Racers roll up to the Bandimere Speedway starting line, waiting with sweaty palms for the staging-tree lights to turn from yellow to green. Then they break from the start and travel 60 feet in about eight seconds. In wheelchairs.
Bandimere for the first time hosted the Craig Hospital Motor Sports Day and Wheelchair Drag Races on Aug. 26, with all proceeds benefiting Craig’s Paralympic Sports Programs. Some 20 participants ages 10 to 72 competed not for prizes but for fun and thrills.
“It’s a bunch of people in chairs out on the track, having fun despite a disability, laughing, joking, taking potshots at each other and talking smack,” said Corey Fairbanks, director of the Paralympic Sports Program.
Ryan Wright, a junior at Conifer High School, was among the competitors, and he said people with disabilities benefit from staying active and embracing challenges.
“It’s in the attitude — some people in wheelchairs, they don’t have anything they can do, and then they become ‘dis-abled,’ ” Wright said.
Wright, 16, is no stranger to competition. He is Colorado’s first physically disabled athlete to letter in a high school sport. A wheelchair basketball player, he will be honored at an assembly at CHS in October.
“The trick is to use hand speed,” Wright said of his race strategy. “Get up to the fastest speed, and take the palm of your hand and hit the tires until you finish.”
Wright’s strategy worked in his first race, as he won handily with a time of 7.969. But he lost the coveted “fastest racer” title to Christina Ripp of Lakewood, a late entry who won with a time of 7.73.
Ripp, who also races in 26.2-mile marathons, competed in the men’s division because there were no other female racers in her group.
“My competitiveness came out a little bit. I can’t lose to a 16-year-old kid,” said Ripp, 30.
“I get bragging rights. I won the men’s division.” ‘A larger community’
Craig Hospital treats patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, but Motor Sports Day isn’t just for Craig patients. Participants came from all area hospitals, including Children’s Hospital and the Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Craig’s Paralympic Sports Program, started in October 2009, helps physically disabled children, veterans and others get active in sports such as sled hockey, basketball, rugby, softball and tennis.
“Craig understands we are a larger community,” Fairbanks said. “The program is bigger than the Craig mission. The disabled community is a cohesive group whether they came through Craig or not. We need to keep these programs around to ensure that people with physical disabilities have sporting opportunities year-round.” Fairbanks, a former Craig patient who injured his back in a skiing accident, said he’s been on both sides of the fence as an able-bodied athlete and as a para-athlete.
For Fairbanks, it’s all about sled hockey. He’s been the captain of the Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey team for the last 10 years and has played the physically demanding sport for 15 years.
Power wheelchair presentation
Walter Salazar of Denver was the recipient of the 2010 Darrell Gwynn Foundation Quality of Life Wheelchair Award. With tears on his cheeks, he accepted a new cherry-red power chair.
During the presentation, Salazar, a quadriplegic, asked for a moment of silence to remember his wife. In July, Salazar and his wife were returning from their honeymoon — spent volunteering at a children’s burn camp in Texas — when a tire on his motorcycle blew. His bride of two weeks, Trish, died in the ensuing crash.
A 24-year member of the Denver Fire Department, Salazar proudly wore his uniform and said he had learned the spirit of giving from the brotherhood in the fire service. Salazar plans to continue volunteering, and kids are close to his heart.
“With this chair, I can learn where I can still go and help people,” Salazar said. “It’s all about the kids.”
Salazar, 52, was selected to receive the power chair by a committee of doctors, nurses, therapists and hospital personnel. Darrell Gwynn, a professional race car driver paralyzed in a racing accident, created a nonprofit foundation to provide wheelchairs and supportive services for those affected by paralysis through illness or injury.
“It’s about giving back,” Salazar said. “I’ve been lucky in this life to become a firefighter. I’m so proud to give back.”