After declaring the Eye Rock 500 -- a race in which blind drivers and sighted co-drivers compete on an oval dirt track -- to be a definite winner in "Winners and Losers" in our January 2007 10Best issue, editor-at-large John Phillips decided competing in the race would be an excellent way to demonstrate to our readers that the people who write for C/D never mature past the age of 17. When the annual race in upstate New York changed dates, Phillips, in a fortunate stroke of self-preservation, found himself unavailable and on vacation in Montana. And so it fell on my narrow shoulders to be the Car and Driver chump, which is why I found myself strapped into a car with a completely blind man going wheel-to-wheel against 10 other blind drivers.
Now in its seventh year, the Eye Rock 500 was dreamed up by the crew at radio station WPYX 106 in Albany, New York, as a fundraiser for Camp Abilities, a week-long summer camp for blind children that encourages their participation in sports and activities (biking, swimming, gymnastics, beep baseball -- the bases and the ball beep) not traditionally associated with the sightless. In addition to the cash donated by Eye Rock 500 sponsors, the camp collects $1 from each $12 race ticket. Since its founding in 1996, the organization has expanded to include camps in five states, with two more planned for next year.
Interestingly, this year the radio station ended its association with the event, apparently after corporate overlords had a closer look and determined that the race had "lawsuit" written all over it. On the other hand, we rarely ask permission of our corporate overlords to do anything, and hence our involvement.
The Eye Rock is a kind of novelty event held as part of a Saturday-night racing card at a half-mile country track, Lebanon Valley Speedway, in West Lebanon, New York. On this balmy 90-degree night in early June, a boisterous crowd of nearly 6000 has settled into the old wooden bleachers, and folks are in a festive if not rowdy mood for a night of racing that includes Modified, Sportsman, and Prostock classes. Wedged into these contests will be two Eye Rock qualifying races before the finale.
The dirt track has tight, highly banked corners (17 to 19 degrees), which climb upward like walls, and flat straightaways about an eighth of a mile long. The track's Hudson River clay surface has been watered and groomed by large tanker trucks all afternoon. Eventually, the surface dries, and after some warm-up laps, it becomes, as one driver put it, "wicked tacky." Imagine a huge gooey clay ashtray that smells like a weird mix of racing gas and hot dogs.
A half-hour before the race, organizers round up the 40 or so Eye Rock entrants in the infield and begin pairing up drivers and navigators. In hopes of avoiding a rollover or hitting a wall at 70 mph, I sheepishly ask of organizers Don Doherty and Link Pettit to avoid being partnered with anyone who has "Wild," "Crazy," or "Danger" in his or her nickname.
Moments later, outgoing 20-year-old Shawna Kane and her father walk over and introduce themselves. Blind since birth, Kane is college-bound this fall but is back to compete in her second Eye Rock after a disheartening DNF last year due to car trouble. I wonder to myself if she knows she's pressing her luck by running twice in the Eye Rock.
A word about blindness. The "legally blind" have severely limited vision, but they are able to see something -- light, hazy images, movement. The truly blind are completely in the dark. The laws of this country declare that people who have at least 20/200 vision with corrective glasses are legally blind (20/200 vision means a person sees at 20 feet away what a person with normal sight would see from 200 feet). About a third of Eye Rock's drivers qualify as legally blind, an obvious advantage.
We find last year's winner, 60-year-old George Bolton, in hopes he'll spill the secret of his victory. Bolton stopped driving in 2001 when macular degeneration rendered him legally blind. His vision continues to deteriorate, and now he sees only hazy shadows. As for his victory, he says his sighted navigator, Howard "The Ice Man" Smith, "told me to put it to the floor unless I tell you to stop."
So how does a sighted navigator -- that would be me -- give driving directions to a blind driver? By mimicking the hands on a clock, or by degrees?
"Hours on the clock is the key for me," he says.
I have an existential moment: Were I totally blind from birth, how would I know what a clock looks like, let alone a car, or Britney Spears, or what Britney Spears looks like getting out of Paris Hilton's car? I hope the driver I'm paired with will have had vision at one time. Nonetheless, I jot down Bolton's advice and ask him if he's practiced at all for the race. "I don't belong on the road!" he says.
Finally, I'm paired with 62-year-old Ray Heydet of Copake, New York, who looks like Jerry Garcia, had the late Grateful Dead icon dieted and stayed clear of the flaky white powder. Heydet is wearing a Blind Rifle Association T-shirt and is surrounded by a number of friends and well-wishers. His story sounds like a Jimmy Stewart movie: Born utterly blind, Heydet underwent surgery in his mid-20s and miraculously gained some sight in one eye, only to completely lose it again four and a half years later. During his short time of sight, Heydet drove the cars and motorcycles of friends and worked as a mechanic. Today, he lives alone with his guide dog. On Sundays, Heydet's buds gather at his place to watch the NASCAR race. His friends tell me he is employed detailing cars. "We all take our trucks to him. He does a great job. Seriously."
I ask about his seeing-eye dog, an 11-year-old Labrador retriever named Schooner. "Why didn't Schooner come to the track?"
"Track's too loud for Schooner," Heydet replies.
I wish I had thought of that excuse. I ask about the Blind Rifle Association T-shirt.
"It was a gift a friend got me in Texas. I'm not in any rifle association, but I did learn to shoot when I worked at the police station."
"What did you do at the police station?" I asked.
He smiled back. "I was the pathetic blind janitor."
This self-deprecating morsel of his life history gets brushed aside by one of Heydet's friends, who interjects this advice: "Just drive like you're taking us home from the bar." It occurs to me that I should see if Bolton has found a partner yet.
I walk Heydet over to the race car I picked up in Jackson, Michigan, for a cool 1600 bucks: a 1988 Volvo 740GLE. (By the way, for you aspiring young professionals, I slipped that amount through on my expense report under "minibar.") This Swedish beauty has 164,000 miles on the odometer but not a speck of rust on its body. It pains me to make this somewhat pristine symbol of safety walk the plank. But can you think of a safer car in which to go for a drive with a blind guy at the wheel?
Heydet strolls around the Volvo, caressing its sharp angles as if the car were some sort of robot supermodel. We've added a roll bar and a pair of four-point racing harnesses. Oddly enough, Heydet's a little disappointed that the Volvo isn't a manual, but he likes the power steering. I'm comforted by the fact that the Volvo's 2.3-liter four makes only 114 horsepower. Coupled with a four-speed automatic, it accelerates like it's sponsored by Valium. Heydet might not even be able to get us into much trouble should he try to pull a Jim Jones on me. I consider yanking a plug wire to slow the Volvo even more.
The Eye Rock 500 rulebook requires only this: Vehicles must have four-cylinder engines, competitors must wear helmets and driving suits. The track's rules require that all the cars' glass -- with the exception of a strongly laminated windshield -- be removed and that window nets be in place. End of rules. Cars range from having full roll cages and racing belts to ones that aren't even gutted. I wince when I see a Ford Escort from the early '90s with motorized seatbelts.
There are two qualifying races of seven laps each, with the top-three finishers winding up in the big 10-lap main event. While we await our heat, I try to describe the action to Heydet. A handful of drivers on the straights are, surprisingly -- or maybe the word is frighteningly -- getting up to what might be 70 mph. These blind hotshoes appear to be coming dangerously close to the concrete wall. On the other hand, some of them are having a hard time just keeping their cars in a straight line. Much to the delight of the crowd, a Toyota Corolla wagon's hood pops open, whips backward, and blocks the driver's vision -- but that's okay, he's blind. The driver is unfazed, but I can see his co-driver desperately trying to peek through the slit of daylight at the bottom of the windshield. I watch a Nissan Sentra lose its front wheel, which goes bounding off toward the infield. The multitudes in the stands let out a collective gasp, then a cheer. I'm beginning to feel as if I were about to be thrown to the lions.
Heydet's friends wrap masking tape at the high-noon position on the steering wheel to give him a physical indicator of where the wheel will be when the car is pointed straight ahead. I show him how far to turn the wheel when I say, "Left." Once there, Heydet agrees to hold the wheel in that position unless I say, "More left" or "Less left."
We strap in and find that, in a field of 11 in rows of two, we're in sixth position in the third row awaiting a traditional standing start. We sit stationary for what feels like an eternity as the cars behind bang into one another getting into position.
As soon as the starter waves the green flag, a couple of cars accelerate rapidly away from the field. Most of the completely blind racers are left behind and start zigzagging from inside wall to outside wall as if they were feeling their way around the track. This is what is truly terrifying about the event. Some drivers, who can see at least something, lap with the ease of seasoned pros; others proceed as if, well, as if they're blind -- poking along at 25 mph and swinging their cars back and forth as if they were canes looking to locate barriers in their way -- tap, tap, crash. In the first corner we're clipped just behind the front wheel by the Toyota Celica of the weaving Shawna Kane. I watch in horror as her car bounces off the Volvo, jumps the two-foot-high dirt berm that defines the inside of the corner, and then slams into the cement wall that protects the infield. I'm pretty sure she was still accelerating when she hit the wall.
This being Heydet's third Eye Rock (he previously finished fourth and fifth), he doesn't swing the steering wheel wildly and therefore we manage to stay near the center of the track. We top out at nearly 50 mph on the straights before slowing for the corners. I only have to grab the wheel a couple of times to set the car right in traffic. My strategy is never to stop talking in hopes of creating a mental picture of where we are on the track. I feel like Howard Cosell announcing a fight. "Ray, it's a lovely day for a race. We're coming out of the corner high onto the straight. Straighten the wheel, Ray. That's it. Now: gas, gas, gas! We're passing a car on the right. Lift off the gas, start your left turn. More left, little less left. Back on the straight. Gas! Car zigzagging in front of us. [Expletive deleted.] Brake! Brake! Brake!"
Despite his experience and the fact he can detail a car without seeing it, Heydet and I are lapped repeatedly by the leaders whom I am beginning to suspect can see more than they let on. We finish fourth, or possibly fifth -- I get the feeling no one really knows or bothered to keep track of the finishing order. The good news is we don't qualify for the finals, but we do qualify to join Heydet and his friends inside Turn Two where they have gathered to guzzle Coors Light, the brew that makes drinking all day possible.
What's this? There are 10 cars that start the final race -- by my count that's four more than could have qualified for it. However, no one seems to have the heart to stop the blind drivers from doing whatever they want; it is, after all, the one day of the year that they get to drive.
They're off, and the race goes nearly a full lap without the sound of metal meeting concrete. And then it gets interesting.
Mid-sip I hear what sounds like the Coors Silver Bullet train coming around the bend. Actually, it's the Escort with the motorized belts, and it's rolling over, about 12 feet in front of us. I notice its spare tire has made its way into the back seat. Next, a tow truck appears to pull the car off the track, which is just in time for a Camry driven by -- you knew this was coming -- "Wild Wes" to slam horrifyingly into the big truck at full tilt. I'm pretty sure he never saw the giant red tow truck. But Wes is okay. He just backs up and goes merrily back into the fray on the track. And then, possibly in an attempt to outdo the Camry's spectacular crash, a tan mid-'90s Chevy Cavalier never bothers to turn into the corner and instead goes straight into the wall. Both airbags explode. After five laps, the race is called due to a father and daughter team crashing into the wall -- both leave by ambulance. Heydet calls me at the office a few days after the race to inform me that both are fine.
Taking home the giant Eye Rock trophy is 38-year-old Marty "Mad Dog" Kelly of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Complications due to diabetes completely cost him his vision nine years ago. This is his sixth Eye Rock and his second win. Kelly admits that he practices regularly on dirt roads as he fingers the trophy in search of Braille. "I look forward to this race all year. If I'm having a down day, I think about racing the Eye Rock, and it keeps me going."
Kelly is brave and fast. I'm just happy to escape with both eyes still working.