Life in the Fast Lane

by Amy Madsen on Sat, 2007-09-01 09:16
Darlene Bates, diagnosed with ALS in 2001, got the thrill of a lifetime recently when she became a NASCAR "co-pilot," reaching speeds of up to 180 mph on a stock car race track. She's pictured here with Chris Skram of The Racing Experience, a stock car racing school in Kansas.

Darlene Bates of Lee’s Summit, Mo., has a thing for checkers. Not the board game, but the black-and-white painted squares that mark the beginning and end of a stock car race.

Bates, who received a diagnosis of ALS in November 2001, is a NASCAR fan who watches the races on television every weekend, rooting for her favorite driver, Jimmie Johnson, 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion and driver of the Lowe’s-sponsored No. 48 Chevrolet. (Lowe’s also is an MDA national sponsor.)

Despite being unable to move her arms and legs, this June, Bates took her passion for NASCAR one step further than most, with a 180-mph ride in a stock car at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.

The need for speed

lyn bates
Bates uses a chin-controlled joystick to control her wheelchair.

Lyn Rebel, Bates’ hospice social worker at the time, made it all happen. After hearing Bates comment once that she wished she had gone sky diving, and knowing of her love of NASCAR, Rebel decided to try to secure her the ride of a lifetime.

Rebel checked first to make sure Bates, who uses a power wheelchair and Mercury communication device, was physically up to the experience. She then spoke with Bates’ daughter and caregiver, Jane Boyd, to see if she thought it was something her mom would enjoy.

“Jane told me to go for it,” Rebel says.

Rebel next contacted The Racing Experience, a stock car racing school that gives people the opportunity to either pilot a stock car in near-racing conditions, or to see how the professionals do it as viewed from the passenger seat. President and CEO Kelly Bussey happily agreed to donate a racing experience to Bates.

“He also said his crew would do everything possible to get Darlene into a race car so she could experience the thrill of riding,” Rebel says.

With the offer in place, the next thing to do was tell Bates, which Rebel did on her next home visit.

“I’ll never forget Darlene’s reaction,” Rebel says. “She just laughed and laughed until tears were coming down her cheeks.”

At the drop of the green flag

Bates was originally scheduled for a ride in May, but her NASCAR adventure had to be postponed twice due to rain. June 15, however, dawned sunny and bright, and the temperature climbed to a sweltering 91 degrees.

bates in car
ford fusion
Bates, in firesuit and helmet, is strapped in place ready to go. Her ride was a 600-horsepower Ford Fusion.

Bates spent nearly two hours at the track, accompanied by her hospice nurse, Brian Ghafari-Naraghi; hospice volunteer, Sarah Glavin; friend Jim Wilson; daughter Jane; granddaughter Shae Boyd; and Kathy Peters, Bates’ friend and MDA ALS health care service coordinator.

After checking in at 9 a.m., Bates spent time soaking up the ambiance of the speedway. Not one to miss out on anything, she included a trip through the garage area, where she was treated to an up-close look at some of the cars.

“The track smelled like hot tires and gas,” she says.  “They had a bulletin board where they would write your name. Once your name went on the board, you had to get into a firesuit and wait to be called.”

When her turn finally came, Bates made her way to the car surrounded by friends and family. Getting into the car — through the window, the way NASCAR drivers do — wasn’t exactly easy.

“Brian, the hospice nurse, had made Velcro straps,” Peters says. “We strapped her legs and thighs together with those, then three strong young men picked her up and set her in the window with her feet in the car and her body still out. Another man crawled in headfirst over the driver with his feet sticking out the driver’s window and helped pull her legs in and get them positioned comfortably.”

The men made sure Bates’ neck and head were supported, as everyone tugged and pulled to get her comfortable, and then the helmet went on.

“When we added the helmet it was too heavy, and her head fell so that she couldn’t see where she was going,” Peters says. “Out came the Velcro. Her head was Velcroed in place, she was belted in and, with a huge smile, she was off.

“By the time we got the wheelchair and all of us off the infield, the driver radioed back from Turn 4 saying she was smiling from ear to ear.”

A new appreciation

Bates estimates she spent 10 “awesome” minutes in the car, the high point of which were the three laps she sped around the track.

“It was loud when my driver first started it, but we took off and it was great,” she says. “He kept asking me on the ride if I was OK. I was laughing and having the time of my life.

“I just loved it when he changed gears and I knew we were going to go faster,” she adds.

Bates says the experience has given her a greater appreciation for her Sunday heroes.

lyn bates and jim wilson
Bates' friend and caregiver, Jim Wilson, shared her special day at the track.

“It was sure hot,” she says. “I certainly have a new admiration for the NASCAR drivers who spend hours in those cars. I don’t know anyone else who endures such extreme conditions.”

The checkered flag waves

Bates’ NASCAR ride may have come and gone, but life at high speed — even with ALS — continues to be her style. She attends her grandchildren’s ballgames, goes to church every Sunday and never misses an opportunity to enjoy life.

“What a fabulous woman,” Peters says of Bates. “She truly does epitomize living a full life no matter the circumstances.”

Bates tells everyone those few minutes in the car left her “exhilarated, thrilled and happy — never scared.” And though she topped out at a lightning 180 mph, it’s a testament to her determination to get the most out of every minute that she adds, “Yes, indeed, I would have gone faster.”

Amy Madsen
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