As Dan Parker climbs behind the wheel at the Phenix Motorsports Dragstrip in Phenix City, Alabama, it’s pretty obvious he’s not your typical driver. For one, Parker is blind. He’s driving with a friend in the passenger seat and an onboard guidance system that uses tones to help him stay on the center line of the strip.
“My ultimate goal is to become the world’s fastest blind man,” Parker says. “A blind man in Europe has been 200.4 miles per hour. So, my plan is, we’re going to bring that record home to the United States.”
It’s been a long road for Dan Parker, with a lot of twists and turns.
On the night of March 31, 2012, the 47-year old was behind the wheel of a “pro modified” vehicle he had built himself, his girlfriend Jennifer Stegall watching from the stands, when Parker lost control of the car.
“Right past the 1/8th mile, the car made a hard turn right,” Stegall remembers.
Parker hit the wall going 175 miles an hour, splitting his car in two, and leaving him badly injured.
“I have no memory at all of the wreck,” Dan Parker says. “They brought me out of the coma two weeks later.”
That’s when doctors discovered Dan’s injuries had caused his brain to swell inside his skull, compressing and permanently damaging his optic nerve.
“Basically my life was over as I knew it,” Parker says. “I had my own business. I had a career racing drag racing cars. Everything in life that I enjoyed was no longer a possibility.”
“[He was] Just sad, withdrawn,” Jennifer Stegall remembers. “He’d sleep a lot.”
But 6 weeks after he came home, Dan Parker went back to his shop, and got back on a milling machine, cutting metal, by using his hands to measure and guide him.
He would teach himself how to do the things he loved, even if he had to do them a little differently.
“I was not going to let blindness win,” he says. “I was not going to let it take away my passions in life.”
Then, 2 years ago, Dan found Orcam, a wearable device that uses artificial intelligence to help blind and visually-impaired people read.
“So anything that is in print, it takes a picture of and reads for them. And it’s got a speaker that comes into their ear,” Brad Brautman, Orcam’s regional sales manager explains.
At the time, the Orcam was selling for about $3,500, which was too much for Parker to afford, but, that changed when, after 5 years of pushing himself, he found a job.
“I’m a paraprofessional at a local high school, teaching machine shop,” Parker says.
The school system bought Dan the Orcam, which allows him to read the materials he uses to teach.
Outside of school, he can use it to read his beloved hot rod magazines, look over restaurant menus and recognize money.
“You can verify, I gave them a $20. But on the fly, you can verify, ‘Okay, they gave me 11 dollars back. I got a $10 and a $1.”
The camera is clipped to a pair of glasses Parker wears.
“It’s small enough to wear people don’t even notice it,” Brad Brautman says.
But, Dan Parker doesn’t mind being noticed, at least on the drag strip, where each practice run brings his a little closer to his dream of competing again.
“It’s huge, it is huge,” Parker smiles. “To be able to get back that part of your life is, it’s huge.”