This is a true story and probably one of my most inspiration days of work ever. It made me realise that disability is what you make of it and that humans are actually really complicated things. It was also truly humbling. A day spent on track coaching blind drivers in supercars. I learned an awful lot that day.
Working for a supercar experience company few years ago now, I was booked to instruct for what I’d initially thought was a junior driving day. Letting kids drive supercars is perfectly possible in the right environment and with it comes a whole new set of teaching techniques that we’ll explore another time. But a confirmation call from the team gave me cause for concern.
“So, you’re still OK for this week’s day with the blind people?”
“Wednesday, the blind people driving day….”
“Very funny. I thought for a moment you said blind people.”
“I told you that ages ago”
“I think I’d have remembered a word like blind when it came to supercar driving on track.”
The event manager, to her credit, has a knack of only telling us what we really need to know. Things that we can do nothing about, but would only worry us, she doesn’t inform us of. Even so, blind people and driver coaching? In Aston Martins, Ferraris and Lamborghinis?
Of course, now I have a few days to get myself worked up with all sorts of scenarios running through my head, the principal one is the thought of us ending up sitting upside down in the wreckage of a supercar, engine on the rev limiter, driver saying “Are we there yet?”
Arriving at Elvington, I find out that the Aston Martin DB9 I’m designated has no instructor brake pedal and while we have the large expanse of concrete to use, the handbrake is on the driver’s door sill way beyond my reach. As if that’s going to stop us….
“Neill, you can be a puff sometimes. It’ll be fine, I trust you” . Even so, Aston Martin driving generally assumes that you’re able to see where the track goes.
The day was lightly loaded for drivers, to give more time to brief people and not put them under pressure. My first customer, a middle aged lady with no sight at all comes over. And this is where I started learning…
“So what car is this?”
“It’s an Aston Martin DB9, with a V12 engine”
“How far away from us is it?”
Good point…. Start thinking Neill.
“Just ahead of us, around four feet”
“Thought so, I can feel the engine heat and smell it.”
The lady walked over to it and ran her hands right around the bodywork, caressing each curve and design detail of the car, commenting as she went. “Nice side vent, the bonnet is very long isn’t it? There’s a slight lip on the edge of the boot lid that curves upwards, isn’t there? So is that the door handle, recessed into the door?”
We climb inside, me realising now that I need to explain what’s about to happen, “The power seat’s going to move forwards, can you feel the switches for it?”
“Yes, I see”, as she made herself comfortable.
And she drove with the same degree of intelligence…
What began as a day full of worry and concern ended as being one of the most inspirational and informing days I’ve had in a long time. After that first driver, I grabbed a coffee and had a big think. Apart from the obvious things, such as being able to smell the car and feel the heat from it, there were other facts pouring into my into my mind.
The drivers were listening intently, something that doesn’t always happen with fully sighted drivers, all too often fuelled with testosterone and adrenaline. And they obeyed instruction with a precision that only military trained personel I’ve sat with can achieve. Secondly, they had a feel for the chassis and steering and a touch on the controls in the style of Jim Clark, super smooth and deft.
But the highlight of my day was inspirational and very moving. A very old man, unsteady on his feet and with shaking hands that I can only assume was Parkinsons disease made his way to the car, supported by his daughter.
“Here we are, Dad” We had a chat about him, his degree of vision and so forth. We managed to get the old guy lowered down into the seat, me slightly concerned at his frailty and wondering how we might ever get him back out again.
His daughter was looking worried as she backed away.
I dropped into the passenger seat and we talked for a few minutes about what he used to drive.
“I used to be a Police high speed pursuit driver, many years ago. I was one of the original Hendon Police instructors, learned to drive in the war. Finished up on Rover P1’s, but I haven’t driven since I lost my sight twenty years ago.”
And the strangest thing happened as I explained the paddle shift.
“Reach out to the steering wheel, place your fingertips on the indicators, then just between them and the wheel are the paddles for the gearshift”
As his hands rested on the wheel, they stopped shaking instantly. I looked across to be sure he was still breathing, a small smile appeared at the corners of his mouth. I briefed him on the coned out course ahead of us, the likely responses the car would make to the feather light throttle, the brake feel and we set off.
The frail old shaking man that had to be helped across to the car was gone, in his place was a relaxed confident driver, with a smooth touch on the controls and instant reactions to my instruction. I upped the pace of my tuition, him adding more power, threading the car through the coned out course at a greater and greater rate.
“Ah yes, I remember what that feels like now.”
His pace quickened further, with me almost breathing in through my ears to get words out to describe our orientation and what to do next. As the session drew to a close, we headed in, both of us with big smiles.
“Well, I guess you haven’t forgotten what to to, then”
“It seems not”
Hairs on my arms and neck were standing in response to what I’d just seen.
As the old guy walked slowly away, I could see the shake returning to his hands, as he animatedly described his drive to his daughter.
I was happy but also sad.
Happy because I’d seen a skilled driver re-awaken. But sad because, unless the Aston Martin DB9 could be made available on a health care plan, his time with us was drawing to a close and that might well have been his last ever day behind the wheel.
Take whatever moral from this story you wish, there are many. For me, it shows that if you can drive, you can drive. You never really lose it.
And for those of us who are blessed with fully working senses in every department, perhaps we should take a moment to explore the more subtle senses that we seem to suppress as we get busy in our daily lives.
And for those of us who think we have an understanding of someone’s disability, forget it, we don’t even come close.
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