An enigma for sure, Travis doesn’t just maneuver through life like the rest of us, content to make our way safely from point A to point B. He seems to propel himself through life in a series of bold yet subtle gestures. Never boisterous or over the top, like many that share his passion. Instead he carries his confidence like he carries his faith, quietly tucked away in his back pocket; on the ready for that “break glass in case of emergency” kind of moment. The moments themselves, as they have been since he was three, are self-imposed, typically challenging, and not without some amount of danger.
If you were to watch his life from the beginning, like a movie, you would have said on more than one occasion, “Well, there it is…he’s done”. Then each time you watch him recover, you’re still for a moment, slack jawed and stunned at the sheer will and want, that make up a considerable chunk of who he is. Pressing on, regardless of the obstacle, and never losing the humility and humble disposition, that makes everyone that has met him admire him even more.
On July 8th, 2012, Travis Tollett will make history. On that day Travis will become the the first Quadriplegic Driver in the 90 year history of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. But don’t call it a comeback. Travis has been competing at Pikes Peak since 2005. First on Pro ATV’s then for the last three years as the co-driver of the FMR, Alamo Autosports Time Attack 240SX (My car). In that time, Travis has only missed one year on the Hill, 2007, the year of his accident. An accident that would have forever sidelined many competitors, was reduced by Travis to a simple, yet life changing, inconvenience.
I met Travis in 2005, his rookie year on the Hill. I could tell, even then, that he was a pretty special kid, and a very talented racer. Although it wasn’t until after his accident that I really got a chance to get to know him. It was 2009 and Travis was slated to be the co-driver for Steve Bennett in a Pikes Peak Open Mazda RX-7. We all figured everything was set and ready to go, but just two days before Tech Inspection, I got a call from Steve. They had suffered a major setback and their car wouldn’t be ready in time for the race. Steve called to ask if Travis could ride with me instead. “Hell yes” was the answer. But now I had just one day to modify my car to pass Tech with a passenger. We were able to pick up the parts we needed and with the help of good friend and FMR team rider, Lee Kent, we made Tech with little issue. At Tech Inspection, however, we found that getting the car approved would be far easier than, getting Travis and I approved. Though I had been on the hill for five years now, I was a rookie in the car and because of that it took several conversations with the Race and Safety Directors before we secured a thumbs up.
Practice Day Two, we were on the top section of the hill running from Devils Playground to the Summit. Travis and I belted in and made our practice run. As we were sitting there on the Summit, we looked out over the vast expanse to the south and west of Pikes Peak. It was a very peaceful morning. Still and silent as we waited for the next car to arrive on the summit. Quietly, Travis told me that this was the first time he had been back on the summit since his accident. He then raised his arm and pointed to a hill just a few miles away and said “There it is. That’s the road where I broke my neck”. I knew the area well, but it never occurred to me that from the summit you could see the exact spot where Travis’ life had so radically changed. I didn’t say anything. One of the few occasion in my life, where I was left speechless. And as most that know me can attest, this is a rare occurrence indeed. I looked over at Travis and, although he didn’t say anything else, I could tell there was much going on.
After the race in 2009, Travis first expressed to me his desire to come back to the hill as a driver. We were talking about him coming back as my co-driver in 2010, which he did; but the conversations occasionally turned back to what kind of vehicle could be modified to get him back to racing. We made it through the race in 2010, and afterwards talked frequently, and even visited on a few occasions. Each time we talked about next year’s race, and each time Travis talked more about wanting to get back behind the wheel. Then during our run in 2011, we had a major failure of the head gasket variety. We pressurized the cooling system until half way though the W’s when a hose burst and hot radiator fluid came pouring through a hole in the firewall. I looked at Travis as he was lifting his legs out of the way of the three hundred degree used-to-be cooling fluid. He turned to me and yelled, “I’m fine! GO GO GO!!” We pressed on as far as we could, but the engine had failed and we would be forced to retire just a mile from the summit. As we are sitting there, watching the rest of the Time Attack competitors pass by, I kept thinking back to the moment where Travis was yelling at me to keep going.
It had always been clear that Travis was a far better competitor than I was, and even elevated my performance just by being in the car. It was exceedingly clear, now more than ever, that we had to do find some way to get Travis back on the hill, behind the wheel of his own vehicle. Travis and this place…this race, were meant to be.
Next Time: Ideas, Interest and a Board of Directors.