Paraplegic Eric Saunders Loves to Flat Out Race Cars
Editor’s Note: Twenty-three-year old Eric Saunders from Lakeville, Indiana, started riding a motocross bike when he was five years old. He loved the freedom of being able to go where he wanted to off-road and on-the-road. He said, “When I went over big jumps, I felt like I was flying. I like to run flat out, and I like to compete.” But his world changed dramatically on August 28, 2010, when he was 17 years old. Eric says, “Now that I’m paralyzed, I needed to set a new goal and challenge myself to do something more with my life.”
All my life, every weekend and many times during the week, my family and I would pack up and head to a race track somewhere. We didn’t only go for my motocross races, but we also attended stock car, NASCAR, Sprint and Midget car races. We were the epitome of a racing family. My dad, Irish, worked for Hoosier Racing Tires – one of the top racing tire manufacturers in the world. Since Dad had to go to races, he took us along with him. He was also a motocross rider. But when his dad told him, “We can’t afford your racing habit any longer; you’ll have to fund your own racing needs,” Dad took a job at Hoosier Racing Tires 35 years ago. That allowed him to stay involved in racing, although he had to give up competing.
“My first bike was a Yamaha PW50. I found a freedom on that bike that I’d never previously known.”
When I was on the bike, I was in my own world – a beautiful and wonderful place to be. I started racing in amateur nationals in 2010. I ran the AMA Lucas Oil Pro Nationals. I ran in three Pro Nationals in the Privateer Class up until I was 16. At that time, I was a fulltime pro motocross rider. I had about 20 sponsors, including Tony Stewart Racing, Bass Pro Shops, Suzuki and Pilot Truck Stops. Any vehicle racing is an expensive sport, and we used our sponsorship money and winnings to fund our racing.
On the day before my 18th birthday in August, 2010, my life changed dramatically. I had a test track in my backyard where I tested and tuned up my bike and my racing skills. One day when I went off a jump there, I knew I had left the jump somewhat weirdly.
I was 30 feet in the air, and that was the last thing I remembered. My body went into shock. I remember being on the ground and telling the people who were around me when I woke up, “I think I have a rock in my back.”
My helmet had gone backwards and hit the back brace that was supposed to help prevent injury by supporting my neck. The back brace covered my spinal cord and ended at T4 and T5. So, this device that was supposed to protect me actually played some role in my injury.
Since many things could have happened, I still don’t know for sure what caused my injury. I remember being put in an ambulance, and I woke up two days later in the hospital.
A Piece of Eric’s Story with Eric’s Dad, Irish
My wife Shelia and I were at the Plymouth Speedway for Hoosier Tires when Eric had his accident. Shelia and our 14-year old son Garrett, were helping out in the concession stand. When Sheila answered her phone, she heard someone say, “Eric has been in a bad crash, and you need to get home quickly.”
Plymouth Speedway was only 20 minutes from our home. So, when we arrived, Eric was still on the ground. The EMT’s and first responders were taking care of him. As we watched, the paramedics loaded Eric into the ambulance for transport to South Bend Memorial Hospital. Shelia climbed in the ambulance with Eric and rode with him to the hospital. Garrett and I followed.
While Eric was being treated in the emergency room, a doctor called Shelia and me into a small room and said, “I just want y’all to know that Eric has been hurt really bad. We think he’s broken his back, and there’s a chance he’ll never walk again. We’re flying him to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, about 2-1/2 hours away.”
Eric’s sister, Nichole, was camping with some friends near Indianapolis, and Eric’s cousin, Andy Echer, was at the Indianapolis Speedway and got to the hospital as soon as Eric landed. When we arrived there, our son was in the emergency room with tubes in his chest, because his lungs had collapsed. Eric was in ICU for 4 weeks and then in rehab in Indianapolis for 6 weeks. We stayed there the entire time.
“Once we brought Eric home, we discovered that our home wasn’t accessible at all for Eric.”
So, we had to do a complete makeover and rehab the house to enable Eric to get around in his wheelchair. Today, Eric can go wherever he wants to in our house, except the basement. But we all held out hope that Eric would walk again.
One day a very good friend of mine, Ed Kennedy, whom I’d met through my job at Hoosier, called me and asked, “What will you do as a family to stay involved with racing?” I told him, “I don’t have a clue. We’re just trying to get our lives back together, become as normal as possible and still have a long ways to go in that process.”
Next Ed asked, “Is that race track at Plymouth still up for sale?” I said, “Yes, the track is about 20 miles from our house.” So, although Ed lived in Florida, he bought the race track. Then he called me up again and told me, “Irish, I’d like for you and your family to oversee the race track and make sure it’s running right for me.”
Our family always had gone to the race track every weekend and often during the week, especially when our two boys were racing motocross. We also went to automobile races because of my job. Racing always had been an important part of our family’s life.
The first year we oversaw the race track it was strictly an asphalt track. However, Ed then built a 1/5-mile dirt track inside the asphalt track. Two years later, we got Eric a 600 Mini Sprint race car with hand controls. Only a handful of people in the nation ever have competed in driving a race car with hand controls, and Eric was the first in our area.
“In my 35 years of racing, I’ve only met about eight people with disabilities who have raced with hand controls.”
We didn’t have to teach Eric how to drive the Mini Sprint car. He was and is a talented racer – whether he’s racing motocross or on dirt tracks. He taught himself how to race the Sprint car and had some help from some very good people.
When I came out of the anesthesia 5 days after my crash, I learned my spinal break had taken place at T5 and T6 and that while in surgery doctors had put two rods down my backbone and used six screws to hold my spine in place. I also found out that my spinal cord was not severed. So, I still had hope that one day I would walk again.
While I was in rehab, I evaluated my life prior to my injury. Although young, I always had set goals and worked hard to obtain them. When I first started riding motocross, my goal was to go to the Loretta Lynn Amateur Motocross Event. After reaching that goal, my next goal was to become a pro motocross rider. I had achieved all my goals in motocross racing, but now I was paralyzed and needed to set new goals and challenge myself to do something more with my life. I knew that setting goals would help me stay motivated.
I learned about a kid, Ricky James, who was racing off-the-road trophy trucks. Later, I learned that plenty of technology was available to help people with disabilities to race. However, I wasn’t real sure about getting in a race car.
When I was 12 years old, Tony Stewart had given me a 600 Mini Sprint car. I tested it out, and I heard my daddy tell Stewart, “Eric seems to have a talent for driving that race car. He’s really smooth.” As a young person, when my dad asked me how I liked driving that race car, I had said, “This is no fun. All you do is go round and round in a circles.”
At that age, I was accustomed to driving my bike over jumps, running through the woods with it, going across creeks and riding through the mud. I wasn’t mature enough to know that driving a race car in a race was much more than going around a track in circles.
“While I was in recovery, my main goal was to keep myself going, remain active and fight depression.”
When I first learned that some very good people were willing to work with me and help build a race car for me, I was totally shocked. Tracy Trotter sponsored buying a 1-year-old 600 Mini Sprint car. Thompson Choppers helped rebuild the car, and Randy Sweet helped me modify the hand controls, so I could use them in races.
I’m paralyzed from the chest down, but I still have the use of my arms and fingers. The first time I took the race car out on the track, driving it was a real challenge, since I was accustomed to driving a dirt bike. However, the first time I drove that car I was really having fun, and I was amazed at the possibility that I might become a race car driver.
While I was racing motocross, I was accustomed to being a winner. I really struggled in my first few race car races, but not winning gave me a fire to work harder, learn more and become more competitive. I guess I’m a born competitor, because everything I do is a competition. I want to continue to get better until I start winning.
I’ve got all my hand controls on my steering wheel, and I’ve been getting questions about these custom hand controls I use for racing. I got an email the other day from someone in Pennsylvania who wanted to know if I had another steering wheel with hand controls like the one I used for racing that he could buy. However, the hand controls for my race car have to be custom-made.
You have to have both hands on the steering wheel when you’re driving a race car. My hand controls are different due to my hand brakes being on the steering wheel, and I have a throttle cable that goes to my steering wheel to enable me to accelerate or break from the hand controls on the steering wheel.
I also have a custom steering column. When I go around a curve, the standard steering column won’t react quickly enough to keep me from crossing my hands as I make the turn. So, I needed a quicker steering box to keep me from having to turn the wheel and cross my hands.
When I’m racing, I have a professional race car driver who helps me with my car at the race track every weekend. The Mini Sprint cars are all custom built. To get the maximum performance out of these cars, you’re constantly working on them and trying to improve them.
Because I’m paralyzed, the steering, the braking, the gas and the throttle have to be even more customized to allow me to drive it in a race and have a chance to win.
My new goals are to go as far as I can as a race car driver. I want to show other people with disabilities that if they want to race like I do, they can. Each day we’re learning new and better methods of adapting race cars for drivers with disabilities.
Many people have a need for speed just like I do. When they get injured and think their racing days are over, that’s just not true. I want to show others in the wheelchair community that if I can race, be competitive and win, they can too.
The first weekend of October 2014, I won my first dirt track race – the World Series of Dirt held at the Plymouth speedway (www.plymouthdirttrackracing.com) or (www.plymouthspeedway.net) and www.facebook.com/PlymouthSpeedway. I got an overwhelming feeling of excitement, adrenaline and a feeling of, “I’m back.” Eighteen cars were in the race where we raced 20 laps on a 1/5-mile dirt track. I can’t really express what winning felt like. I’d reached a goal I had set for myself when I first saw the race car. I won in 2014.
“In 2015, I’ve won six feature races, and I’m in second place on points at the Plymouth Speedway.”
I plan to go to various race tracks and put in more time in more races to continue to grow as a race car driver. The first week in January, 2016, I’ll be going to the Chili Bowl National – where the best of the best racers compete. All the top motocross riders, dirt track racers and some NASCAR racers come there to compete, and I’m signed up to drive a Midget car in that race.
My Facebook page is Eric Saunders Racing. I’ve put quite a few pictures on my Facebook page and try to answer all the questions I’m asked, so please feel free to reach out. I’d love to meet you online!
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.