80 mph

That's Tommy Kendall behind the wheel before we headed out and switched places. Cool as a cucumber. (Photo by Mike Maez, M2 Autophoto)

That's Tommy Kendall behind the wheel before we headed out and switched places. It was over 100 degrees in Arizona, but he was cool as a cucumber. Thanks to Tommy, at 80 mph, so was I. (Photo by Mike Maez, M2 Autophoto)

 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.

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43 Responses to “80 mph”


  1. 1 Mike May 11, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    For gearhead types, here are the specs of Beth’s Mustang (let’s call it Beth’s):

    2010 GT Mustang Convertible
    4.6L 3V OHC V8 Engine
    5-Speed Auto Transmission

    Exterior:
    Color – grabber blue
    Stainless steel dual exhaust
    Rear decklid spoiler
    Power cloth convertible top

    Interior:
    Stone natural grain leather
    Sync Voice Activated System
    Leather wrapped steering wheel

    • 2 Brother, Doug May 31, 2009 at 1:26 pm

      I can’t even imagine…
      Congratulations. Well done

    • 3 Sommer June 8, 2009 at 4:32 am

      I just found this site from a lady I met at The Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I never got to meet Beth, but it was mentioned to me that she was sitting nearby at an adjacent table. I have some usable vision, enough to see how absolutely gorgeous “Beth’s” Mustang was in that grabber blue color. I, myself, got to drive a gorgeous red Mustang GT Convertible, also with Tommy. What a cool guy he is! It was so much fun out there with the Ford people and the camera crew and Tommy and Kevin, I didn’t want it to end. I know if that proving ground blacktop didn’t end, I would have just kept on driving. I also went 80mph! My first ever experience driving such a beautiful, responsive vehicle. If only I could afford to have one of my own, even if I couldn’t drive it, I would love it to pieces anyway. Thanks for posting your experience Beth; I can totally relive the feeling when I read your blog.

      Take care,
      Sommer

      • 4 Carrie June 10, 2009 at 3:10 pm

        Hi Beth and Sommer, I also like Sommer got a thrilling chance to drive with Tommy in that same Red comvertable mustang, and it totally was a responsive car it was. The time went by almost to fast, and I wanted to just keep going. Everyone envolved was so nice, including Tommy, Kevin (who I got to ride and spend some time with), and everyone out there that day. I’ve never been either a car junky or a racing junky, but after this, I think I’m going to be in both catigories. It was such a neat thing to read Beth’s account of her experience, it totally brought back memories for me, and just listening to her tell the story, and the sounds in the background made it all the better. Thank you much to Ford, Roger, and to everyone else out there for making this a wonderful time.

  2. 5 Teej May 11, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Awesome essay, Beth. I love it.

  3. 6 Jen Amodt May 11, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I have been waiting all week to get this fabulously written play by play of the crazy driving adventure! Sounds like such an awesome time! I am sure Mike will let you take the wheel now that you have been trained by a professional!!

  4. 7 Mike May 11, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Jen, she’s been driving the whole time.

  5. 8 The Other Mike May 11, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I caught myself smiling as I was reading about you doing 80. Ready to navigate some Chicago traffic?

  6. 9 Sandra M May 11, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Beth,

    Sounds like you will be able to drive around Chicago with no problems! Maybe you can take us out for a ride someday? *laugh*

    Sandra

  7. 10 Cheryl May 11, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    It was thrilling just reading about your ride! Can’t imagine how fast your blood must have been pumping…..good for you Beth! Was Hanni cheering from the bleachers?

  8. 11 marilee May 11, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Way to go!!! Great description of the whole adventure! This doesn’t sound anything like summer Drivers Ed.

  9. 12 Bev May 12, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I’m with Cheryl. It was exciting just to read about your latest adventure. Can’t imagine the adrenaline rush you must have had!! Tommy sounds like fun guy. He’s fearless. I know that for sure!!

  10. 13 Sarah May 12, 2009 at 6:10 am

    SCHWEET!!!!
    My friends all joke that they’ll kidnap me and bring me to Montana to drive in the fields… No speed limits there…
    *grin* Sounds so intense…

  11. 14 Andrea May 12, 2009 at 10:05 am

    THRILLING!!! GO BETH GO!

  12. 15 Andrea May 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

    THRILLING!!! GO BETH GO!!!

  13. 16 MaryEllen Schneider May 12, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Whew! Feel like I’ve been for a spin myself. Great story, Beth! Thanks for taking us along.

    BTW, Tommy does look rather Paul Newman-esque.

  14. 17 nancy May 13, 2009 at 1:39 am

    what a gas!

  15. 18 Cam May 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I am incredibly jealous! What a great post…it was a blast to read.

  16. 19 Patricia May 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    so cool! Love this post Beth. What a fab opportunity. Love that your career is “launching” you into these experiences!

  17. 20 Kristen May 18, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    So very, very cool, Beth! What an amazing experience — and love the picture.

  18. 21 Mark Thomas May 19, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Beth, your piece gave me this huge, vicarious thrill, and not just from the fact that I have watched Tommy Kendall race for years. (I actually remember that awful crash of his at Watkins Glen. After that, the legendary track was changed, and the “inner loop” chicane was added at the end of the straight.) The picture is great, but it was your writing that paced the experience so well for me, like accelerating with you up to 80 mph. You go, girl!

  19. 22 Laurie Cashman May 20, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Wow! Very, very cool! I couldn’t stop smiling as I ready your great essay!

  20. 23 Nigel May 20, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Beth,

    I think I’m ready to do some donuts with you now. Meet you in the parking lot…

  21. 25 Sara May 25, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    I love this, Beth! AND now you’re linked on Car Talk’s website? You da bomb, baby!

  22. 26 Shelley Finke June 2, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Not just a great story, but great writing too. Everything reads NPR-ready.

  23. 27 bethfinke June 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks so much for the compliments on my writing –that makes me feel good! And you know, I *did* offer the essay to NPR in Washington, DC but they couldn’t use it. Not to worry — CHICAGO Public Radio was *very* interested — I recorded a version of the story for them last week, it’s scheduled to air on WBEZ this Thursday morning. Stay tuned!

  24. 28 Kim June 5, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Beth,

    I am the fiance of Roger Keeney. I have heard about this whole adventure for weeks now and I have to say that Roger’s best time in this whole experience was hearing your reaction to your drive. He has not heard the radio show yet but I know he will LOVE it!! I want to thank-you for sharing your story.

    • 29 Sommer June 8, 2009 at 4:38 am

      Wow! Hi Kim! Please tell Roger “thank you” again from me. I don’t know if he remembers me, but my name is Sommer. I only met him the day before our big experience, and I’m still in awe of him. So many various moments coalesced just at the right time in just the right way to allow me to meet him and thus live the experience he allowed many of us to have. I grin maniacally just thinking of that day and remembering all that happened. What an adrenaline rush! Definitely a dream I didn’t know I had, and if it weren’t for constant reminders like this blog, I probably would not believe I ever took part. I have even visited Ford’s website recently to see if our piece was up yet. I am very anxious and can’t wait for it to be ready! Anyway, nice to meet you, and I’ll quit gushing; but honestly you’re definitely marrying a one-of-a-kind guy. Congrats! :) Take care!

      Sommer

    • 30 Carrie June 10, 2009 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Kim, it was so neat to read your post on Beth’s blog. I too, like Sommer also had the pleasure of meeting Roger only 1 day before we got to experience this thrilling ride. I’ve kept in touch with him after this wholeevent, and I did just have to tell him about the radio piece, and he said he was going to check it out. I too, when I read the piece also got to drive with Tommy and he really is an amazing guy. I also agree with Sommer, you’re deffinately marrying a fantastic guy. Let me also offer my congrats to you both. I’m sure like me and him, since you weren’t able to be there in person you’re also waiting to see the Fordfilm when its complete. I too, even now, just listening to the radio piece it totally brings back memories for me, I know I’ll never forget. It was totally all Roger, but just for me, getting a chance to share this dream I also didn’t even know I would have ever experienced was so amazing. Take care, and it was great to meet you. Carrie

  25. 31 bethfinke June 7, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Ah, Kim you are sweet to claim that Roger’s best time in this whole experience was hearing about my reaction to driving that Mustang. But all of us who were there, and anyone who saw the photo of Roger doing donuts, knows that Roger’s best time in this whole experience had to be when he was behind the wheel himself.
    Another memorable part of the day came when Roger was asked to give a press conference after his drive –he made the journalists wait while he called you on his cell phone first. The man sure has his priorities straight — before talking to the journalists, he needed to share the experience with the woman he loves.
    If you missed seeing the photo of Roger doing donuts, my husband Mike published it with my post called”Blindfolded,” you can see it here:

    https://bethfinke.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/blindfolded/

  26. 32 Beth Finke, blog moderator June 11, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    There was so much to say in my post that I left out one part that might help readers better understand these past couple of comments –first Roger drove, then we journalists drove, and after that a group from the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired was invited to take their turn behind the wheel. Roger Keeney lives in Georgia now, but he’d worked at the Arizona Center for the Blind decades ago. Roger visited the Center the day before he took his big Mustang ride. As a result, folks from the Center were invited to drive a Mustang the next day, too. Sommer and Carrie are two of the many from the Arizona Center for the Blind who got an opportunity to drive Mustangs that afternoon.

  27. 33 Ford Mustang January 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Great post. Keep going!

    How about Bonneville? There must be some kind of land speed record you can work on.

    Cheers
    B.

  28. 34 bethfinke January 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I loved the part where you say “Keep going!” I just might steal that phrase and start using it as the closing of my email messages.

    Keep going,

    Beth Finke

  29. 35 Carlos August 7, 2010 at 7:02 am

    What an exciting article Beth! I’m jealous. You make me wanna buy a Mustang!
    Warm regards.

  30. 36 Beth August 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Carlos,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment to this blog post. It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half now since I took that ride but I can still recall every minute as vividly as if it were yesterday.
    Ride on, dude!

  31. 37 Beth August 7, 2010 at 8:40 am

    PS to Carlos: If you can afford one of those new Mustangs, I highly recommend it. So smooth you can drive it with your eyes closed!


  1. 1 Blindfolded « Safe & Sound blog Trackback on May 18, 2009 at 12:41 am
  2. 2 Click and Clack Clicked Here « Safe & Sound blog Trackback on May 24, 2009 at 4:14 pm
  3. 3 Hear my Mustang Ride for Yourself « Safe & Sound blog Trackback on June 4, 2009 at 12:18 am
  4. 4 Sonia, Sandra, Roger & Me « Safe & Sound blog Trackback on August 7, 2009 at 6:47 pm
  5. 5 Mustang Trader Blog Trackback on May 8, 2010 at 2:45 pm
  6. 6 Feelin’ stronger every day « Safe & Sound blog Trackback on October 10, 2010 at 6:05 pm

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