First Quadriplegic to Race Pikes Peak

Five years ago, all-terrain vehicle racer Travis Tollett suffered a spill that injured his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic. That hasn't kept the Oklahoman from racing, and in 2012 he was the first quadriplegic driver to tackle one of the world's toughest courses -- the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Pikes Peak isn't just a dash up a mountain, but a world-class race course that tops out at 9,300 feet with 156 turns and no guardrails between road and the quick way down. (The U.S. Park Service stations rangers at the summit of Pikes Peak to drive motorists down the mountain who are too scared to do so themselves after driving up). First run in 1919, last year marked the first time a driver had covered the 12.4-mile course in under 10 minutes -- and he did so with his car bleeding fluids.

The race did not only feature scores of racers in a variety of vehicles, but had nothing but paved road start to finish, after the gravel section near the top was eliminated due to a lawsuit from environmentalists. The tarmac may have spared the landscape, but it only increased the racers' speed and risks.

Tollett has managed to keep racing since his accident, and has even gone up Pikes Peak as a co-driver, but no one in his condition has attempted to take a vehicle up the mountain from behind the wheel. Tollett made the run in a Polaris RZR XP off-road buggy modified with hand controls and other equipment, while Pikes Peak organizers have mandated a co-driver for an extra margin of safety.

"While I enjoy co-driving, I've wanted to be able to be in full control and operate a race vehicle myself," Tollett says. "I want to show that no matter the obstacles one encounters, if the drive and determination are available, life's unique challenges may be overcome."

(From Travis Tollett – In his own words – the Pikes Peak race.)

Tech Day
Tech had a different feel than years past. Primarily due to the fact that it was located at PPIR which inherently gave the day a more race vibe. Other than that it wasn’t too much different. You register, you run through car and safety gear inspection then enjoy talking with your other competitors, some of which you haven’t seen in over a year.

Practice Day 1 – Middle Section
This year, the middle section started four corners lower than in years past. We started at the brake check station at Glen Cove versus Cove Creek. This was cool to me for a few reasons. There is better parking and even more beneficial, we get to practice the Cove Creek section at speed.

Many complete spinal cord injuries affect your body’s ability to thermo regulate. That is the case for me so I try to avoid extremely hot and cold weather if possible. Luckily on Day 1 the temperature was only around 50°F. With that said, I still stayed in my truck until the riders meeting horn blows then hop in my chair and roll down. After that’s over it’s time to load in the RZR for the day, literally. I get in once and get out once at the end of practice.

As I’am getting myself strapped in I start to visualize the road since this is literally my second day in the seat of this particular car. The first three runs were tough, but only on the left handed hairpins. The power steering unit we were using uses a speed sensor and cuts off the power at speeds over 20-30mph for safety. Steering with one arm alone is tough enough and even harder entering the hairpins at 40-50mph with no power steering. I was struggling the first three runs for sure so John, my car builder and co-driver, decided to turn the speed sensor off on the power steering unit. This came with a big warning. The car can get very twitchy with the slightest bit of wheel movement at high speeds. That combined with steering with one arm attached to a Tri-pin steering knob on bearings meant that it was even harder to hold the wheel absolutely steady down high speed straights. Luckily I had developed a technique on my Playstation wheel at home while training my arms for this task. Seriously, that may sound silly but it’s the truth. I found that if I could get the thumb of my left hand onto to wheel while still maintaining full throttle, the wheel was very simple to maintain steady. We had to make some hand control adjustments in order to get that technique to work properly. Sure Grip make their controls so easy to adjust and change for every situation which worked out great.

After these adjustments my runs started to feel really strong. Each run was just getting faster by 2 seconds at a time as I was adjusting my braking zones and cornering became much easier with the power steering active.

Practice Day 2 – Top Section

Due to the power steering issues earlier in the day on day 1, I had 3 subluxated ribs. This is mostly an issue with my injury where it doesn’t allow my back muscles to be utilized and therefore aid in keeping the ribs from popping out. Now ask most people how tough it is to breathe at ~12,500ft above sea level, where we start practice for the day and then reaching the summit at 14,110ft, and they’ll tell you it’s not easy. Add the dislocated ribs into the equation and breathing is beyond painful. Literally right before I get in the car for the day, I had my dad pop them back in on the tailgate on my truck and it was like a breathe of fresh air.

The top section is fast. Every bit of concentration is needed to make clean runs. Some sweeping corners are wide open throttle and others that look the same are not. Keeping in mind this is my third day in the seat, my knowledge of the road was truly my biggest asset. With my right shoulder sore from the rib issues I was already fighting fatigue on that side. The long wide open sections proved to be a problem on my left throttle. It was the throttle spring being a little too stiff making it difficult to hold the controls all the way down and hold the wheel at high speed like I had previously mentioned. Other than that we had no issues with the car. We were just learning what we needed to do to the car to make it handle better and easier to drive for a full run on race day. After I got out of the car I had to have another rib popped back in. John lightened the throttle spring to about 50% as well as some minor suspension adjustments for day 3.

Practice Day 3 – Bottom Section

The bottom section was going to be a really good test on my shoulders to judge their fatigue for a full run on race day. You run about half the course in this one section alone. This section is also the only section with new asphalt for 2012. John and I took the RZR for our first run at about 75% race speed to get a feel for the new suspension changes, the lighter throttle, and the newly paved sections. As we were coming down we were discussing changing the suspension back to where we had it because the car had some unpredictable handling characteristics. Everything else seemed to be right where we wanted it to make full speed runs for the rest of the morning. As we’re coasting down the road back to the start, the car feels like it slips in neutral and with a CVT transmission this was bad news. The cab filled with white smoke as if we had just did a burnout. Sadly that was not the case. This ended our last day of practice with no full speed run. We left the mountain as soon as we got the car loaded and spent the rest of the morning diagnosing the problem. We assumed it was the belt of the CVT so I went hunting one down while John took the car apart. He discovered it was a much bigger issue than just a belt replacement. The primary had come apart and would need to be replaced as well. NextLevel Powersports stepped up and allowed us to use a clutch off of a brand new RZR with zero miles so we could run for race day.

The RZR was put back together and ready to be displayed along side Doug Siddens’ insane RZR-X at Fan Fest in downtown Colorado Springs. That was tons of fun as always. You get to talk with your other competitors again and fans as well. Naturally people are curious as to how in the world do I drive anything up the mountain so I did a lot of control explanations and many people enjoyed looking inside .

Race Day
Race day felt like the last three years while co-driving in Ken Stouffer’s time attack car. Only this time I knew there was more pressure on me. I knew how hard the race was going to be on my shoulders (literally) but I had no doubts that I could do it. Every moment I could, I would visualize the road. Especially the bottom section since I hadn’t even ran it at race speed yet. I got in the car and we did one final check of the controls by running down the road from the pits making sure nothing was loose or had changed. Then we lined up for our procession through pit lane. It was really encouraging having tons of people who knew me before my injury coming up to the car and wishing me good luck. Everyone who knew about this knew how hard I’ve had to work to get to this point and it’s about to happen! A rider went down on course somewhere so that caused us about a 30 min delay which just builds anxiety as you sit there. Many drivers/rider will get out/off of their machines for awhile and do a sort of reset, but that isn’t an option for me. I just do a mental reset the best I can. Soon enough it’s my turn to stage for starting and I’ve never heard the startline become so loud with applause and cheering in my 12yrs of attending the race. I really didn’t know what to think so all I could think was very simple, just “wow.” The green flag dropped and all of the days thoughts are gone. I drove the bottom as I know the road at about 95% only letting off at certain corners where I didn’t know if the car could hold it since I didn’t get a full speed run on that section. Approaching Glen Cove I could feel my shoulders starting to burn but nothing too serious. after I passed the brake station, I was 100% as fast as I could drive the car. The car wouldn’t reach the same RPMs as it did in practice but we were using a zero mileage clutch so that could’ve been the cause. Coming into Devil’s Playground I could hear my breathe through the intercom system. Approaching the final corners I was running on pure adrenaline. I crossed the finish line and it felt so normal. Even though I knew it’s more than that, I just did something no one else had done before and something I had been dreaming of ever since sitting in my hospital room in Colorado Springs staring at that mountain. I couldn’t keep myself from doing donuts in the dirt before parking the car.

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