Former Pro Mod Driver Dan Parker Becomes Fastest Blind Man in America, Aims for World Record
Everyone likes to think that they’re invincible and that it “won’t happen” to them… until it does. On Saturday, March 31, 2012, Pro Mod driver Dan Parker took to the track to make a hit like he had done countless other times. A seasoned professional with a Dixie Pro Stock title and the ’05 ADRL Pro Nitrous championship to his name, Parker knew the ropes, knew the routine, and knew the risks – but he didn’t know that his day would ultimately come to a life-shattering end.
Driving for owner Bill George since 1999, Parker was testing a new Fulton 864 ci engine in their Pro Modified ’63 Chevy Corvette at Alabama International Dragway in Steele, Alabama. With a soft 1.01-second 60-foot time on the first pass, the Columbus, Georgia-based racer knew he had more room in the tune up and his next run produced a new personal best short time of 0.947-seconds.
“We decided to try to qualify for the race that day, so we got in the lanes to make my first pass to the 660-mark,” recalled Parker, who crossed through the traps in 4.07-seconds at 175 mph. “I was in serious trouble as I went through the beams sideway and heading straight for the right wall.” By all accounts, Parker should not have survived – but he surprised everyone around him with his perseverance, a trait which still serves him well today.
With his girlfriend-now-fiancée, Jennifer Stegall, by his side, Parker regained consciousness two weeks later, after having been put into a medically induced coma as a result of the horrific accident that ensued. “I could only hear her voice,” he explained, still unaware that he had completely lost his sight and had been deemed 100% blind. “I always accepted the fact that, as a racer, there was a chance I could come home beaten up or in a box… I never imagined that I would come home blind for life.”
Of course, Parker went through quite a major struggle coming to terms with his new reality and doesn’t hide the fact that his severe depression was crippling. Struggling with suicidal ideations, Parker simply couldn’t give up on his lifelong passion of racing. Instead of giving up, he decided that “you can make excuses, or you can make it happen,” and devised a plan to get back to the sport he loved – blind.
Incredibly, Parker built a three-wheeled, 70 cc motorcycle that he could drive while sightless. Using his experience as a racer and an auditory guidance system, Parker and his Tragedy to Triumph Racing team made history in August of 2013 as the first blind man to compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He went on to set an FIM-recognized world record for his class, with no special exemption for visual impairment, in 2014.
Having unquestionably shown that it was possible to race while blind, Parker upped the ante and decided to try for the title of the World’s Fastest Blind Man, a feat that would require him to go 210 mph with no human assistance.
In 2017, Parker acquired a salvage title 2008 C6 Chevy Corvette – a fitting comeback candidate, considering his catastrophic accident had also been in a ‘Vette. With no engine and no transmission in the cadaver car, Parker knew he had quite a journey ahead of him, but he was inspired by the challenge and had a vision that no amount of naysaying could dim.
However, Parker knew that he would need tremendous support to see his dream come to fruition. A machinist by trade, Parker was still teaching shop at his local high school – even while blind – and decided to put his skills to work. To help raise money for his project, Parker began machining and selling custom-made pens (available for purchase at TheBlindMachinist.com) and also reached out to multiple manufacturers to invite them to be involved.
Although the car itself was Parker’s design, he knew he couldn’t be hands-on for every step of the process. Even though Parker did fabricate much of it himself, he also relied on the help and generosity of others. Inspired by Parker’s incredibly journey, the build of his ’08 Corvette would not have been possible without the generous support from sponsors and supporters. His unique mission was welcomed by many, and the vast majority of his car was completed by way of donations.
“Safety was critical to me, considering what I had been through,” noted Parker, who was gifted a C6 Corvette roll cage from Stormin’ Normand’s Custom Rollcages. “Art Gravatt from Little Arts Race Cars donated several weekends to come up to thrash, fit the cage, add more bars, and weld it all up.”
Additionally, SPA Technique and Jason Digby of Mag’s Fab Worx donated the 20-pound liquid fire suppression system – the same kit that fellow racer and inferno survivor Lyle Barnett runs. Delaware Chassis Works donated a complete set of Stroud Safety equipment, and ISP Safety donated the driver and passenger head containment assemblies.
For the Corvette’s powerplant, assembled by Fulton Competition Race Engines, Dart Machinery donated the engine block while Wiseco donated the pistons and K1 Technologies donated both the crankshaft and connecting rods. John Bewley at FullProof Performance sent the custom cam, and Frankenstein Engine Dynamics sent the custom-ported Brodix BR3 LS-series cylinder heads. Jesel rocker arms, Trend pushrods, and valve covers from Jared Thompson at Thompson Motorsports completed the bullet.
Additional donations included a torque converter from Performance Torque Converters (PTC), a complete fuel system from Aeromotive, brakes from Baer, coilovers and suspension components from RideTech, 15-gallon water tank from Chiseled Performance, stainless headers and billet driveshaft couplers from Hinson Motorsports, stainless exhaust system fabricated by Jimmy Boykin at Columbus Custom Exhaust, GT2 rear diffuser from Breathless Performance, and a set of Nitto Tire-wrapped Weld RT-S wheels from JEGS. Last but certainly not least, ARP Fasteners supplied the requisite engine and chassis hardware.
It truly was a group effort to get Parker going again, as Diversified Painting in Poulan, Georgia sprayed the Corvette with its eye-catching red hue and Matt Inscho took the time to build the rear sheet metal divider in the car.
Parker used his experience as a former-chassis builder to cut out the hood for a perfect fit, calculated how to block off the wheels, and more. He also designed the ram air system, and punched over 100 louvers in the belly pan (to allow any trapped air to escape) using a louver press donated by Mittler Bros. Machine & Tool. “Even though I’m blind, I still have my skillset and can share my knowledge,” added Parker of how he was happy to direct and teach when his input was needed.
Parker sent the C6 down to Joey Martin Race Cars in Florida for assembly. There, Mark Dalquist from Throttle’s Performance flew all the way from North Dakota on his own dime and time to wire the car using a custom wiring harness kit donated by PSI Conversion, and a custom switch panel provided by Speedwire Systems. Joey Martin also fabricated the belly pan and handled the sheet metal work for the Corvette, then plumbed the car with hoses and fittings from Race Part Solutions.
Next, Chris Brewer at Brewer Speed and Racing offered up his dyno for Parker to use and also changed out the torque converter as needed. James Short from ShorTuning flew in to tune the Corvette with its nitrous oxide system courtesy of Steve Johnson’s Induction Solutions, and, finally, Parker was ready.
“So many people have donated their time, in addition to parts, and I am so incredibly blessed. I sincerely appreciate every person that has believed in me, supported me, and has helped me in the past eight years,” said Parker, immeasurably grateful for the outpouring of assistance he’s received from his peers and from the racing community. “A huge thank you goes out to my financial sponsors including Strutmasters, Harbin’s Mechanical Services, PROMAXX Performance Products, Team 7 Racing, Wanda and Shelby Amos, and Marty Flournoy from Flournoy and Calhoun Realty.”
Of course, all of the hard work would have been for naught if it weren’t for the custom auditory guidance system designed and developed by longtime friend Patrick Johnson who also happens to be an electronic engineer at Boeing Phantom Works.
Using advanced-grade GPS, Johnson is able to plot the centerline of Parker’s course and determine where the car is supposed to be throughout the run. The system then provides auditory feedback to direct Parker where to go – left, right, or straight – as well as give him direction on where the finish line is and when/where he needs to pull the ‘chutes and finally, to stop, all through the use of multiple sensors and gyroscopes.
So much of Parker’s Corvette is unique, as traditional systems needed to be adapted and configured to accommodate his blindness. To safely utilize the auditory guidance system, Parker knew he would need to be smooth in his steering corrections and designed an ingenious system to do so. “I added a Howe Racing steering quickener box that I turned around backwards to make the steering ratios slower,” explained the resourceful man of his clever solution. “I also designed it so that the car has dual steering wheels with a chain between the two columns.”
It took two and a half years from start to finish, but it was well worth the wait for Parker to be able to chase his goal.
The last five months leading up to his big debut was actually a bit of a surprisingly surreal whirlwind, though, as Parker received a call from the Emmy-winning series, Jay Leno’s Garage, inviting him to be a part of an upcoming episode. “It was a mad thrash to get everything finished in time for the ECTA event,” laughed Parker whose friends and family practically moved mountains to ensure he could make the deadline.
Together with his Tragedy to Triumph Racing crew, including crew chief Jimmy Boykin, Corvette specialist Jason White of RecMech Motorsports, Boeing mechanic and engineer Jeff Pope, wiring specialist Mark Dalquist, Scott Clark from RealTuners.com working remotely with James Short, and team photographer Rick Head who is also a multi-time 200 mph club member at Bonneville, Parker headed west for the ECTA 1.5-mile Spaceport America Invitational event at Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico in February of 2020. And, in addition to her unwavering support and understanding throughout the entire build process, Parker’s fiancée, Jennifer Stegall, organized the team’s logistics, hospitality, and branding for the adventure.
On the way, though, with a list of final checks and adjustments still left to do on the racecar, the team was invited to spend a day working in the ultra-clean facilities at Western Tech in El Paso, Texas. There, Parker was able to speak with groups of students about his inspirational story, as well as his goals in life and in racing. The crew was able to knock out the remaining task list with the help of Western Tech’s students and instructors and continued on to New Mexico.
Having finally arrived at his destination, and while riding an adrenaline high unlike any other he’d ever experienced, Parker made his first pass – but it wasn’t what he had expected. “The guidance system needed a little refinement, so Patrick [Johnson] spent four hours reprogramming it and we were on the runway at 2:30AM practicing,” shared Parker. Fortunately, the guys were able to get the issues resolved and got down to work the next day.
On his first full pass, Parker set a record with Steve Strupp, owner of the ECTA, along for the ride in the passenger seat. Going 153.8 mph, Parker became the fastest blind man in America, and the fastest blind man in the world to race without human assistance. Due to the unforgiving desert winds, additional runs were not possible as conditions had been deemed unsafe to do so.
“Over a mile and a half, and even with a 22-mph crosswind, I did not veer even a total of five feet off the centerline – and there’s still so much more left in it!” Parker said, rightfully proud of what he and his group had accomplished. “It was an absolute blessing to have my team get everything finished, get everything there, and get a record. On behalf of my Tragedy to Triumph Racing team, thanks to ECTA for hosting, and to Chris Lopez and the entire Spaceport America staff for their hospitality and support throughout the weekend.”
Now, Parker wants to become the world’s fastest blind man – a title currently held by Englishman Mike Newman, six-time Guinness World Record holder.
Based on what he’s done so far, going 210 mph is certainly possible for Parker. He’ll have to wait, though, as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the unexpected shut down of all racing programs and Parker’s momentum has come to a screeching halt. To finally get everything going only to be crushed by the coronavirus has been tough for Parker, but he hasn’t let the delay dampen his spirits.
“It might be possible to try again at the end of April, if I can raise the money, but realistically it will probably to wait until the fall,” noted Parker, who will have to rent a facility in order to achieve the two-way average (with runs within one hour of each other) as required by the Guinness record. “I’m still selling pens to raise money, and am working to get sponsors to take donations to help with the facility rental so we can make the record a reality. The car is also available if someone wants it at PRI or SEMA this year… hint hint!”
However, despite his tremendous success, Parker still has plenty of bad days. “I try to keep to myself, as I feel I did this to myself having chosen to be a racer. I tell people not to feel sorry for me – feel sorry for the kids with cancer that lose their eyesight, the ones born without eyes, or the kids that never get to drive,” said Parker, as humble as the day is long. “I want my projects to inspire parents of blind children to let their kids explore the world. They can have dreams just like sighted kids and overcome challenges. I want our returning soldiers to know they can still enjoy their passions, even if they come home without arms, without legs, or without sight. I want society to know we are not helpless. With a little support and some thinking outside the box, we can fulfill our dreams. And, most importantly, for everyone to live by my motto that ‘you can make excuses, or you can make it happen.’”
Just eight years after what could have easily been a fatal accident, Parker has found a new purpose in life. A backyard build with a backyard budget has produced a world-class car and an absolutely legendary message of grit, determination, and true triumph. Having worked so hard, and so relentlessly, to achieve a goal that many said was impossible is truly inspiring; Parker’s is, perhaps, one of the greatest untold comeback stories in all of auto racing history.
For more information about Parker and his story, please like “Tragedy to Triumph Racing”and “The Blind Machinist”on Facebook, or visit TheBlindMachinist.com to purchase a pen and support Parker’s goal of becoming the World’s Fastest Blind Man.