I’m behind the steering wheel. The motor is running. My foot’s on the brake. “Put your right hand on the column,” my instructor Tommy says, addressing me as if this is the most normal thing in the entire world, a blind woman sitting next to him, about to take him for a ride in a 2010 Ford Mustang. “Pull back on the column until you hear four clicks,” he says. ”That’ll mean you’re in Drive.”
Click. Click. Click. Click.
“Okay, Beth — whenever you’re ready!” Tommy is smiling. I can tell from his voice.
I lift the ball of my foot off the brake. The car inches forward. I look toward my right one last time, just to make sure Tommy is serious. “Press the pedal all the way down?”
“All the way!” Tommy exclaims, that smile still in his voice.
I floor it.
Tommy Kendall had introduced himself a half hour earlier. He’d found a seat across from me at a picnic table where we were sharing lunch with a bunch of Ford Mustang enthusiasts. Roger Keeney, the blind man who had won the contest I blogged about last week, had already driven the 2010 Mustang that morning. Journalists on hand to cover the event were encouraged to drive the new Mustang after lunch. One caveat, though: in the spirit of the occasion, we’d have to drive blindfolded. Except for me, of course. No blindfold necessary.
I wasn’t exactly dying to drive a sports car. It’d been a long, long time since I’d done anything quickly. Well, I mean, I’ve gone on roller coaster rides, sat on the back seat of motorcycles, that sort of thing. But since losing my sight, I haven’t been in control of anything faster than a guide dog. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive. But I knew I’d do it.
Losing my sight has taken many opportunities away from me. On the rare occasion that blindness gives me an opportunity I wouldn’t have had otherwise — driving a Mustang before its release date, for example — I take advantage. These “unforeseen opportunities” can help when I’m grieving my loss of sight, which I still do every once in awhile.
I’d brought a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound along with me to the Ford Proving Grounds and passed it around during lunch. This Tommy guy, whoever he was, took the book away from the table for a while. “I wanna read this!” he said. I liked him right away.
When conversation at the table turned to geography — everybody saying where they were from — we found out Tommy had lived in Southern California his entire life. “Well,” he added. “All but two years.” After others chimed in with how beautiful Santa Monica is, Marina del Rey, blah, blah, I finally butt in. “I’m curious — where’d you live the two years you weren’t in California?”
For one year he lived in Las Vegas. The other year, Indianapolis. Indianapolis?
”I was in a crash,” Tommy explained. There had been a mechanical failure. “I broke both feet, both ankles, both knees, both legs.” The crash happened at Watkins Glen, N.Y, but the surgeon who mended him was in Indianapolis. “I wanted to be near the surgeon while I was going through physical therapy,” he explained. The PT took a year. “People thought I’d quit racing after that,” he said. “But I got right back in.”
When Tommy casually mentioned a conversation he’d had with Paul Newman, I realized Tommy Kendall wasn’t just a race car driver. He was a terrific race car driver. From his bio:
His greatest year came in 1997, when he managed to win every single race on the schedule, except for the last two, in his Ford Mustang Cobra finishing with an almost perfect season. RACER magazine’s named Tommy Driver of the Year & Road Racer of the Year.
Lunch over, Tommy said, “Whenever you’re ready, we can go.” Without being able to see whether Tommy Kendall’s statement was directed to me, I gave him the universal sign. I pointed to my sternum. “Me?”
It was true. I’d be driving with Tommy Kendall. I pictured myself in a sports car with the likes of Paul Newman. The ride I’d been dreading all morning now sounded like fun. The temperature in Arizona that day was 103 degrees, but suddenly I felt very, very cool.
Tommy drove me out to the asphalt flat — it was 1500 feet long, 700 feet wide –so I’d get a feel for how the Mustang rides. We switched sides then, and once I was belted behind the wheel, he asked me what I’d like to do. Did I want to start slow, to get a feel for it? Go straight out, hard and fast? Did I want to try doing donuts?
“Absolutely not!” I said. He laughed. I told him I wanted to go straight out. I had enjoyed the ride with Tommy, but I wanted to get this part — where I’d be in control — over with as fast as possible.
We journalists had been put through a safety drill earlier, and Tommy went through it again. When he calls out “left,” I was supposed to turn the wheel just a few degrees in that direction. If he said “left’ again, I should turn it just a few more degrees left. “Like that?” I asked, turning the wheel 3 or 4 degrees. “Exactly!” he said. “Same with right — just a few degrees at a time.” His voice was encouraging. He assured me nothing would go wrong. “Race car drivers have big egos, you know,” he said. ”We’re all about self-preservation. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was safe.”
He did remind me, though, that if something did go wrong, he’d shout out the word, “abort!” At that point I should pull my hands off the wheel and bring my knees to my body – that way my foot would come completely off the pedals. Tommy didn’t have any controls on his side — this was just a regular 2010 Mustang convertible, it wasn’t fixed up especially so that blind drivers could give it a spin. “I can reach the parking brake,” he explained. “I’ll make the car stop if anything goes wrong. But trust me, it won’t,”
Seconds later, we were flying across the pavement.
“You’re going 40,” Tommy said. I started to smile. “You’re going 60!” he said. I started to laugh. “You’re going 80, Beth!” Tommy exclaimed. My cheeks got hot — blood was rushing to my face. It was absolutely thrilling.
“Okay,” Tommy shouted. “Brake!” I slammed on the brakes. Tires shrieked. Rubber burned. The ABS kicked in –I could feel it in my foot. The steering wheel shook in my hands.
And then, as quickly as it started, it was over. all was quiet. The car was still. So was I. Speechless. Thrilled.
“You did it, Beth!” Tommy exclaimed. “You were going 80 mph!” He was right. I did it. I put my palm up, expecting a high five. Instead, Tommy Kendall grabbed my hand and held on. A triumphant hand-to-hand embrace.
Congratulations over, Tommy asked me another question. “You wanna do donuts now?”
“Well, yeah!” I said, without one moment of hesitation. As if this was the most normal thing in the entire world, a blind woman sitting next to a race car driver, about to take him for a ride.