Carol Hollfelder says she doesn't feel inspirational, but as a paraplegic competing in a physical world and as a woman competing in a man's world, she is an inspiration to many.
"If some little girl, or some little handicapped kid, sees me pulling on my helmet and flipping down my visor and it gives them encouragement, then maybe what I'm doing is inspirational," she said. "But I look at it as something I'm loving to do for myself."
Hollfelder, 34, drives a 160-mph race car in the Speed World Challenge professional GT sports car series. Her competitors include BMW factory drivers Bill Auberlen, Boris Said and Hans Stuck, Porsche Cup veteran Mike Fitzgerald and Audi Racing's Randy Pobst.
"Once you're strapped in the car, it doesn't matter if you're a woman or if you're disabled, it becomes a level playing field," she said while wheeling her wheelchair around the Tiger Racing office in Covina, answering phones, taking messages and discussing her remarkable career.
"You're all the same when you get the green flag."
Her car is the first racing Mustang equipped with brake/throttle hand controls for a paraplegic driver -- designed by her father Tom -- and an electrohydraulically controlled transmission provided by Ford Advanced Powertrain.
Unlike most handicapped athletes, who return to their sport after being injured, Hollfelder was not a race driver before her near fatal injury on May 3, 1987. She was an equestrian, riding hunters and jumpers, dreaming of making the Olympic team on a horse.
She was 18, riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle on narrow and treacherous Angeles Crest Highway when they were clipped by an oncoming car on a blind curve, knocked down and run over by the next car.
Airlifted to Arcadia Methodist Hospital, she had a crushed spinal cord, lacerated liver, nine broken ribs and a right leg that had to be reconstructed. It was eight weeks and six surgeries later before she even began rehabilitation.
She remains paralyzed from the chest down.
"It was 16 years ago and I still have flashbacks and I get very nervous when I'm in the mountains," she said. "I've been back on the Angeles Crest road twice since then and it wasn't much fun. I still love motorcycles, though, and would love to learn how to ride one again."
The accident ended her horseback career, but she had grown up in a car racing environment. Her mother, Bea, had raced Sunbeam Tigers, hence the team's name, and her father raced and maintained vintage cars.
So it was a logical step for Carol to drive her Toyota Supra with hand controls and before long she was entering club races. But she was stuck with driving an automatic because there were no hand controls designed for a manual transmission.
"I was beginning to adapt to running in club events, but then my funding stopped," Carol said. "I got married and my dad said if I was married I had to pay my own way. That was that, so from 1991 to 1997 I was out of racing. When I got a divorce, I got my funding back."
Tom Hollfelder had read of Formula One driver Clay Regazzoni's driving hand-controlled vehicles in European vintage races and wrote the Swiss veteran asking for information. Regazzoni, winner of the first Long Beach Grand Prix, became a paraplegic after crashing in the 1980 race when his brake pedal broke and he slammed into a barricade.
Seven years later, Hollfelder heard from Regazzaoni, who said he was returning to Long Beach to run in a charity celebrity race and that he would come by Hollfelder's race shop.
"Sure enough, he turned up at the front door with these three chain-smoking Italian mechanics and they installed the hand controls on my Ferrari Mondial," she said. "I was never so thrilled in my life when Clay said he would teach me how to use them -- right out in front of the shop on Arrow Highway. Can you imagine how I felt, getting a private lesson from a Formula One winning driver?"
Using the Regazzoni hand controls as a starting point, Tom Hollfelder designed his own more advanced brake/throttle system and had it fabricated by Steele Therkleson, who had been a mechanic on the winning Ford GT teams at Le Mans in 1966-67. In 1999, Carol won an SCCA regional championship driving a 355 F1 Ferrari.
"It was great at first, but the more we raced it, the more we realized we needed a faster car to be competitive on the pro level," Carol said. "The Ferrari had been designed for the street, not for racing."
Ford, working through its "No Boundaries" program in conjunction with HP Motorsport of Omaha, stepped up with a Mustang for Carol to drive in the Speed World Challenge. Its transmission has fingertip control Formula One-style "paddles" that allow almost imperceptible gear changes in under 250 milliseconds.
"The Mustang's a great road car," Carol said. "It has twice the horsepower and twice the torque of the Ferrari Challenge. We wouldn't be racing if not for Ford."