Laguna Seca Zoom Zoom Zoom

In this latest Blog, Nick gives an insight on his thoughts as an able bodied person attending an event with his wheelchair user friends.

I had the opportunity to invite my friends to join me at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. We’d be watching Classic Sports Cars ranging from the relatively modern 1980s to over 100 year old examples hurtling round the raceway. I’d been to this event before, but this time two of my friends Rich and Carl were wheelchair users. Shouldn’t be a problem, I hoped?

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Every year, Brian King of Global Wealth Partners (GWP) hosts a booth located directly adjacent to the Red Bull Energy Center and Brian was generous enough to give me additional passes so I was also able to invite both Carl and Rich to the event. With arguably the best location on the race track overlooking the Andretti Hair Pin, this vantage point had the best view of the famous hairpin with the fastest part of the track leading into it. You could also see more than half the race track snaking over the undulating landscape. My recollection was that there were no obvious hurdles for wheel chair users and Brian was able to re-assure me that the booth, despite being on grass, would also be suitable for wheel chair users. Brian also gave me sought after privileged parking passes which would make it easier for both Rich and Carl to get access to the Disabled Parking Spots.

Carl, who had a T8 complete SCI just over two years ago, was picking myself and my wife Julie up at 7:30am so that we would be in plenty of time to enjoy the entire day event. Carl was bang on time and parked his adapted van just a few yards away from our house. I jumped in the front and Julie got into the back of what seemed to be a cavernous van. As Julie put her seat belt on, her facial expression was as if she had lucked out and been given the exit row on a full flight and was reveling in the massive leg room. I’d only been in one other adapted vehicle before when I went with Rich in his 1994 Dodge Ram to one of his Gym classes. Carl’s was very similar to Rich’s in structure and function but lacked the Concert Class Sound System which Rich exposed me to while blasting up HW 85 and if Rich ever wanted to host a rave in his van, no modifications would be necessary.

Myself and Carl agreed that the best way would be to get straight on to HW 17 south over the North Santa Cruz Mountains so Carl pushed his left had down on the gas and pulled a well executed U Turn with his right hand at the same time. As we passed through the eerily quiet main drag in Los Gatos, (It was well before 8am after all) we agreed that I would take the role of navigator owing to the fact that I had already been to Lugana Seca numerous times and both my hands were freely available to use Google Maps.
We merged on to HW 17 seamlessly but as we took the first gradient, I was aware that Carl’s van lacked the horse power to overtake the slower trucks without causing the traffic in the fast lane to brake. At this point our conversation was very basic owing to the engine noise, my strong Scottish accent and Carl’s hearing challenges. Carl waited patiently for a break in the traffic before pushing his left hand down on the gas and simultaneously merging into the fast lane to overtake the truck and trailer combo which was holding us back. That well executed simple maneuver eradicated any potential anxiety that I may have had about being in a van charging over HW 17 relying only on a steady left hand for speed control and a right hand for direction control.

After negotiating numerous twists, turns and overtaking maneuvers we reached the comparative tranquilitly of the approach to Santa Cruz. I looked over my shoulder to see Julie, who is normally a basket case when I drive over HW 17, calmly looking out of the window like an 8th grader being driven to middle school.

What little overnight fog there was had already burnt off and we were enjoying a beautiful Pacific coast morning as we passed Moss Landing. Just then on one of my many regular scans of my iPhone, I noticed a big red traffic line backing up from just outside of Monterey which would need a change en route if we did not fancy lengthening our time on HW 1 by at least an hour. I directed Carl through Watsonville, first time I’d ever passed through that agricultural town, and then on through Salinas where we saw numerous farm workers laboring in the surrounding fields. In these more sedate roads I learnt from Carl, who could hear me better, that his family grew up in agriculture and he himself was no stranger to working in the fields. I also learnt , to my surprise, that that was the fist time since his injury that Carl had driven over HW 17 with passengers. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

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After negotiating the entry lines, we approached the parking areas and I was relieved to find that the disabled parking was as close to the Red Bull Energy Center as I remembered. I did notice a gradual downward slope the 100 yards or so to the hospitality entrance and I started to think about how Carl would manage on his return journey as I knew I would not be there to provide any assistance. As I got out of the van, the hum of the racetrack was now very apparent and you could even hear the race cars backfiring as they decelerated in preparation to take on the Andretti hair pin. As Carl was maneuvering his chair to get into the van lift, a gleaming white Cadilac Escalade parked in the adjacent disabled spot. Four tanned if somewhat overweight elderly males (well at least 10 years older than me) left the vehicle, all walking well with their movement only seemingly temporally curtailed that sitting stationary for an hour at that age would bring. I saw the last guy hang a disabled placard on the rear view mirror before leaving the SUV and he quickly caught up with his four friends. I could tell they were feeling pleased with themselves as they were able to park in one of the prime disabled spots and now had only a very short walk to the raceway which was clearly well within their capability. They did not make eye contact with myself or for that matter Carl who was down on the pavement and waiting for his van lift to retract back into the body of the van. Being around my fellow SCI Peer Supporters for a year now, I have become acutely aware how frustrated they get when they are unable to park in a disabled spot due to an able bodied individual parking there, hiding behind a questionable disabled placard. I also have a disabled placard but no longer park in disabled spots. Not too sure if I have found religion or if it is the fear of being lynched by my wheelchair friends if they ever found me out.

Julie was chatting with Carl as he rolled down to the sign which said VIPs ONLY and I did take some pleasure in Carl realizing that we were about to enter an area requiring special passes. There was a momentary blip when one of the young security guards questioned our passes but before I was given the opportunity to put him right, his more senior partner ushered us through the gate. The concourse in front of the Red Bull Energy Center was flat and well paved allowing Carl to comfortably roll over the area. As we made our way round the Red Bull Energy Center to the GWP Booth, we passed conveniently located disabled restrooms. As far as I was concerned, everything was going to plan, although I was still a little anxious on how Carl was going to negotiate the bumpy grass surface the hospitality booth was standing on. I pointed out to Carl the Helipad which would be in constant use at the weekend bringing in the guests of Rolex who were in the suite right next to our booth. I casually let Carl go a head of me so I was able to give him some additional forward momentum as he pushed his way across the bumpy grass to our table where our other friends Kyle and Stacey were waiting. We could not make proper introductions as the noise of the 1973-1981 GT Cars was overwhelming and everyone in the booth was wearing ear plugs. Carl positioned his chair in the shade and we watched from our vantage point these classic 40 year old sports cars approach the Andretti hairpin at over 120 mph. It was a great introduction to the event.

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The race was soon over and as the last cars made their way off the course, the ear plugs started to come out and we were able to meet our hosts and fellow spectators. Brian was, as expected, very gracious and made sure Carl was furnished with a hearty continental breakfast which he brought over from the nearby hospitality tent. Brian’s colleague also dropped by to say hello and invited us to sign a stunning 6ft x 3ft metallic image of a Shelby GT350. GWP had commissioned this work from Mio Dzakula (http://www.artofmio.com) whom we all had the opportunity and pleasure to meet. While the GT350s are typically white with blue stripes, Mio wanted the image to have more life and color so he changed the color pattern to something less traditional but still honoring the heritage of the vehicle. This stunning work of art which employed a multi layer sublimation on aluminum process was donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. We were each given a miniature replica personally signed by Mio, how good was that!

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Next race up was the 1955 – 1961 Racing Cars over 2000cc. As the cars drove out for the warm up lap, the ear plugs were again applied as we waited in anticipation for the race (and the noise) to start proper. It was fantastic to see these racing machines, which were state of the art (In the late 50’s) negotiate the modern raceway. The 24 car line up included a 1955 Jaguar D-Type, a 1958 Ferrari Testarosa, a 1959 Maserati T-61 as well as a 1957 Aston Martin. The race was soon over and as the noise started to subside, I spoke with Carl about making the journey down across the bridge over the raceway where we would be able to get a close up view of all the classic cars and we agreed that we would do this after lunch. I had no concerns on getting down to the main paddock area with Carl, after all it was all downhill, but I was second guessing myself on how Carl and I would make the return journey. Would he allow me to assist him back up the steepish incline or would he be too proud to take any assistance from me and potentially exhaust himself pushing himself back up the hill. I thought to myself that we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, literally having to cross back over the bridge from the main concourse. There were 3 more races before lunch and we got to see the fastest cars on the track that day in the 1967-1984 F1 category topping out at over 140mph before hurtling round the Andretti Hairpin making full use of the down forces their aerodynamics allowed them.

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Meanwhile, the caterers had been busy setting up a delicious buffet style lunch which Carl commented was significantly better than the hot dog he was expecting. There was a selection of Talbot wines available which Julie and Stacey had already been “Tasting” but myself and Carl plumped for the cool lagers, well it is important to hydrate on such a hot day. I was very much aware of Carl’s progress serving himself the buffet lunch, watching him unobtrusively I thought, in case he needed any assistance. Again, no concerns there, he loaded up what was a generous helping of beef and chicken and returned to our table with the plate on his lap followed by one of the catering assistants carrying his dessert.

I received my first txt from Rich during lunch letting me know he was running a little late and would not be arriving until after 1pm. This was not a complete surprise as the times I’ve met Rich before, he is the type of guy who is always a little late. I also, rightly or wrongly, felt far more comfortable leaving Rich to his own devices. Rich had a C7/T1 SCI back in 2009 and not only has he been coping with his disability for a significantly longer time than Carl, he would also have the use of his newly acquired power chair allowing him to power through grassy areas and negotiate any inclines with ease. My concerns were that of anyone else would have such as will he find the parking zone and make his way to the booth without getting lost. After Carl had finished his second dessert I had retrieved from the goodies table for him, we left for our visit to the paddock area and the pits. Again, I followed Carl across the bumpy grass giving him what I thought was the necessary push to get over the grass. We both went to our respective restrooms before making our way, walking and rolling down the paved hill, towards the bridge to get over the raceway and on to the paddock area. As myself and Carl chatted about cars (what else) I had to brake into a jog to keep up with him, my flip flops rattling away at the same time.

When we arrived at the main paddock area, Carl made a b-line across the flat paved surface to the main display featuring the 50 year old Ford Shelby GT350. There were at least 6 immaculate examples on display and we both drooled over them.

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We then made our way into the main pit area dodging past the pre 1940 class racers who were making their way to the starting line. There were literally dozens of lines of cars all on display or being tuned up for their respective races. Each vehicle had it’s own portable maintenance and preparation facility which ranged from the back of a pick up truck and trailer to a complete mobile complex of RVs and impressive workshops that would rival NASCAR. It was clear that these drivers here were not short on financial resources.

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To tell you the truth we were spoilt for choice, which line do you wander down? what cars do you want to get up close and personal with? As I had been there in the past, I just followed Carl around, he could not make a bad decision as every line we went down, we were exposed to exotic, classic, eccentric, powerful, nimble, muscular, elegant examples of mechanical art. We paused to let the 1955-1962 GT cars pass as they prepared to enter the fray, I then received a txt from Rich telling me that he had arrived at the booth and everything was “Cool.” I tried to speak to him to see if he wanted to join us down in the pit area but I realized communication was near impossible with the constant hum of these classics completing their laps.

I think that both myself and Carl were getting a little numb with the impressive array of vehicles on display so we both decided on heading back up to our vantage point to cool ourselves down with a cold beer. As we headed back to the bridge, I could see the Red Bull Center high up on the hill ahead and took a deep breath in anticipation of the climb ahead. Carl has good upper body strength but I was able to deduce from my own limited time in a wheelchair that it would be a challenge even for a para olympic athlete to get back up that hill to the Red Bull Center. Our first and biggest challenge was to get up the bridge over the raceway and any concerns I had of Carl refusing my help were completely unfounded, as this incline would have defeated the arm strength of a gorilla. Carl accepted my assistance without hesitation. I had been pushing hard for about 40 seconds and as well as hampered by my poor choice of footware, (You don’t see anyone wearing flip flops when engaging in a rugby scrum) I was starting to tire rapidly. I could see the crest of the hill approaching and knew I had it in me to push Carl all the way to the apex of the bridge. I could see out the corner of my eye other passersby watching me and Carl negotiate the steep rise and although I could have asked for assistance, I wanted to do it on my own. The irony was not lost on me for Carl to go through the same thought process anytime he has a similar challenge.

When we reached the other side of the bridge, we had a great vantage point to see the cars come towards us at the fastest point of the race track. I can’t remember if I had suggested it or even if Carl did, but I was happy to watch the cars hurtle towards us at 100+ mph so I could take a breather before taking on the last hill. The last push up the hill was straight forward and I was not breathing too hard when we finally reached flat ground at the entrance the Red Bull Energy Center. After another pit stop of our own, we arrived back at the booth to find Rich in his new power chair chatting away to Kyle as if they were long lost friends.

It turned out that Kyle, who is also a Los Gatos resident, had met Rich several years ago when Rich carried out some construction work on his house. I am resisting the temptation to say “Small World” here. Rich was busy feeding himself on the generous remnants of our lunch buffet as I went over to grab a much anticipated beer for myself and Carl. In his power chair, Rich had no problem negotiating the bumpy grass and I saw him loading up his plate with the last remains of dessert. There was a wire fence that separated our booth from the race track which was approximately 50 ft below our position. I deduced that the fence was partly to stop debris from the track hitting us (unlikely) and partly to stop us falling down on to the track (more likely). As the fence was about 5 ft high, most if us were able to stretch over it and get an uninterrupted view not only of the Andretti corner but also a far clearer view of the finishing straight. I was probably over conscious of the fact that Rich and Carl could not take that vantage position or indeed may have trouble maneuvering their chairs around our tables to the fence for a better view. Rich using his power chair had easily maneuvered himself right up to the fence and was busy taking videos and photos of the 4B class, GT Cars Under 2500cc 1961-1966. After helping myself to another beer in the tent, I had made up my mind that I would ask Carl if I could help him get right up to the fence but when I returned, he had already joined Rich in his new vantage position right up against the wire fence.

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I am not going to dwell too much on the racing but I must admit, I was most impressed with the performance of number 30. This 1300cc Mini Cooper was more than holding it’s own against Porches, Alfa Romeos, Lotus’s and Chevrons that had almost twice the displacement. The Mini finished a respectable 8th out of 44 larger and more powerful competitors and it was a delight to watch this tiny car being skillfully thrown round the raceway.

As pre arranged, myself and Julie were going to head off with Kyle and Stacey so we picked up our mementos of the day, the official program which would not be out of place in a departure lounge coffee table of a private jet terminal and of course, our very impressive miniature replicas of he GT350 Art Work. I said my goodbyes to Carl and Rich who both thanked me for an “Awesome Day.” I then walked out with Brian who was needing to retrieve our privileged parking pass for future use. After thanking Brian again, I unnecessarily suggested to him to keep an eye on Carl just in case he needed assistance getting up the small incline to his van.

So what were my own take aways from the day?

A special thanks to Brian King and Global Wealth Partners for hosting such a fantastic event and giving us the full VIP treatment.

As far as the best driver is concerned, although Timothy De Silva who drove the Mini Cooper deserves a mention, it has to go to Carl for his impressive ride over HW 17.

And, If you have the opportunity to hang out with your friends at a great event, don’t worry about it, just do it.

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