Drivers at the annual Kansas City Porsche Club DEs, or Driver Education events are always nervous and excited, especially if it’s their very first one. It’s like riding that giant roller coaster for the first time. You want to do it, but the swarm of butterflies in your stomach are majorly protesting. As your heart tries to explode through your chest like the creature in Alien, you creep out on to the track, damp palms almost super gluing themselves to the steering wheel, nerves on razor wire edge. Now pile on top of all of that going on in your mind and body, you are a paraplegic.
Let’s apply the brakes for a moment, as I am getting ahead of myself in trying to paint a picture of a courageous young man and how he found himself at that moment in time. Let’s go back, six years back.
Life was good, most would say great. A nineteen-year-old testosterone filled college freshman who, from the age of four, had always reveled in things that went zoom. Go-karts, snow mobiles, wet bikes, cars when of age, four wheelers and dirt bikes. Darn dirt bikes, but more about that later.
Growing up near the river community of Parkville, Blake Foster, now 25, had over 40 acres to transform in to his boyhood playground. Here he cut trails through the woods and brush for his four wheelers and dirt bikes. When midwestern summers strangled the town with swamp like air, Blake and his family took off to their refreshing home at Lake of the Ozark. Cooled and refreshed by those waters, Blake found speed in boats, and on tubes, personal water craft, water skis and wake boards.
Not letting the winter months curtail their outdoor activities, the Fosters often motored west to Colorado’s snow capped mountains. Snow skis, snow boards and snow mobiles kept Blake’s adrenaline addiction flowing, his antifreeze to subfreezing temps.
But it was back in Parkville, six years ago on the family’s wooded acreage that Blake’s life was altered forever. While dirt biking with a friend, Blake’s front wheel fish tailed violently, sending him cartwheeling over the handle bars. In those brief nano seconds Blake curled his body in to a ball, but that did not stop what happened next. Rocketing in to the ground, Blake’s shoulder, neck and helmeted head absorbed extreme punishment. As the dirt and rocks settled on his body, Blake, who never lost conscience, began collecting his thoughts. He didn’t like what he discovered as his lower torso was unresponsive. Blake’s riding companion rushed for aid, initiating a speedy trip by ambulance to the KU Medical center.
Once there, doctors were quick to assess the urgency of the situation. Blake had sustained a compressed T4 vertebra and a burst T5, leaving him with no feeling or control of his body from the sternum down. Lifesaving surgery was performed immediately but unfortunately movement and control of Blake’s lower body could not be restored. The spinal cord is a twisted maze of nerves, similar to a land line phone cord, but with much smaller wiring and many, many more wires. Finding the defective nerve or nerves and restoring their function is a task doctors continue to struggle with.
Blake is a fighter. I could see that in his eyes and hear determination from deep within him when he spoke during the interview. After eight days in KU’s ICU, Blake was air lifted to Englewood Colorado, where he would reside, off and on, for the next two years. The Craig Hospital with its incredible staff would be his teachers, caretakers and substitute family for 24 months. Craig specializes in returning spinal and traumatic brain injury patients back to a physical condition where they can, with assistance and modifications, partake in some manner, their previous athletic endeavors. As with all rehabilitations, there were ups and downs, successes and failures. But Blake also is not a quitter, and after nearly two years in and out of Craig, he was given the green light to go home, and stay.
When your life centers around a wheel chair, it becomes a daily grind. To make matters even more challenging are many people’s disregard of handicap parking slots and rest rooms. Often unhandicapped individuals park in the designated areas, or they will crowd the marked area with their car. This makes entry and exit, with a cane, walker and especially a wheel chair extremely difficult if not impossible to complete. Handicap bathroom stalls, thought to be well maintained, many times are left dirty and/or unusable due to malfunctioning toilets. And, like the parking spaces, unhandicapped people make use of them.
Blake’s custom chair was built with a carbon fiber shell and other lightweight materials. However, even without the wheels mounted it weighs in at 28 pounds. It is still a battle royal to watch Blake lift the shell over his body, reach in to the back seat for the wheels, pull them out, slip them on the chair, and then get himself in to it. All with only arm strength.
However, Blake was determined not to become a kept individual within walls or only where his chair could transport him. The freedom and joy he had once so hugely embraced needed to be reclaimed. By climbing back in to a car Blake felt safe with its protective shell wrapped around him, and it gave him freedom. Freedom to move about when and where he wanted, freedom to let his mind release itself from the recent years of pain and struggling, both physically and mentally.
And that brings me back to the Kansas City Region spring DE at Heartland Park raceway. Here is where Blake met DE director David Stadtmueller and other Kansas City Porsche club members. Never having attended any type of DE, Blake had no clue what to expect. Would they deem him too much of a risk, not only to himself but to other drivers? Would his specialized driving equipment be ruled hazardous or ineffective? Happily, Blake and his custom driving equipment passed with flying colors and he was welcomed with open arms.
Blake’s choice of wheels is a 2011 BMW E92 M3. (Sorry fellow Porschefiles, this is a special case) He chose this particular BMW for its’ sporty looks, on track capabilities, and its’ ability to make his in-car life easier. Needing to constantly transport a collapsible wheel chair is no easy task. Just think of taking a child’s car seat in and out every time you enter or exit your car, without use of your lower body. Exhausting just to visualize. Obviously, Blake requires easy access to the rear seat. His BMW offers a forward/rear switch on the passenger seat shoulder. Most cars place that switch either on the passenger door or on the outside edge of the passenger seat. Also, a latch located beside the seat adjustment switch releases the seat back so it can be folded forward.
How does Blake control the brakes and throttle? After much research, a portable driving aid was located on Amazon. (Do those people have everything or not?) It can be used in a variety of vehicles as it requires no holes cut through the dash. An aluminum horizontal rod is attached to a shaft with plates that rest on the brake and throttle. By pulling, pushing and twisting, Blake is back on the road and in control. Not an easy task, but Blake does it, and does it well. Imagine driving in regular going-to-the grocery store traffic with this contraption. One hand on the steering wheel while the other is manipulating the brake and throttle. Remember trying to pat the top of your head, rub you belly, hop on one leg, and sing Dixie? Difficult for sure, but let’s up the ante. Let’s go out on a road course, zip around with other sporting drivers, and, oh yeah, all this while doing 120 mph on the straights. Perhaps now you might get a taste of Blake’s addiction to speed and his drug, adrenaline. Those years honing his driving skills prior to the accident have allowed him to continue his quest of fun through speed.
What is in Blake’s future? A new home, custom built to make life more manageable, is in progress. Beyond enjoying life behind a steering wheel, Blake is searching for more to engage his mind and hands on an everyday routine. Presently wood lathing has captured his interest. There have also been thoughts of putting his experiences down in a book, though Blake says he is no writer, so he could share how he won his battles and perhaps be helpful to others facing similar hurdles.
When Blake hit the track for the DE, he said he hadn’t been that happy, that kind of school boy giddy, since before the accident. He believes other impaired men and women would jump at the chance to partake in a DE to feel the self-control and freedom that Blake feels. Even if one could not drive, the experience on track is better than any ride Disney World could ever provide. If you want an example, pull up YouTube’s video of F1 star Lewis Hamilton taking quadriplegic ex F1 driver Frank Williams on a lap of Silverstone or Indy driver Robert Wickens, a paraplegic, driving a custom Acura on a parade lap before the recent Toronto race.
So much has occurred in this young man’s life in only 25 years, I think he has earned the time to pause, reset and refocus on what is ahead. There is no doubt in my mind that Blake will move forward with his grit and determination and become even more of a success than he has already been.
Remember when you are being passed at the next DE by that white BMW with the handicap plates. There goes Blake, whooping and hollering, grinning from ear to ear, squeezing out every last drop of adrenaline as he enjoys his freedom once again.
Hope to see you, and Blake on the road.