CONCORD -- brought his one-of-a-kind race car and his vision to downtown the other night and set up in Bicentennial Square behind Margarita's Mexican Restaurant and Watering Hole.
The brightly painted car carried the name of sponsors and supporters and, from the outside, looked much like an older version of the NASCAR vehicles that will zip around New Hampshire Motor Speedway just up Route 106 in Loudon this weekend in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 Sprint Cup race.
Up close was a slightly different story.
The car with the blue and yellow paint scheme is equipped and outfitted to be the flagship vehicle for Accessible Racing, an organization co-founded by Hanaford that intends to open doors to auto racing, both virtually and on the racetrack, to injured veterans and others who are disabled.
“It's not all about racing,” Hanaford said. “It's about living for these guys and getting them a newfound freedom they may have given up on.”
Heriberto Vidro, who suffered a spinal cord injury in an explosion in Iraq in 2003 and uses a cane and has a service dog, drove the Accessible Racing car last summer.
“Oh man, it was like a dream come true,” said Vidro from his New Jersey home. “I wanted to be a race-car driver since I was a kid and thought I was never going to achieve that. I couldn't believe it when I put on the race suit and they put me in the car and I was whipping around the turns. It was so fast, and it felt so natural. You could actually feel the car hugging the turns.”
Vidro and his golden retriever, Houdini, spend much of the winter in Waterville Valley, working with the adaptive ski program at Waterville Valley Ski Resort.
At NHMS this weekend, racers will hop into their cars through the driver's seat window.
The Accessible Racing car has a door that swings open to 90 degrees, and Hanaford opened it last week to show off some of the adjustments that had been made to the vehicle.
The driver's seat swivels, allowing the car's operator to move from a wheelchair into the seat. Hand controls allow the driver to use the accelerator and brakes. A couple of different steering wheel options are available, depending on the needs of the driver. And the passenger side of the car is set up with controls, too, giving an instructor a chance to teach and help out.
Accessible Racing is a multi-pronged approach, with the race car and what Hanaford likes to call an “arrive and drive” racetrack setup at the top of the program.
The organization has partnered with iRacing.com, a Massachusetts-based company that offers a worldwide online racing community, and Driver Skills Development, a long-standing driving school in Raymond that teaches teens and others to drive.
The idea is to get people who have been disabled started on the way back to driving freedom, first in the virtual world — “it has tons of therapeutic value in developing hand-eye coordination and other aspects,” said Hanaford — then in adapted cars at the driving school and finally, for those who want to take it all the way, in the race car.
iRacing.com has a prototype of a steering wheel and hand-controlled hardware system.
Accessible Racing is in its early stages, and Hanaford and the organization are working with veterans groups — there's a Wounded Warriors Project decal on the car — and others to raise awareness, get the word out and seek funding for the programs.
“The car was built for disabled veterans to give disabled veterans a run around the track,” said Sean Siff, a Hopkinton native and marketing manager for iRacing.com. “The immediate goal is to spread awareness and let people know there's a place for them to go and learn about racing, and also to have more at-track events where they can experience it for themselves.”
A moving video describing the project aired on the Speed Channel last year and remains available on the group's website (www.accessibleracing.com).
“We train for one thing and a career path we thought we could spend a lifetime working in, and then all of a sudden we have this abrupt change in our life,” retired Air Force Lt. Ian James Brown, who is paralyzed from the chest down from a line-of-duty injury, says in the video. “Sometimes we need just one thing to shock the system.”
Driving the race car helped get him on track, said Brown, who is now in medical school and also serves on the board of directors for Accessible Racing.
“We all love auto racing, and it's a big draw for a lot of guys,” Brown adds. “But this is a greater endeavor, that we're getting guys rehabilitating and on the path of success in every facet of their lives.”
Former NASCAR champion Terry Labonte, incidentally, won a Cup race in the Accessible Racing car in the vehicle's early days, Hanaford said.
Years later, it still appears to be a winner.
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Allen Lessels may be reached at email@example.com.