Carol: Thank you and thank you for asking me. I do need to apologize (again) for the delay in getting back to you. You've been very patient.
Ralph: There are alot of sports available for people like us in chairs. What is it about racing that you love, and how did you get started? Do you participate recreationally in any other chair sports or activities?
Carol: The only sports I've ever really been remotely interested in involved horses and horsepower. I was a competitive equestrian before my accident. I rode hunters and jumpers. That was what I was going to do with my life, but it wasn't the same after I got hurt so, with my father's encouragement, my focus shifted to racing cars. The two things I love most about motorsport are power and control. Learning to direct these machines and make them go where you want them to is an incredible rush. I've always loved cars; the way they look, the way they sound… They're functional works of art and racing them is putting them to good use.
Ralph: Your car is a technological wonder. The hand control system is obviously one of a kind. How long did it take to develop and who all assisted you?
Carol: My father is an engineer. He has a background in both electrical and mechanical engineering and spent a number of years looking for hand controls for a manual transmission that he thought would allow me to be competitive. He didn't want me to be handicapped by the equipment and thought that racing in an automatic wouldn't be as much fun. In 1998, when Ferrari introduced their F1 paddle shifter system on their 355, my dad asked me if I wanted to race one. Like I might say no! Anyway, the semi-automatic transmission in the 355F1 incorporates paddles behind the wheel that you use to shift the gears. Up on the right side and down on the left. We moved the paddles from behind the wheel to thumb switches in front of the steering wheel. Just by clicking the switch with my thumb the car will actuate the clutch, choose the gear and blip the throttle to match the revs on a downshift. With all of that taken care of, all my dad had to figure out was brake and throttle.
The actual mechanics of it are a bit more complicated than they sound, but using the system is incredibly simple. There is a ring mounted behind the steering wheel that you pull forward with your fingertips for throttle and for braking, you push the steering wheel away from you. The steering column telescopes down towards the floor, where the original brake pedal was mounted. So all of the controls are directly on the steering wheel. I never have to take a hand off the wheel while I'm driving. It's a very intuitive system that is pretty easily learned. My husband says it's like playing a video game, only better.
Ralph: There is one other para racer I know of named Ray Paprota. Are you familiar with him? He has a NASCAR Touring Series license. What racing circuit do you compete on and how difficult was it to prove you could do it?
Carol: I know of Ray, but we haven't met face to face. I also know quite a few other people with disabilities that race in a number of different series. Everything from rally cars to dragsters. It's becoming fairly common for there to be another driver who uses a wheelchair at most of the club races I go to. I started out in Ferrari Challenge, which was a lot more competitive than we expected and not the easiest place to start. I did a season of club racing after that and then made another huge leap up to SCCA Pro Racing's World Challenge Series. That's an amazing series that doesn't get nearly enough coverage. Some of the best road racers in the world, driving some of the coolest cars you'll ever see. Ferraris, Porsches, Mustangs, Vipers and BMWs going flat out, wheel-to-wheel for 50 minutes around some of the best circuits in the country. Very exciting. I hope to return to that series eventually, but the current level of competition and car preparation has outpaced what our small team could keep up with in the past couple of years. So we've been running in NASA's Super Unlimited class. We plan on competing for the Regional Championship here in California and then heading to Mid-Ohio in September for the National Champsionship race.
There are some great guys running in this series as well. Overall, though, one of the things I've loved about racing is the community. Motorsport is a small world and there are some really good people involved. I've made a lot of good friends. I'm happy to say it's been like this from the beginning for me. I've never had any trouble with people discouraging me or putting up road blocks to my getting a racing license in any of the series I've wanted to race in. I've even qualified for and received an FIA license which would allow me to race at the highest level of GT racing, from the 24 Hrs of Daytona to Le Mans.
Ralph: I read that you like F1, it's one of my favorite passions as well. Who's your favorite driver, and have you ever driven on a track used by F1? What do you think about Juan Pablo joining NASCAR with Toyota?
Carol: I'm tifosa. I've loved Ferraris since I first learned what a car was. I watch Formula 1 to see Ferrari win and whoever can make that happen is who I'm cheering for. I have no idea what to expect for next season, but I'm very sorry that I never had the chance to see Michael Schumacher race in person. I also don't think I've ever had the opportunity to race on a track that is currently used by Formula 1. I've raced at some of the greatest tracks in North America though. Laguna Seca, Road America, Sears Pt., Road Atlanta… I even took a couple of driving schools at Riverside before it closed. As for Montoya and NASCAR… I can't say much. I have absolutely no interest in stock car racing. The technology and style of cars do nothing for me and the racing in circles is only exciting for the first and last 5 minutes of the races. I'm not knocking the guys who do it or saying it's easy, I just don't enjoy watching.
I do want to add that I recently lost a friend, one of the great drivers from Formula 1, Clay Regazzoni. He was killed in a street car accident in December. He was a wonderful, charming man and a great racer. I was honoured to have known him and it's a tragic loss to the world of motorsport.
Ralph: What have been the highest and lowest points in your racing career? Have you ever been in an accident. and what safety measures are in place if you are?
Carol: I don't know that I've had any real low points. I had a couple of seasons in World Challenge where it seemed that every other time we took the car out we were beset by gremlins, but even so, I enjoyed being at the track and around the racing. As for high points, well, being able to say that I've raced a Ferrari is pretty cool. Most people will never have the opportunity to drive one, let alone race one. And competing in World Challenge has been a blast overall. The level of competition is outstanding and I've learned a lot racing against some of the best road racers in the world. I look forward to getting back to it eventually.
As for accidents, everybody has them. I've had a couple of fairly hard crashes and my car caught fire once. (Well, twice, but only once seriously.) Safety is our highest priority. If you know that my father and my husband are the two guys that have done most of the work on my race car, then you know that nobody else is going to worry more about my health and nobody is going to do more to ensure that if things go wrong, I've got the best safety equipment available. The cage in my car is stronger than most, I always wear a head and neck restraint and 3-layer Nomex suit and there are two fire systems in the car. Risk is a part of racing. You do everything you can to minimize that risk and then you accept it if you want to be involved in this sport.
Ralph: Have you faced any criticism from your fellow racers or the racing bodies. Do you have any message for people in chairs or for that matter people who think 'dis' abled people shouldn't do what you do.
Carol: All of the sanctioning bodies that we have approached have been wonderful. Their only concern is that my hand controls and race car are safely designed and constructed and that I have the same level of training as any other racer. I have faced no obstacles to my racing based on other people's perceptions of my disability. Even at the professional level the guys I've raced against have been incredibly welcoming and supportive. I even met my husband at my first pro race. He and his team were some of the nicest guys I'd ever met and we became friends, started working together on my car and eventually fell in love.
My message to people with disabilities is the same as it is for those without, figure out what you want to do in life and then just do it. There are ways for people with all manner of disabilities to be involved in motorsport whether it be driving, wrenching or managing. I'm not the most optimistic person in the world, but if there is something I want to do, I just assume that I'll be able to and work from there. Obstacles may arise, but I don't go looking for them.
There will always be naysayers and they can be a pain, but most people are happy to give you a hand if they can. I've found that to be true in general and even more so in motorsport. It's not a huge industry, but there are a lot of really great people involved.
Ralph: What do you have planned for '07? If Sebring is on your schedule let me know please, it's only 45 minutes from my house, I'll come and take some photos for you.
Carol: I wish I could say that we'll be back at Sebring this season, but right now it doesn't look like that will be happening. We do plan on running a full season in NASA's Super Unlimited class here in the Southern California region and then returning to Mid-Ohio for the National race. I won 2nd in class last year and I hope to have another podium finish next September. We've also started working with an organization called United Spinal. They are a disability awareness and advocacy group. Our involvement is focused on motorsport and motor safety.
We're working to encourage more people with disabilities to get involved in racing and also educating young people about being safe on the street and in competition, whether it's in cars, on motorcycles, boats or snow mobiles. Oh! And we just finished work on a public service announcement regarding handicapped parking. They used our '05 Mustang show car in a PSA that will start appearing on mainstream channels, including MTV. It's pretty funny, but it gets the message across.
Ralph: If you could choose between having stem cell therapy or being modified with robotics which would you pick? I wrote an article about it and I ask all the SCI'S I know. Personally I would choose the robotics.
Carol: As they both currently stand? I wouldn't risk either option. In the future I would probably choose a course of stem cell therapy just because I think there is less chance of something going seriously wrong with an organic cure than with implanted electronics. I wouldn't be racing today if it weren't for all the hi tech gizmos in my car, but there are just too many things that can go wrong with them and I'd hate to have something like that turn against me within my own body.
Ralph: Thanks again for your time and for everything you do. Stereotypes stink and I think you shatter them for everyone that has been exposed to you.