Back on August 28, 2010, a day before his 18th birthday, Eric Saunders was out practicing on his motocross bike when he got crossed up from a jump and landed sideways. The injuries from that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
After multiple surgeries and rehabilitation, Saunders knew that his racing career wasn’t over. He began to live his life under the motto, “I Can, I Will.”
“It came from a motocross background,” Saunders told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “The mentality of a motocross rider is like no other human. Motocross riders are fighters.”
It wasn’t long after that his friends on social media would find photos of him driving four wheelers and eventually even getting back on a bike. Nothing was going to stop him.
About two years ago, Saunders decided to take on a new challenge at Plymouth Speedway in Plymouth, Indiana by racing 600-Sprint cars.
With the help of Tony Stewart, a longtime family friend, and Calico Coatings, Eric Saunders was racing again, this time behind a steering wheel of a four-wheel sprint car.
Unable to use his legs, Saunders uses hand controls to race around Plymouth Speedway.
“We basically use the throttle off of a watercraft and the brake of a bicycle to get the idea of we make it work,” Saunders explained. “It was really basic, but we had to figure the best way to make work so I would be more comfortable.”
Saunders wanted to prove something to himself…that he could win again.
Over the last two years, he kept making improvements. This year, he pretty much became a regular on the podium, but never at the top of the podium.
That was until Saturday, October 4, 2014. Four years and 36 days after his accident.
Saunders, who is now 22-years-old, started on the pole for the 20-lap 600 Sprint feature, took the lead and continued all the way to the checkered flag where he made a dream become a reality.
“I was really focused on staying out front,” Saunders recalled. “At the same time I was getting emotional.”
Up near the tower, Eric’s father, Irish Saunders was watching Eric complete lap after lap.
“He takes the lead from the start and all of a sudden, the memories of watching him race motocross came back to me. Did he take that jump right, did he hit that turn, will that bobble slow him down,” Irish Saunders said. “I would continue to see how many laps to go, how he was driving his line, etc. I was walking through every lap with him. It seemed like a 1000 laps but it was only 20.
“I remember walking down and I said to myself, ‘Holy s–t.’ I am balling like a baby down to victory lane. I never thought I would ever see him win again. Eric looked at me and told me to quit my balling. He then said, ‘Dad…I am back!’”
One of the first people he talked too after the win was Tony Stewart.
“He was one of the first people I talked to. He told me how proud he was of me and it was so good to hear that from him.”
Overall it was a good night for the entire Saunders family. Eric not only won the feature, but his heat race as well. Eric’s brother, Garrett, also won his heat race.
For Eric Saunders, this was just the achievement of one of his many goals.
“It felt amazing. I am just so thankful to still be able to race,” Saunders said. “I can say this is most definitely is a mission accomplished, but I still have a lot of goals and I want to achieve a lot more with my racing career.”
Some of those goals include winning some POWRi Racing events as well as some championships.
For Saunders, the victory provides more of a realization to his motto of “I Can, I Will.”
“My motto ‘I Can, I Will’ means to never give up and push yourself to prove to others that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.”
Saunders had t-shirts made with the “I Can, I Will” motto soon after his accident. Recently, they updated it to “I Can, I Will” on the front with the words, “I Did” on the back with a picture of his 600-sprint car.
Now they will need to do an updated backside of that t-shirt with, “I Did, I Won.”
– Kevin Ramsell, Speed51.com Midwest Editor. Twitter: @KevinRamsell
Photo Credit: Gary Gasper