January 22nd 1998
Pioneer Motorsports was created for the purpose of raising the awareness of the capabilities of the physically challenged and provides opportunities for the disabled to compete in motor racing. Our team motto is- "Know No Limits." The organization was founded in 1996 by Ray Paprota, a T-10 paraplegic as the result of a motor vehicle accident at the age of 21.
Rays interest in auto racing began as a child. His father raced cars and owned a gas station/garage. His dad raced back in the fifties and sixties against the likes of Wally Dallenbach Sr.. Ray always wanted to go fast. Born May 13, 1962, he cut his racing teeth in high school "my high school friends and I bracket-raced our street cars at Raceway Park", the legendary 1/4 mile drag strip near the town of Spotswood, New Jersey where he grew up. "In fact, I remember the first time I raced, I was sixteen and I was in my mothers 1974 Chevy Caprice. She let me borrow it to go to the movies with my buddies and we went to the track during test-and-tune night instead. We turned the air cleaner lid over so the engine could breath better and I forgot to fix it before I parked it that night. The next morning my mom left for work and shortly later returned to the kitchen complaining that the car was making a strange noise. Immediately knowing what I had done, I jumped up and ran outside and fixed it before my dad heard about it-- he would have freaked out if he had found it that way."
In 1980, Ray joined the Air Force after graduating from Burr D. Coe High School in East Brunswick, N.J.. He was trained to work on nuclear missiles while stationed in South Dakota. He dreamed of racing when he left the military. Shortly after returning home his world would change forever. In May of 1984, Ray was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Six months of rehab at the Robert Wood Johnson Rehabilitation Center in Edison, New Jersey taught Ray that nothing would come easy in his new life. "Rehab was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. If not for my family and friends it could have been just awful, but their support made me want to work harder so I could come home."
Ray returned to work as a lab tech at the local paper mill and began attending college classes, completing two years of business studies. He became involved with the New Jersey Wheelchair Athletic Association and began competing in basketball, table tennis and power weight- lifting. Ray enjoyed success in wheelchair sports, helping the New Jersey Blue Devils basketball team reach the Top Ten in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and making the Mid-Atlantic Conference all-star team five times. In table tennis, he represented the United States in international competition placed second in the U.S. Weight Lifting Nationals as a light heavy weight. "Wheelchair sports became a great outlet for me. It provides intense competition and tremendous satisfaction, and instilled true comraderie with others who were going through similar life situations"
Ray was married to his high school sweetheart, Anita, in 1988. Together they enjoyed the travel that competitive wheelchair sports brought and the countless friends they met all over the country. In 1992 they relocated to Birmingham, Alabama so Ray could play wheelchair basketball for the Lakeshore Foundation. "I could have gone just about anywhere to play ball but I felt Lakeshore had the best overall program in the country."
The move to Birmingham proved to be a great decision. With a background in recruiting, Anita opened her own company, The Hire Authority Inc. and completed her Masters degree at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in Counseling with a major in Rehabilitation. The move afforded Ray the opportunity to train at basketball as if he were in a college program. "The first few years I trained five days a week, from lifting weights and shooting in the gym to practicing with the team guys several nights a week. I loved it. I was pushing hard to make a try-out for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta and things looked great until I injured my shoulder." A torn rotator cuff sidelined the Paralympic dream and made Ray realize that he was going to need to find another way to get his competitive fix in place of basketball and other wheelchair sports.
In the back of his head he wondered if he could pursue his dream of racing, and began to crew with some friends who raced Legends Cars. The Legends Series is a spec series, meaning all the cars adhere to tight rules that are designed to emphasis driver skill rather than the depth of a teams budget. After working on the cars for a season Ray determined that the size of the 5/8 scale Legends car fit perfectly with a person in a wheelchair. Ray was able to perform all the maintenance on the cars, from simple oil changes to rear end gear changes and complete engine swaps, entirely by himself. "It may take me three times as long to perform a task but Im able to do it." After the first year of crewing for others Ray decided "if Im going to do all this work I might as well get to enjoy the driving as well."
Ray purchased a Legends Racer which was being campaigned by a fellow disabled racer, Craig Hairston from South Carolina, who was getting out of the sport. "It was the fastest way to get my butt in a race car. Craig had the hand controls and a modified clutch and gear shifter installed and we were able to go racing right away-- we did not need to reinvent the wheel." Ray and his friends refined the existing controls to suit his style and started racing competitively.
"I proceeded very slowly at first. I wanted the other drivers to know that they could trust me, that just because I was in a wheelchair didnt mean I was any less skilled. It took time for the other racers to see me as just another driver but by showing them that I do everything on the car, I get the feeling that they now see right past the wheelchair." It took several races before the other drivers loosened up, and Ray experienced some interesting reactions early on. "I remember that at first they kind of discounted me, almost took it easy on me, until I started to pass them and then I got the feeling that everyone said "thats enough, he has to earn it now" and thats when I knew I was accepted as a race car driver."
As much as competitive wheelchair sports has done for Ray, he cant even begin to explain the tremendous reward he receives from competing head to head with his able-bodied peers. "The best feeling in the world is getting out of the car after a tough race and talking with the other racers about what just happened on the track. It is the only time I dont feel disabled and the only time that I dont feel other people are looking at me like I have a disability. I cant think of any other sport where you can compete like that, you know, heads up with no other accommodations for my limitations. Once I hop out of my wheelchair and into my race car, Im just another guy swapping paint."
In 1997, his first season as a Legends Series driver, he finished seventh in the Alabama State Semi-Pro championship points. "We only ran about half the races and I improved dramatically as a race car driver. I took it seriously and would practice whenever I could to get as much seat time as possible. I worked with Mike Loescher of Finishline Racing School. He taught me that in order to be fast you have to be smooth. Taking a driving school gave me the confidence to push the car to the edge but still be able to control it." Lakeshore was a great help early on, and helped with the expenses of the driving school as this was consistent with its progressive nature of supporting athletes with disabilities.
In his first year, Ray raced all across Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and even at the Legends Nationals in Charlotte, North Carolina. The first seasons stories could fill a book-- he experienced everything from blown engines and electrical fires to running out of gas during the feature race. "At the very first race in Florida, the Racing Gods must not have wanted me to race because we lost an engine and swapped it, smoked a clutch and replaced it and then had an electrical fire that forced me to bail out of the race car onto the ground and required the entire wiring harness to be replaced, all before we ever got out of the pits to practice on the race track! Then when we did get on the track I made about ten laps and the gear shifter broke off in my hand and I had to spin the car out to get it to stop, we must have looked pretty stupid, but Ive been told that everybody has a first race story , theyre just not wild as mine."
The Mecca of stock car racing, Charlotte Motor Speedway, is where more than three hundred Legends Series racers from around the world compete to determine the National Champion in four different divisions. With only seven races under his belt, Ray qualified 51st out of 110 competitors in the Semi-Pro division and made it to the "C-Main" before being eliminated. "I attended the Nationals that first year only to get some experience so that when I returned this year after a full 1998 season of racing I would be better prepared to compete." The most amazing thing about Rays racing is that he doesnt have a big trailer and tow rig or a ten man crew to help him at the races, he basically does it all himself. "I have learned that the only way I can go racing is to be completely prepared: I have such a small budget that I have to make do with far less than the average Legends racer."
Ray has modified his small open style trailer with a winch so he can load and unload the car by himself. He has all his tools in plastic totes that he can slide in and out of the back of a pick-up and put on his lap. The car is prepared with quick disconnect fasteners which allow the car to break down quickly for service. "I have it set up so I can race by myself, but I sure do appreciate it when my wife comes to the races and lends a hand. If she cant make it to a race I pair up with some other racers and we act like a multi-car team, everybody helping everybody." Rays friend, world class wheelchair tennis player Scott Douglas also helps out and attends as many races as his competitive schedule allows. "We sure can be a specticule when we show up to the races. We raced at Atlanta Motorspeedway during the spring Winton Cup weekend and the look of astonishment on the faces of racers and fans alike as two guys in wheelchairs prepared to race was priceless."
The 1998 season brought a large degree of improvement. Ray reached his preseason goal of top three by finishing third in the Semi-Pro Championship. He missed the first race of the year, and had he made that race and received only the minimum points for the race, it would have put him in a close battle for the state championship. His first win was not to be in 1998, but a dozen top tens and several second place finishes reinforced his commitment to the sport. "I know I can hang with these guys, and I fully expect to win a race, real soon."
One of the interesting things about being so visual in the pits is that all kinds of people come up to talk to Ray. "People come up to tell me that Im an inspiration for them or that they know someone in a wheelchair and they cant wait to tell them what Im doing, but the best is when a little kid in a wheelchair comes into the pits after the race and they just want to meet me and look in the car to see how I do it-- that makes all the hard work worthwhile."
What started as an opportunity to display the car at one of the Lakeshore Foundations Super Sports Saturday programs, a youth-based program that teaches disabled kids about various wheelchair sports from tennis and swimming to basketball and track and field, has turned into a full fledged juniors program called the Lakeshore Little Slicks. Sponsored by the Lakeshore Foundation, the Little Slicks is a hands-on program committed to teaching physically challenged children about the tools, teamwork and technology of auto racing. The kids take on various jobs such as working with Ray to set up the chassis and prepare the race car for the next race. During the winter off-season, the kids will embark on the newest project, restoring a Legends car from the frame up. Thanks to the Lakeshore Foundations founder, Michael E. Stephens, who provided a car for this purpose, the project began with the kids naming the chassis "BUBBA" and will involve the kids in every facet of the restoration.
The challenge that lies ahead for Ray is the most exciting of all. "I have been approached to step up and drive an ARCA Stock Car. ARCA is kind of the "Double A league" to Winston Cup, right next to the Bush Grand National level. Im excited about the opportunity to showcase my skills with a full race team, top quality race cars and a real crew, the whole shooting match. This is why I have worked so hard on my own program...to be recognized for my driving abilities as well as my work ethic and commitment to helping others is just the icing on the cake." The real challenge will be modifying the full sized stock car with hand-controls. It will be far more complicated than the set up in his Legends Car. "We will have to fabricate everything, you cant just go and buy this kind of stuff of the shelf."
"I cant wait to get into the ARCA car and do some testing during the winter-off season. Ill be headed down to Florida to work again with Mike at Finishline Race School and do some testing in the big car. We hope to debut the new race team in the spring. Plans are in the works to really burst onto the next level of racing. We are preparing a super-speedway car to run at Talladega with the goal of breaking the closed course speed record for Stock Cars, held by Bill Elliot at 226 m.p.h.. We may even make the February, 1999 ARCA race held in conjunction with the Winston Cups Daytona 500. I still plan to race the Legends Series, but maybe it will be time for another Lakeshore athlete or even a junior to step up and race my car if Im going to be running a busy schedule in the ARCA car. Now THAT would make my day-- to see one of the kids grow up and someday race the car that they helped prepare when they were a Little Slick!"
"You gotta have dreams!"
Pioneer Motorsports and Little
Connect with Ray at: Speedar@aol.com