Over 330 entries have already been filed for the 30th Annual Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but one entry in particular has drawn quite a bit of attention. 23-year-old Eric Saunders is paralyzed from the waist down, but will be racing a car owned by Shane Hmiel who is also paralyzed.
Saunders was left paralyzed after crashing on a dirt bike just one day before his 18th birthday on August 28, 2010. Just a few months later Hmiel crashed while qualifying for a USAC Silver Crown race at Indiana’s Terre Haute Action Track.
“Before Shane’s accident he saw my dad at a USAC meeting,” Saunders told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “He was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I was in Eric’s situation,’ and then like a week later it happened to him. It was pretty crazy.”
Now the two of them have teamed up to race the biggest Midget event of the year, the Chili Bowl, with support from Hmiel’s foundation, Shane’s Spark.
“The whole Eric Saunders things with Shane’s Spark on the car couldn’t be any better,” said Hmiel. “A paralyzed owner with a paralyzed driver and a car sponsored by their foundation. I’m luckier than Eric is, I think. It’s very, very cool because of that.”
Saunders has raced 600-Sprints and non-winged Sprint Cars, but he’s never sat behind the wheel of a Midget before.
“I’ve talked to Shane Cottle about it actually, and he says everything is really the same and the feel for the car is all the same,” Saunders said. “We’re going to the Tulsa Shootout the week before just to get the feel for the track and get seat time.”
Saunders will have two teammates to lean on and learn from as the week goes on as Billy Wease and Sheldon Haudenschild will also be racing for Hmiel. But Hmiel doesn’t think that Saunders will have too much of a learning curve.
“With Eric having experience in smaller cars like a micro sprint and stuff like that then I don’t think him jumping into a Midget will be too hard,” said Hmiel. “I’m extremely excited about it. I look forward to racing with all three of my guys.”
Saunders’ car will look identical to Haudenschild’s and Wease’s but the cockpit of the car will be very different, especially on the steering wheel. Since Saunders is paralyzed from the waist down, he cannot use foot pedals. Instead, Saunders races with hand controls on the steering wheel.
“Everybody asks me how I can adapt to the hand controls,” Saunders explained. “But I raced motocross so I’m used to it.”
Neither Saunders nor Hmiel are putting any pressure on Saunders to try to win the Chili Bowl in his first attempt. Hmiel said he believes Saunders can finish in the top 100, but both are just thrilled to be heading to Tulsa to race.
“I’m racing the Chili Bowl,” said Saunders. “Not a lot of people in my situation get to say that. So if I don’t make the show then I don’t make the show. But I can say we’ve raced the Chili Bowl. Whatever we can do is to show people in our situation that there’s a lot of things that are still possible.”
“It’s Eric’s time,” Hmiel said. “He wanted to go to the Chili Bowl and have a good time and enjoy himself, so this is Eric’s time and no one can take it away from him. This is something that normal people don’t do, but he’s paralyzed and getting to do it.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Eric Saunders Racing Facebook