Torsten Gross Found His Level Playing Field on the Racetrack
By Torsten Gross, Just Hands Racing Foundation
FFor those of us who are in wheelchairs, finding a sport in which we can compete against able-bodied people is almost impossible. Thus, when I became a C6 quadriplegic in 1994, my life as a quintessential American male, obsessed with lacrosse, soccer, tennis, and anything else competitive, became limited to specific sports, and always against people that are also disabled in some way.
Over the past 28 years I'm proud of many of the accomplishments that I've achieved: things like completing twelve marathons in twelve months, skiing, skydiving and becoming the world's only quadriplegic rescue scuba diver. However, my hunt for a sport that makes me on par with the rest of the world never ended.
That is, until my first experience in a car on a race track.
The Track Didn't Care if I Was in a Wheelchair
I arrived at Lime Rock Park in my everyday car, was fitted with a helmet, left my wheelchair in the paddock, and set off on an experience many only dream of. After an exhausting day of ripping around that gorgeous circuit, I felt something which I had missed since July 11, 1994: equality. The track didn't care if I was in a wheelchair when I wasn't behind the wheel. The other drivers didn't know that I was using only my hands to drive. My instructor barked at me the way he would at anyone else.
There was no pity, no excuses, and nothing other than the search for the perfect line—as it was for everyone else on the track. That day I came home with a new obsession; I felt something I needed to feel again. The problem was how to make it happen.
Most people test the waters by starting small, whether it's by doing performance driving schools with their own car, renting an arrive-and-drive track-prepped car or participating in programs like the Skip Barber Racing School. The latter two were not options, because those only have foot-pedal cars. While it was possible to continue to use my everyday car for a performance driving school, the chance of damaging my only car without a fallback option made that an unworkable plan.
After all, temporarily borrowing a friend's car or renting one easily from Avis or Hertz is not ideal. If I was going to do this, I realized what must be done. Much to my wife's chagrin (but not to her surprise), I bought a dedicated track car, a BMW E92 M3. That kicked off a two-month exercise in creatively making a race car that worked for me.
The hand controls were easy, because the Veigel Classic II hand controls I have used for 27 years were perfect for the track. But things like racing seats, a roll cage and even figuring out how to stabilize my legs when significant cornering G-forces were throwing them around needed to be brainstormed. While the search for the perfect car configuration is a perpetual journey, I can proudly say that after numerous schools, time trials and more, I will be competing in the International GT racing series this year.
Just Hands Foundation Puts Aspiring Disabled Racecar Drivers Behind the Wheel
The difficulty I faced in getting to experience this sport is not confined to motorsports. There is a metaphorical "disability tax" which manifests itself in the inability to rent sporting equipment. An abled-bodied person can buy a pair of $100 running shoes to try running; we have to buy a $2,000+ racing chair. If they want to bike, they can rent a bike for $50 a day; we have to buy a $3,000+ handcycle. A typical seasonal ski rental will run a couple of hundred dollars for regular skiers, but we must shell out $4,000+ for a mono ski.
The same issue applies to motorsports, but with even larger price tags. This disability tax, combined with my unbridled need to share this amazing feeling with others in wheelchairs, led me to start the Just Hands Foundation. The mission is simple: normalize hand control driving and enable the disabled community to experience independence and competition on the same level as every human (and have fun in a track car!) In short, we get people who drive hand-controlled cars into high-performance driving events.
We're proud to say that Just Hands has a fully equipped BMW race car ready for anyone to use in either track day events or autocross. The car is based at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, but we trailer the car to various tracks in the Northeast.
We're even more excited to announce that we have become part of the Pennzoil family. Not only am I in commercials with two-time NASCAR champion Joey Logano, showing the world that hand-controlled driving is just as competitive as anyone else, but Pennzoil has donated to the foundation and made it possible for us to expand to multiple tracks around this country this year!!
Needless to say, 2023 is going to be a banner year. With many more announcements to come. From racing to car control, to being on track, we would love to have you. Sign up at www.justhands.org or come find us at the New York Metro Abilities Expo in booth 131 where we will be showing Just Hands. You can't miss it…it will be the one with my racecar!
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