Paraplegic Craig Hairston Recalls his Life Changing Accident and his Racing Career After Spinal Cord Injury

Editor’s Note: The last place you expect to see a paraplegic is inside a racecar, often running well over 100 mph and competing against able-bodied racers. But that’s exactly where you’ll find 58-year old Craig Hairston of Blythewood, South Carolina. If you know the man, you won’t be surprised at all. Before his automobile accident in 1979, he was a 100-percent adrenaline junky who enjoyed skydiving, scuba diving and especially motocross racing. His love of speed easily would pass all boundaries of what many would call normal. He also decided after his accident that his wheelchair never would define him. As he says today with a smile on his face, “There’s no handicapped parking space at the starting line of a drag race.”  Part 2 of a 4-part series.

Meet Craig Hairston: Drag racer, parachute jumper, and scuba diver. He's also a paraplegic.

Meet Craig Hairston: Drag racer, parachute jumper, and scuba diver. He's also a paraplegic.

By the late ’70s, I’d been at the U.S. Naval Academy for 2 years and had made 15 static-line jumps. I’d finished my education at New Mexico State University and made about 15-more free-fall jumps. Next I went to work at the Los Alamos government facility.

In 1979, I was in an automobile accident. I was sitting on the passenger side of the car, when we came over a hill and hit an icy road. The driver lost control of the car, and we hit a rock embankment at a speed of only about 30 mph. My side of the car got crushed-up like an accordion, and my head went through the windshield of the car.

The crash was so violent that it drove my femur through my pelvis. My chest collapsed, and I had a ruptured heart. When I got to the hospital, my first operation was an open-heart surgery, and the doctors had to re-inflate both lungs. My pelvis was broken in three places, and my femur was driven back about 3 inches.

I was messed-up, but the good news was that I survived. Doctors told me I’d never walk again and said, “The best you can hope for is that you will be able to make the transfer to the toilet and go to the bathroom by yourself.” So, I assumed the mindset for awhile that I would have a very-limited lifestyle.

The medical term for my condition was bilateral sciatic paralysis. My pelvis was crushed, and both sciatic nerves were done. This was a very-low back injury, and after awhile, I came to realize that I was better off then many people with spinal-cord injuries. However, the injury left me with a lot of bladder and bowel issues. I did get some return of usage in my quad muscles.

Craig resumed racing shortly after he left the hospital for his injury. It was key to his ability to overcome depression.

Craig resumed racing shortly after he left the hospital for his injury. It was key to his ability to overcome depression.

Today, the medical definition of me is that I am an incomplete paraplegic from a crushed pelvis. The medical community calls my condition a spinal-cord injury. Most spinal-cord patients have injuries higher-up on the spinal cord than mine. During the first week after my accident, I had six or seven surgeries. Counting surgery, recovery and rehab, I was in the hospital for about 3 months.

When I left the hospital, I was able to walk-out of the facility with Canadian crutches (forearm crutches). I only could go a short distance on the crutches, but I told myself, “Look, you can walk, even if only for a short distance.” When I came out of rehab, I was told, “You will be wheelchair-bound, and in the next 2 years you’ll find out what type of regeneration you’ll get in the rest of your body. However, we really can’t tell you how-much function you’ll have.”

I continued to do a lot of outpatient exercise to try to strengthen the muscles I had. I came out of rehab believing that over time I would be fully functional again. I was very optimistic. However, over the next 2 years, I finally realized that I would live my life in a wheelchair. I’m not confined to the wheelchair, but I have to use it as a mobility tool. I can stand-up for a short time, but I can’t walk any distance, because my legs will collapse.

Like everyone else who has a spinal-cord injury, I went through a season of depression, especially on the days when I tried to do what I thought I could do and found out that I couldn’t. I tried to walk, and I fell millions of times. There were days when I wasn’t really happy. Yes, I had those moments like all spinal-cord injury individuals had, but luckily the depression didn’t hang-around for a long time.

Finally I came to the realization that my life was not about what I couldn’t do, but rather I needed to find out what I could do. Another real advantage I had was that I was surrounded by a great network of friends. I decided I would not be bound by what other people said I couldn’t do.

I decided that I would race in the off-road event of the Baja 1000, which takes place in November on the Baja Peninsula. I was told, “If your car breaks-down, you won’t be able to walk-out of the desert to get help. If you have a crash, we may not be able to get support people to you in time to prevent a major disaster. You shouldn’t do this; you’re pushing yourself too hard.”

Racing through the desert isn't always pretty, as Craig will tell you!

Racing through the desert isn't always pretty, as Craig will tell you!

Before my crash and injury, I not only took part in motocross races but also in flat track races. My dream as a young man was to be a professional motocross racer. I was very-heavily involved in motocross racing at 26-years old. When I had my accident, I was strong, healthy and highly competitive. I loved speed then, and I love speed now.

After I learned in the 1980s that I couldn’t participate in motocross again, Honda came out with a 4 wheel ATV called the Odyssey that was much like an off-road golf cart. It had a roll cage over it and a 250 cc motor. What also made the car unique was it had a clutch similar to one on a snowmobile. The only real controls were the throttle and the brake that were mounted on a butterfly-type steering wheel.

When a person got in the vehicle and strapped their legs down, all the steering, brakes and shifting were done by hand controls. My friends took all my motorcycles and traded them in for this Honda Odyssey ATV. When I saw that contraption for the first time, I asked, “What is that?” They replied, “We’re going trail riding today off-road, and this is what you’ll be driving.”

Craig loved the feeling of being on an even playing field with ATV racers.

Craig loved the feeling of being on an even playing field with ATV racers.

So, they strapped me in, and about 20 minutes into the ride, I said, “Wow! I can do this. I’m outdoors, and I’m running up and down trails, just like I used to on my motorcycle.” I fell in love with that Honda Odyssey ATV and started driving it a lot. Then I finally made the decision I wanted to race it. And, I did.

In the 1980s, there was a sanctioned division in the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) that had a national championship and was for all type of ATVs, which at that time included the Honda Odyssey. In auto racing, there is no handicapped division. Before this time, I had participated in wheelchair sports like wheelchair basketball.

However, in auto racing when you’re strapped into your vehicle, you’re racing against other people who believe they can beat you. The whole sport is about racing to win – not whether or not you have a disability. I was treated as an able-bodied driver, which really meant a lot to me.

Once I was strapped into my Odyssey ATV and pulled out to the track, nobody really knew that I was paralyzed from the waist-down. I was just another guy in a racecar. Yes, I have had some wrecks and flipped over a few times. But all I’ve said is, “I need a little help getting out of this car.”

When I get to the racetrack, I say, “My name is Craig, and I’m here to race.” I’ve developed a network of friends and fellow racecar drivers who know and treat me like Craig the racecar driver. I’ve found that being around the racetrack, being able to compete and at that time, being able to drive my Odyssey ATV at a high rate of speed was a definition of me.

Craig's logo on his racing ATV says it all.

Craig's logo on his racing ATV says it all.

Tomorrow: Craig Hairston Participates in the Baja 1000

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at http://www.nighthawkpublications.com

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2 Responses to Paraplegic Craig Hairston Recalls his Life Changing Accident and his Racing Career After Spinal Cord Injury

  1. Pingback: Paraplegic Craig Hairston Says There’s No Handicapped Parking Space At the Starting Line of a Drag Race « UroMed Catheter Health Blog

  2. Pingback: Paraplegic Craig Hairston Says There’s No Handicapped Parking Space At the Starting Line of a Drag Race

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