Paraplegic Craig Hairston Participates in the Baja 1000

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 3 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.

The Baja 1000, which takes place in November on the Baja Peninsula, is one of the most-famous off-road races in the world. Racers run from Ensenada to LaPaz. I called the race director, told him I’d like to run in the exhibition class, because at that time there wasn’t a class for my car, and that I had sponsors.

 The Baja race is over a thousand miles, and you drive it with no one else in the car but you. When I got into the Baja 1000 exhibition class, the race officials only would allow us to run 250 miles. When I finished the race, the race announcer said, “Congrats, Craig! You’re the first paraplegic to enter the race, finish and score.”

The next year they had the San Felipe 250 for my class. In the San Felipe 250, I actually drove that car 250 miles in one day and not only finished the race, but finished 2nd in my class.

There were eight cars in my class, and we were competing to win. We were the last class to start, because we had slower cars, and this designation was a new class that never had had a competition previously. What made this win so important is that I had bought the chassis, I’d put the engine in it, I modified it to fit me, and I had a support crew that would meet me at a certain town to check it out and gas it up before I continued.

Craig knew he had to make it on the first try when racing in the Baja desert. There weren't a lot of people out there who would come look for him!

Craig knew he had to make it on the first try when racing in the Baja desert. There weren't a lot of people out there who would come look for him!

I drove that car 250 miles with hand controls that I created. We started at 10:00 am in the morning and didn’t finish the race until 2:00 am the next day. But I crossed the finish line, and I got my finisher’s pin, and for me, it was like running a marathon. The place I finished wasn’t nearly as important as my finishing – just like finishing a marathon is important – whether you’re in a wheelchair or as an able-bodied person. Entering, attacking and enduring until the end is a major accomplishment.

When I finished that race, I was dirty. In my early-morning finish, there was no brass band playing, no cheering crowds to meet me, and only a few people left at the finish line. After I crossed the finish line, they said, “At least, we don’t have to go out in the desert and try to find him in the dark.” My favorite joke I told them was, “Hey folks, I had to finish, because I couldn’t walk-out of this desert.”

Back then we didn’t have radios in our cars, and there was no way we could let a checkpoint know we were broke down. If something happened in the race, and you didn’t show up at a checkpoint in a reasonable amount of time, someone would have to come out into the desert to find you.

My finishing became very important, because if the car had broken down, or if I’d had a wreck, I’d be in that spot, until somebody decided they better come looking for me. Even then I’d have to pray that they would even find me. Finishing that race was one of my proudest moments, not only because I had finished it and came in second, but because we were able to get so-much publicity for all the sponsors who supported my team and me.

200 Miles an Hour in 7 Seconds Is Craig Hairston’s Goal
I started off as an off-road racer in my Honda Odyssey ATV. In the 1980s, off-road stadium racing started where a race course for off-road vehicles was set-up in a stadium, just like the motocross is today. We’d race inside a stadium, going over jumps and moving through and around difficult terrain.

I progressed from driving my Honda Odyssey ATV to the super-light class, where I drove a motorcycle-engine-powered 4-wheel buggy that was very light and very quick. I raced in the Mickey Thompson Series from the mid- to late-1980s.

.”]When racing in the Legends series in 1998, Craig built his own hand controls for his buggy [shown here].In the early 1990s, I moved to Seattle, Washington, where I started racing mini-sprint cars. These cars had wings and were powered by either a motorcycle engine or a snowmobile engine. They were 3/4 the size of a normal car and featured big wheels. You raced-around a dirt oval and slid through the corners.

Then when I came back to Columbia, South Carolina in 2000, I got involved in Legends car racing motor-engine-powered racecars 5/8 the size of normal cars. They have fiberglass bodies that make them look like old-time racecars, are very quick and have 1200 cc motors in them. I raced in that class for 3 to 4 years. This car had a more-complicated hand-control system, because you had to manually shift, clutch, steer, brake and start the car. To build a hand-control system and to figure-out just how to perform all these functions with hand controls took awhile.

When I finally built that car and wanted to race, NASCAR said, “We’re not going to let you race this car, until we’ve inspected it approved it and know that it’s safe.” Safety is a big deal to NASCAR.  They never had had a paraplegic racer before.

Craig's car lined up next to Jeff Gordon's during a the Legends race in 1998.

Craig's car lined up next to Jeff Gordon's during a the Legends race in 1998.

Bruton Smith, who owned the Charlotte Speedway and 600 Racing, was very big in NASCAR, and today owns several tracks. The 600 Racing he owned was building the Legends-style racecars that raced in the prefecture races before the big NASCAR races.

NASCAR wanted to know how the hand controls worked and how I would get out of the car if the car flipped-over. They even put me in a wrecked car and turned it upside down, so I could demonstrate that I could unhook my harness, flip myself out of the car and roll-away from the car in less than 6 or 7 seconds. (That’s how fast an able-bodied driver has to get out of the car.) They said, “If your car catches on fire, and you can’t get out of it in 6 or 7 seconds, then we will have a real safety issue.”

Next I had to work with the safety crews at the racetracks who rushed out on the track, if there was a crash to rescue the driver. The safety people asked me, “Craig, if you crash, how will we help you get out of the racecar?”

 They insisted that they drive my car, because nobody had ever made a hand-control system for a car like this. The safety people drove my car and learned how the hand controls worked. Then they again put me in a car that they rolled-over and watched as I got out of my belt and my car. They asked, “What if your hand-controls fail, and you hurt yourself? We know how all the controls on the Legends cars work, since we build them. However, since you’ve modified those controls, we need to know that your car is safe enough to drive.”

We went through a rigorous series of testing, and they finally wrote me a letter that said that this car had been approved as a modified racing car with hand controls, and that I could race in the appropriate classes. I first raced in the amateur class and then moved up to the master’s class. That car would run close to 100 mph and was capable of running 120 to 130 mph straight-down the road.

Building hand controls and steering wheels to function with the hand controls was a requirement for every racecar I ever owned. My engineering team and I had to learn how to make each racecar adaptable to perform all the functions of the car from the steering wheel. In those days, there were no instructions on how to modify any racecars for hand controls.

For instance, on the Legends car, if you looked inside of it, you’d say there was no steering wheel on this car. It just had a straight bar for steering like a motorcycle. We modified the steering and the controls to function just like a motorcycle’s steering works. We removed all foot controls from the car, and I had a clutch between my legs that I could shift with one hand, while keeping the other on the steering bar.

Today, Craig has crossed over to drag racing. His drag car is so long, it won't fit into the picture!

Today, Craig has crossed over to drag racing. His drag car is so long, it won't fit into the picture!

Today I’m competing in drag racing. We bought a drag-racing chassis, put an engine in it and modified the steering to make a butterfly design, much like you see in other dragsters. However, if you look closely at the steering wheel, you’ll see that the throttle is a finger throttle instead of a foot throttle. I control the throttle with my right index finger. On the left side of the steering wheel is a hand brake, and I have the gearshift and the clutch where I can reach them. So, all functions of the dragster are on the steering wheel.

Although crashing is as much a part of racing as competing, I haven’t had a broken leg or arm or a complicated injury, other than the dings you get that are associated with racing. I honestly can say I feel safer driving my racecar and being strapped-in than I do going down a big city highway in heavy traffic.

The truth is that every racer puts himself or herself at risk when he participates in a high-risk sport like car racing. Accidents can happen. However, if you have proper safety equipment and a well-built car, then a disabled person is no more likely to be hurt as an able-bodied person.

Nowadays, Craig travels the country as a drag racer, with a customized drag car that you'll recognize a mile away!

Nowadays, Craig travels the country as a drag racer, with a customized drag car that you'll recognize a mile away!

Now that I’m more than 50-years old, however, I have changed from off-road racing, stadium racing and circular-track racing to drag racing. Right now, I’m racing a 200-inch wheel-base car with an interesting engine. Instead of having an automobile engine in my dragster, I have a Hayabusa, made by Suzuki that’s the fastest motorcycle engine on the market today.

My dragster is really like a strange-looking go-cart on steroids. Motorcycle riders are racing with this type of engine all over the world now. The engine has a chain drive that’s attached to a sprocket on the rear axle. It looks just like any-other dragster, except it doesn’t have a car engine but instead a motorcycle engine. That motorcycle engine allows us to do some very-creative things with it. Most motorcycles can be shifted with what is called an air shifter. Once you’re moving to shift the gears on a motorcycle, all you have to do is push a button.

By using this type of engine, I can put a shift button on my steering wheel. I can keep the throttle wide open, and when the engine hits a certain number of RPMs, it will shift itself. Because of the shifter, I believe I have one of the fastest dragsters in this class. We can get nearly 200 mph in a 1/4-mile racetrack.

When I’m in my dragster, I adhere to all the safety rules, wearing fireproof underwear and a fire suit, a full-face helmet and all the other safety equipment required for any drag racer.

Back in the early 1980s, I created my own logo. If you chopped-off the head of the typical handicapped logo and add a racing helmet instead of the dot or a little head on that logo, then that’s my logo. I don’t hide the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. That emblem is on my helmet and racecar, and if you see me down in the pit, I’m scurrying-around in my wheelchair.

Come see Craig and his unmistakable drag car at an event near you!

Come see Craig and his unmistakable drag car at an event near you!

However, once I crawl into my car and get strapped-in, I feel more comfortable then than I do sitting in a lounge chair at my home. I’m accepted by the other drag racers. After I have a run, often the other racers will come to see me and say something like, “Hey, I think it’s cool that you’re racing. I have a friend in a wheelchair who would love to see your car and what you’re doing.”

Really and truly racing is just me. I was racing before my accident, I’ve been doing a lot of racing since my accident, and I plan to do a lot more racing in the future.

Next: What’s in the Future for This Man of Speed – Craig Hairston?

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 Participates in the Baja 1000

  1. Pingback: Paraplegic Craig Hairston Recalls his Life Changing Accident and his Racing Career After Spinal Cord Injury « UroMed Catheter Health Blog

  2. Pingback: Check out Craig Hairston | Beyond Boundaries Blog

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