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The Need for Speed

Reprinted from SNS March 2014

The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving hosts the fourth annual "Driving to Excel" event.

It’s one thing to watch an event such as NASCAR and imagine driving fast; it’s something else to actually drive a high-performance vehicle, especially when it’s been equipped to be driven by people with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) or other physical disabilities.

“It’s a different experience than riding as a passenger. I love the feel of the muscle in the car, and I’m in control of it,” says Christina Chambers, from Mesa, Ariz., after driving a 426-horsepowered Chevy Camaro SS last December during the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving’s fourth annual Driving to Excel event in the Phoenix area.

A junior in high school with transverse myelitis, Chambers was among more than 100 others from St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute and around the state to take part in the event at the Wild Horse Pass Motor Sports Park. The one-of-a-kind experience encourages post-injury patients with disabilities to participate in adaptive recreation.

Participating in the event for the second time, Chambers has a rare neurological disorder which causes her immune system to attack her spinal cord. The disease was discovered in 2009, but over the last four years, she has regained some mobility with a walker and crutches. She drove a Camaro for the first time.

“I learned from my instructor how to turn at that high of a speed and how much gas and brake to apply,” Chambers says.

Trying new things, feeling confident and having fun is the whole point of the unique program.

Ride or Drive

All participants received basic track instruction from Bondurant assistant chief Instructor Danny Bullock, who coordinates the drivingexperience at the school.

Participants can then ride as a passenger in a Chevy Corvette or Camaro with a professional instructor or drive a Camaro equipped with special hand controls (depending on their abilities).

There were 28 attendees who hit the track in the specially equipped Camaro. Other participants got in the passenger seat for 110-mph laps with Bullock or fellow Bondurant instructors William Hawkins, Robert Stout, Andy Lee, Tommy Boileau or Nick Aiuto.

“This annual event gives Barrow patients the opportunity to drive on a closed course and help them feel more confident behind the wheel of a car,” Bullock says. “It is always a fantastic experience for both the participants and the employees when they come here to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.”

Jo Crawford, program coordinator for the Barrow Connection, acknowledges that Driving to Excel is the only program in the country providing professional drivers to teach advanced driving skills using adaptive equipment. The Barrow Connection bridges the gap between hospital and community with events like Driving to Excel.

“It is also a great opportunity to introduce people with disabilities to the adapted recreation activity of high-performance driving,” Crawford says.

A Burst of Excitement

It’s no fluke the chance to initiate those with SCI/D and other disabilities into the world of high-performance driving is held at Bondurant.

Bob Bondurant founded the school that bears his name after surviving a near-life-ending track accident while racing in a 1967 Can-Am event. A steering arm in Bondurant’s McLaren broke at 150 mph and he flipped eight times, injuring his ribs, legs, feet and back. Doctors told him he would likely never walk again, but he overcame his injuries. Bondurant opened his school near Los Angeles in 1968 and later moved it to Phoenix.

“It was great having the fourth Barrow event here,” says Bondurant. “My heart feels thankful when I know I am one of the few places in the world who can give a disabled or partially paralyzed person an opportunity to drive a car again. It just feels great!”

Army veteran Brian Smith (Surprise, Ariz.) was among those people who took advantage of living close to the exclusive event and made his first trip to Bondurant. A West Point graduate, Smith suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple herniated discs from a 30-foot fall while deployed for the U.S. Public Health Service during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Smith says he gained a better understanding of vehicle weight distribution during braking, curves and acceleration. He adds that the benefits of the event go far beyond that of driving skills.

“This experience gave me and other participants a huge burst of excitement and sense of accomplishment we wouldn’t get any other way,” Smith says. “It made me feel more confident in trying new things out of my normal life of limitations due to my injuries and disabilities.”

That’s a belief shared by many others taking part in Driving to Excel, including Chambers.

“I live by the motto: ‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude,’” she says. “If someone tells me I can’t do something because of my disability, I have to prove them wrong.”

“I’m Here Today”

Bondurant isn’t the only one happy to see people with SCI/D and other disabilities experience this event. Plenty of veteran participants such as Phil Pangrazio, Phoenix, know what it means to get into one of these amazing vehicles.

“The Driving to Excel event is the perfect event to show the more newly disabled that anything is still possible and that many of life’s great pleasures and experiences await them,” says Pangrazio. “I’m happy to see others with disabilities learn and grow as a person from participating in such an event.”

Sustaining a SCI in a 1979 car accident when he was 19, Pangrazio took part in his third Driving to Excel event. Since 2000, he has been the president and CEO of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), one of the largest nonprofit centers for independent living serving people with disabilities in the U.S. Pangrazio says ABIL advocates personal responsibility as a means to independence and self-sufficiency.

Also in his third year at Driving to Excel, Tim Surry says he improved his skills going into and coming out of curves and working with the weight balance of the car in and out of the curves while accelerating or decelerating.

 “This event is awesome because I get to meet new people and see people that I maybe only see once a year at this event,” says Surry, a Chandler, Ariz., native.

Surry sustained a SCI during his senior year of high school in 1988 in Wichita, Kan.

“But hey, I’m here today and able to drive fast cars,” he says.

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The Need for Speed


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