WENDOVER, Utah (AP) — Dan Parker never got above 35 miles per hour, exceedingly slow compared to some motorcycles expected to roar at more than 300 at Bonneville Salt Flats speed trials.
But then consider Parker can’t see and was preparing Aug. 25 to become the first blind person to race a motorcycle during sanctioned time trials on the famed flat expanse of compacted salt.
As other bikes roared nearby at the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials, the crew supporting the Alabama racer who lost his sight in a horrific car racing accident laid out a test course away from the crowd.
While Parker had done test rides on an airport runway in his custom three-wheeled motorcycle, he said he wanted to ride on the salt several times to test his equipment and accustom himself to the feel of the surface before he took part in a timed trial.
When Parker climbed on the bike he largely built himself, it had been nearly 17 months since his accident in a car race in Steele, Ala., that left him with numerous other severe injuries as well as blinded him.
Climbing back on a racing machine was necessary, he said, to get his life back on track after he lost in an instant both his sight and his career in racing, something the 43-year-old had done since age 16.
“I had to have another goal in life,” he said.
Parker’s No. 214 motorcycle is equipped with a GPS system and a small onboard computer. A pickup truck first pulls the motorcycle over the course to plot out its parameters.
In the pickup is Patrick Johnson, the crew member who designed the navigation system. He sits with a laptop computer and monitors the systems on the bike.
“I can see what’s going on and shut it down if necessary,” he said.
Parker lies almost flat on the motorcycle and steers by sounds that come into earphones inside his black helmet. If he’s too far to the right, the sound is in right ear telling him to steer left and it gets louder the farther he is from the centerline.
For the first test run, Parker dons a pure black racing suit and helmet that appeared wholly uncomfortable in the sun blazing off the white salt. When everything was ready, crew member Matt Inscho started the bike.
Parker moved forward but only about 50 feet and then stopped, saying his communications equipment wasn’t functioning properly.
Crew members tinkered with the system and got it going again, allowing those in the pickup truck to talk to Parker, monitor the guidance equipment and even shut down the bike if need be.
He didn’t exactly roar off, but Parker did accelerate and complete the course that was about half a mile long, veering sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right but staying well within orange traffic cones that marked the test course.
At the finish line, the bike shut down as it was supposed to do.
“Great job, Dan,” said one crew member.
“Did I get through the finish line?” he asked, and added, “I wonder how fast I got going. I’d guess 35 to 40.”
Parker’s time trials are sponsored in part by the National Federation of the Blind, and the group’s Mark Riccobono was at the Salt Flats to lend support. The sponsorship is part of the federation’s Blind Driver Challenge, an effort to marry the blind and technology that is now helping to guide vehicles, he said.
Technology will someday put blind drivers on the streets in cars and bicycles, predicted Riccobono, who the group says two years ago at Daytona became the first blind person to drive a vehicle without the assistance of a sighted person.
The effort is important for the blind to not only give them a greater degree of independence, but also to raise expectations of what they are capable of doing, he said.
“Most people in society have low expectations for blind people,” said Riccobono, who for his driving effort wore special gloves and had a wired seat that told him how to steer and whether to slow down, speed up or stop.
“This is like going to the moon for us,” he said.
Parker’s next two runs were mostly the same, a short period at the beginning to adjust equipment and then a slightly wavering drive down the course.
After three runs, Parker and crew were waiting for officials from the American Motorcycle Association to show up. The AMA, which governs the event, wanted an independent driver to ride Parker’s bike in order to verify it worked and was safe.
Parker said he would be line early the next day with other drivers and crews in order to get his time on the five-mile track. Parker didn’t want to be treated differently from any of the other riders, he said.
“We wanted to blend into the line,” Parker said.
On Tuesday, Parker successfully completed the time trial. His top speed was 55.331 mph.