker has remained humbly down-home. He is volunteering at Jordan High and helping teach students in the school's machine shop.

"That's my new purpose in life," he said, "try to help, become part of the program at Jordan, where I can help the students and become part of the blind community to help them keep hope."

Parker is moving back to Columbus, renovating his former house in the Jordan neighborhood.

"Being in the country is just not conducive to being blind," he said. "Transportation is a problem."

He also knows he can't expect to earn enough money through his shop anymore, so he hopes to convert his volunteering at Jordan into a teaching career and add income to his disability payments.

"I've always been proud that I work with my hands, and with today's kids those are dying skills," he said. "I want the kids to embrace what they can build."

Parker pointed to his motorcycle and added, "If a blind man can help build that right there, they can build anything they want."

Although he will have a new home and new career, Parker intends to keep his girlfriend. And she plans to stay, despite falling in love with Parker before his accident.

"It was not a question to me," Stegall said. "When you truly love somebody, you'll do what you have to do. He tried to chase me away when he was in the hospital, but I just stuck by him because I love him."

Parker also would like to turn his story into a motivational tool to inspire others, perhaps through a speaking tour. He welcomes those who would like him to visit their group to contact him through his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/DanParkerQuestForTheSalt.

"Whether it's a war veteran coming home and their body's screwed up, or a cancer patient, it's tough," Parker said, "but you've got to take it a day at a time and worry about tomorrow because there's so many worries. Everything around you can be a worry."

He already has a major engagement booked -- and he won't have to travel far: He will be a guest speaker during the National Federation of the Blind state convention Oct. 10-13 at the Holiday Inn, 2800 Manchester Expressway, in Columbus.

Parker also hopes to return to the Flats next year and pursue another world record in a different motorcycle division.

"I may have lost my eyesight," he said, "but I have not lost my vision."

ONLINE ONLY

For video excerpts of the Ledger-Enquirer's interview with Dan Parker and a list of supporters who helped him set his world record, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com.

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