Defying Fate: How Dan Parker Pushed Past Blindness And Drove To A World Record

15 min read

Defying Fate: How Dan Parker Pushed Past Blindness And Drove To A World Record

15 min read

As the crew stared down a runway flanked by high winds and columns of rain, Dan Parker rested in the driver's seat. Around him, a half-dozen gearheads finessed his 2008 Chevy Corvette for the turn-around, a contingency in the tradition of land speed, the final record would stand as an average of two runs in opposing directions made within an hour.

Inside the cockpit, still strapped in, Dan's focused intently for every nuanced clunk and bump, the notched confirmation of a satisfied torque wrench, the rustling of coolant fittings behind him to chill the motor down. Many drivers here, if not already throwing wrenches on the machine themselves, stood idly outside the vehicle watching the orchestration. Despite being blind, Dan was here to reset a Guinness World Record at over 200 mph. All doubts had been erased early in the morning with a relaxed 205 mph test pass that flew through the previously-staked 200.5 mph record set by Mike Newman in 2003.

Ten years ago, on the very day the record attempt unfolded, Dan lost his sight after suffering damage to his optical nerve during a brutal crash in a Pro Mod Corvette. The cause was never fully understood, the Corvette rotated rotated like a rudder towards the wall during a test pass, violently scattering into pieces on impact. Despite reportedly being responsive, Dan doesn't remember much of anything about the moment, but the weeks and months afterwards are forever burned into his memory after awaking from a two-week coma.

Dan Parker record headphones

Dan uses earbuds to hear audible cues given by the guidance system developed by Patrick Johnson. In fact, his helmet's foam insert forms an ear muff to seal out noise, and Dan installed several mufflers on the Corvette to bring the noise floor down while running the audio guidance system.

He was, initially at least, totally defeated and overwhelmed, placing life's value in his ability to see the world around him – and for someone who rode, raced, or drove anything he could get his hands on, that seemed like a vital component of the hobby and sport. Dan persevered, and outlined a goal for Bonneville's Speed Week, setting a time, place, and a barrier to break. Within a few months, work began on a trike that would debut in 2013 and return in 2014 to secure a 50cc class record – a first for a blind driver at the Salt Flats, even with no exemptions made for his lack of sight. And sure, the record might've not even broken the speed limits you drive today, but the effort had winched Dan out of a hole he wasn't originally sure he could escape.

Around this time, Dan came into the National Federation of the Blind and their Blind Driver Challenge, an experimental program helmed by the NFB's Mark Riccobono and Anil Lewis that relied on driver assist systems that translated guidance instructions into haptic feedback. “The idea was to get engineers interested in working on innovative non-visual interfaces,” said Mark. “It's a very hard problem, right? First thing is getting engineers to believe in the blind people themselves, because they could trust that they could build the technology, but could they trust it in the hands of a person who can't see? So we've been able to use the [Blind Driver Challenge] to insert ourselves in the conversation, especially in autonomous cars.” The NFB's Blind Driver Challenge has been crucial in breaking down these apprehensions and directly engaging transportation engineers. The ultimate land speed record for a blind driver became their natural target, and Dan's experience behind Pro Mods along with the NFB's development of driver assistant technologies proved to be a formidable team. “If nobody had ever done what they'd done, it would've never opened the doors for drivers like me,” Dan mentioned.

Dan Parker Record duplicate controls

The car’s controls are duplicated via a chain system. Dan piloted the vehicle through the timed sector for the record, however co-driver Jason White had the ability to take over the Corvette in the event of an emergency.

In 2017, the Corvette was purchased and prep began. Dan, having been a chassis builder for much of his life, was still hands-on with every aspect of the design. The chassis was modified to accept a bolt-on aluminum belly pan while the rear suspension was converted to coil-overs. Horsepower would eventually appear in the form of a 440ci LS3-based unit from 3V Performance, churning out 785 horsepower and 645 lb-ft of torque. Nitrous was also added to the mix to fine-tune the power delivery, rolling into spray during second- and third-gear. To simplify things, an air-shifted TH400 replaced the C6's 6L80E, as the Turbo 400's longer gears dolled torque out more gently while also being able to be built stronger. Everything would be programmed to the ECU – nitrous activation, gear shifts, parachutes – with RPM window and timer-based triggers, removing distractions for Dan and allowing those actions to happen at predictable moments.

A cage was added of course, but notably for this record attempt, it was built for two drivers: Dan planned to have a co-driver in the car with him, controls duplicated, in case anything went awry during the 200mph attempt. The East Coast Timing Association would open their doors to Dan during practice attempts with the Corvette, with series owner Steve Strupp lined-up to co-drive with Dan, but things would change ahead of this year's run at Spaceport America while Strupp recovered from a long battle with Covid, placing ECTA racer Jason White alongside Dan. As a fellow Corvette land speed racer, and one who'd proven his skill and tenacity in the past, Jason's role would essentially serve as a protector, assisting in final judgment calls and crew chiefing where necessary to ensure Dan had the best opportunity possible at the record.

Dan Parker record helmet

One technicality is that the Guiness World Record is for the fastest blindfolded driver, despite the previous record holder also being fully blind, like Dan. To meet the rules, Dan's visor is blacked out and puts the NFB logo front and center.

Their week started off on an uncertain note, however. Western New Mexico was displaying its spring-time weather with scattered thunderstorms being pushed across the plains by heavy-handed winds, not the ideal conditions for skimming the earth at over 200 mph. The first day was written off as a relaxed start to the week, giving the crew time to get acquainted with the car and begin making adjustments in the tune for the altitude. While the forecast still showed that wind and rain were still to be expected, their second day would begin with a few low-speed passes in Dan's personal car, a C4 Corvette with a similar audio guidance system to his land speed C6 Corvette, while Jason took the C6 for 150 mph shakedown passes. The day served to help shake off some nerves for Dan, who'd had relatively limited time to practice with the guidance system. It worked by using a sensor array of GPS, motion sensing, and direction sensing input to compare Dan's position on-course to a predetermined map. Accurate to within a couple of millimeters, the system then feeds a rising or lowering tone pitch to either Dan's left or right ear to indicate the direction and amount of correct he needs to feed the steering wheel.

“Where they had haptic feedback [in the Blind Driver Challenge], I have a lot of nerve damage in my hands from the accident so I can't feel the haptic feedback they used,” Dan elaborated on the decision to go with audio cues. Starting off with soft passes, a mile at the most, Dan finally began pushing the Corvette up the scale of speed. Without nitrous, his first pass of 158 with a follow-up of 176 proved to be a solid shakedown. They'd found that the converter was a bit too tight, bogging the 440ci LS off the line, though the Corvette quickly found momentum through first gear and clicked off the next two with no complaints. First 158, then 176 – and the turn-around between passes was going smoothly too. Cross-winds would try to toss them around, but Dan managed to reel the Corvette back to center, proving the navigation system's effectiveness. Another blast down Spaceport America would result a 175 and 187 mph result, but issues with transmission ended the day on a misstep as the team worked into the night digging around for the issue: a broken connector.

Dan Parker record engine

The 440-inch LS was faultless all week, making enough sauce to break the 200 mph barrier with RPM to spare.

The following morning, March 31, 2021, the tone changed slightly around the pits. Many uncertainties lay ahead, the shifting issues hadn't been checked yet, and while we all knew the Corvette had the power to hit its number, the fact of the matter is that they hadn't broken 200 mph yet, and the runway rental was due to end at 5 o'clock that night. The next run out delivered 205 mph, unofficially breaking the record.

Dan wasn't ready to push his luck. Adamant but pragmatic, he drew the team back to the pits to give the car a final once-over, nut-and-bolting every fastener they could think of while slipping in a slightly more aggressive nitrous routine. They returned to Spaceport America's runway determined and dialed-in for the first full-attempt, a shot that first returned a 210 mph result. As soon as he crossed the timing beams, Dan's hour began on the turn-around before his crew quickly began exchanging water out of the cooling reservoir (as there's no radiator, water is cooled externally via a support cart) and inspecting the car for any signs of debris or failure. Behind them, storms continued to flank the airfield from the North, and gusts of wind began sweeping the runway as everyone completed their tasks hopefully one last time.

Dan Parker record coolant swap

In land speed racing, the run times are short enough that active cooling isn't a total requirement, and many racers would rather trade room under the hood (making space for the ram-air intake here) for additional ballast weight, meaning water reservoirs are common, acting as heat sinks. This creates a challenge during a one-hour turn-around, as the water in the system has to be exchanged through an external radiator. Here, crewmembers Jeremy Lehr and Mark Dalquist attach the coolant fittings while Jeff Pope readies the battery charger, which just keeps everything topped off. Meanwhile, Clyde Carlson and Kevin inspect the Corvette for any issues.

From the tone of the engine itself, it was chasing more RPM than heard all week. The answer was clear even before the radio call came from Loring Timing Association's Tim Kelly, who'd arrived with the timing equipment needed to help certify the runs with Guinness World Record. Even with the 212mph shot across Spaceport America confirmed on paper, Guinness still had to review the video footage and confirm for themselves too that Dan piloted the timed 100-foot speed trap. Once the formalities were set aside, it was officially announced: 211.043 mph, a new record for the World's Fastest Blind Driver.

And as succinctly as one could explain it, Dan told the crew in the midst of a dozen hugs, “Y'all, yesterday we said we, we said we did!”

It doesn't have to be blindness, Dan's trajectory is familiar to many. Losses in life will be encountered, often so far outside our control even in the most benign circumstances. Defining yourself through measured struggle is one of the only ways we evolve as people, and for Dan, it served as not just a method to elevate himself out of a dark place, but to bring up those around him that too share his tenacity. By proving that the once impossible was still in his grasp, Dan reset the limits for what anyone can achieve.

Dan Parker Record datalogging

Between the runs, logs are reviewed in the trailer by Jason, Patrick, and crew member Errol McCollum to align the data held by the ECU and guidance systems, painting a better picture of how Dan was tackling each step of the record attempt.

Dan Parker Record NFB Attendees

Several members from the National Federation of the Blind were in attendance to witness the record, including Anil Lewis, on the right, who helped to start the Blind Driver Challenge that ultimately led to Dan's own record run.

Dan Parker Record pre-run

We all do this, running our hands along sheet metal to feel it out, maybe in some sense of connection to the machine – but for the blind, it's how they paint the world around them. Dan routinely checks progress on the car by taking laps around it, listening for what he can't otherwise feel.

Dan Parker record staging

Loading into the last run, headed south down Spaceport America's velvety-smooth 2.25-mile runway.


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