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Blind Trust : Zany Promotion at Ventura Raceway That Began as a Vision for a Friend Tests the Communication Skills --Not to Mention the Nerves--of a Driver Who Cannot See and a Navigator Who--Look Out!--Can


VENTURA — Throughout the years, racing promoters have come up with all sorts of bizarre ideas in an attempt to put more fans in the stands.

For Ascot Speedway, it was Chain Racing and Cops 'n' Robbers demolition derbies, and Saugus Speedway featured Train Racing, Things That Go Bump In The Night and Demolition Derby Football, using a Volkswagen as the ball.

Ventura Raceway has a monthly feature, set for action tonight, called Blind Man's Bluff, in which Pony Stock drivers race Ford Pintos around the quarter-mile clay oval while blindfolded, with a passenger giving directions.

Lest anyone accuse Ventura's Jim Naylor of being the most-demented promoter of them all, the idea actually was hatched by a driver and car builder who wanted to give his blind friend an opportunity to compete.

Jim Jewett of Oxnard and Greg Kauffman of Ventura have known each other for 15 years, and Kauffman, who owns the car that has won four consecutive track championships in the Street Stock division, has been blind since a hiking accident 24 years ago.

"It was started on Greg's behalf so that he could race," Naylor said of what might very well be his most-popular promotion.

Said Jewett: "A couple of years ago, I went to Jim Naylor and asked him if I could build a two-seater for Greg to drive.

"Jim checked the rules and said that it didn't say anything about being able to see and told me to go for it."

The special car, which was paid for with donations from local businesses, originally was built with the intention of having Kauffman compete in regular Pony Stock races, with Jewett navigating.

The class had become very competitive by the time the car was built, however, so the decision was made to hold a special race instead, with a purse instead of points because the cars require modifications for this type of competition.

In addition to the passenger's seat, safety rules and common sense dictate the need for a second safety net, on the passenger's window, as well as a kill switch and emergency brake within easy reach of the sighted navigator, since the rules do not allow the passenger to grab the steering wheel at any time.

Another challenge of Blind Man's Bluff was ensuring that participants could not see.

Mira Cook of Camarillo drove and won the inaugural race in 1994 with a paper bag over her helmet but discovered she could still see the track lights.

Other competitors tried wearing eye patches under headbands but found that putting on a helmet would displace the eye patches.

The second time out, Cook tried a pair of goggles that were painted black and covered with duct tape, which worked for her, but some of the other competitors found that they could still see, if they squinted.


The newest accouterment, which will make its debut in tonight's race, is a special racing hood with black eye patches sewn in.

Despite the extra expense involved in setting up a car for Blind Man's Bluff, there was no problem finding drivers who were up to the task.

"I wanted to go out and race with Greg," Cook said.

"He's done so much for me, and he wanted to race so bad but was never able to do it until Jim Jewett came up with the idea."

Cook added that Kauffman and his wife, Maureen, helped her get her first race car together in 1993.

Kauffman and Jewett won the first two races that were held this year and finished last their third and fourth times out.

Using the standard Pony Stock points calculations, Kauffman and Jewett currently would be in third place with 210 points, if points were awarded.

Of all of the competitors who have tried their luck at Blind Man's Bluff, Jewett's daughter, Tracy, of Sherman Oaks, is the only one to have been both driver and navigator .

Tracy Jewett guided Cook to a fourth-place finish in the July 7 race while filling in for Cook's usual navigator, Kathy Pierson of Camarillo, and drove to a second-place finish April 7 while getting directions from Tina Verdun of Ventura. "I like the driving part better because when you're navigating you get frustrated when you're screaming at someone and they keep going the wrong way," Tracy Jewett said.

"I'd rather be blindfolded, not knowing what I'm doing, than see when someone else doesn't know where they're going."

All of the drivers and navigators found that the best way to communicate during a race is by voice.

Cook said she discussed the possibility of having Pierson grab her knee, pointing it in the direction the car needed to go, but found that the roll cage got in the way.

Jim Jewett had the idea of squeezing Kauffman's leg during a race to tell him to speed up but quickly realized the potential for trouble. "If we were headed toward another car and I tensed up and squeezed, he'd speed up and that would be it," Jewett said.

Because a race car is not a very quiet place, commands need to be kept simple.

Pierson and Cook use only four words during a race, with volume being the key.

"The louder I yell 'left,' the harder I want her to turn," Pierson said. "And the louder I yell 'faster,' the faster I want her to go."

Accidents happen in all types of racing, and a field of sightless drivers increases the potential for collisions. But the excitement of racing tends to negate the fear factor for many drivers.

"One night we went into the wall, and that gave everybody a rush," said Andy Oviatt, who navigates for his car owner, Jon Youngerman. "I was so excited that I didn't even feel hitting the wall."

Naylor said fan response has been positive, and he has had no problems getting his insurance company to cooperate with the promotion.

"It's a little bit of entertainment that gives Greg a chance to drive," Naylor said. "It's a challenging race, and when it's done right, it's a lot of fun."

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