13 May 2021

Driving no longer a blind spot for these vision-impaired thrill seekers

| James Coleman
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Man driving car

Graham at the wheel for the first time in 15 years. Photos: James Coleman.

“That was really good.”

“That was awesome!”

“It feels exciting! I feel like a winner. Something you’ve never been able to do, but now you’re able to. It feels amazing! If only I had known about this before.”

Graham, Brad and Noor have suffered various degrees of impaired vision for either their entire lives or much of them, and yet they’ve just come back from three hot laps of a race track.

Fifth Gear Motoring, together with Blind Sports Australia and Vision Australia, offered these three and many more the opportunity to do what the rest of us take for granted with the ‘Blind Speed Track Day’ at Wakefield Park near Goulburn.

If your first question begins with “How …?”, a driver trainer from Fifth Gear Motoring will take the passenger seat and guide them around the track, all while hovering a foot over the extra brake pedal in the footwell.

I get into the back of one of the Minis for a few laps. Graham is at the wheel for the first time in about 15 years, keen to again experience the speed and movement the rest of us shrug off as merely the things that get us to the office on time.

Graham with a Mini

For Graham, this is the first time in the driver’s seat in 15 years.

Chris is the trainer on board and with his gentle instructions to “veer right, slow down for a moment while we wait for this car to pass, now you can accelerate straight”, we make it out onto the track.

Given his jacket emblazoned with V8 Supercar badges and his comments about the three-cylinder turbo and giving the Mini a decent poke, Graham is clearly into cars.

For him, this is an incredible experience and certainly for me in the back watching, it’s incredible too. I can’t even get out of the shower when I have a little soap in my eyes, and yet here was a man who could only make out shapes and lines driving a car.

For Noor, things are a little more complicated. But that won’t stop her from going out.

“I have two disabilities. One is being in a wheelchair and one is my sight. Both are progressive and life-long,” she says.

She was diagnosed with polio as a two-year-old before macular degeneration set in as she got older.

Daniel Flannagan is the co-owner of Fifth Gear Motoring and he talks her through the modifications they’ve made to the car that mean she can still get to experience the thrill of driving a car.

One is a series of levers that link the brake pedal to a control mounted on the steering column. The other a sort of toggle that can be worn around the hand for acceleration. The last one is a knob that enables one-hand steering and includes buttons for such things as the indicators, headlights and horn.

Wet race track

Not even the sopping wet weather proved a deterrent.

All up, these are worth about $30,000, Daniel estimates. Much of this can be recouped via the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in the real world, but he says the trouble is when those with special needs kit out the car only to find out they can’t get the licence.

“If you require hand controls, the system lets people down,” he says. “There’s a six-month waiting period for driving lessons and assessments and the ministers don’t care. We’re sitting here with a car that could be used 100 per cent of the time and only gets used 10 per cent of the time.”

Driver training for those with special needs has been monopolised and that, adds Daniel, is wrong.

“We refer people to that particular company as we’re supposed to, but then they ring that company and they don’t get responses. We’ve got clients who have come to us and want to pay for it out of their own pocket now because they get sick of waiting.”

Driver Noor in a Mini

“I feel like a winner!” Noor suffers from the effects of polio and macular degeneration and yet still managed some hot laps.

After lunch, the Minis are parked and the big guns are wheeled out. A Holden Monaro, Ford Falcon V6, two old Porsches, and a Ferrari 488 GTB – to name a few – will be offering hot laps to any who want to experience the thrills of motoring at the hands of professionals.

Brad and I pick the Hyundai i30 N, advertised by the lady in the pits as the “most dangerous car on the track”. Kim, another trainer, is in the driver’s seat.

Despite the fact it’s pouring rain outside and the track has been transformed into more of a skid pan, Kim wrestles the light-blue hot hatchback through the corners at an exhilarating pace.

Brad clearly loves the experience. You can tell, even through the crash helmet.

Cars have made the day for these people. Who would have thought?

Hot lap vehicles

Getting ready for the ride of their life.

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