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How this Utahn put the disabled back in the driver's seat

SALT LAKE CITY — In the brief moment when he still had time to consider his options, Rob Parsons thought maybe he could run out the landing. He’d done it many times before on his BMX bicycle, ditching the bike one way and then hitting the ground running.

This time, though, he was on a dirt bike with a 450 engine running at full throttle. His rear wheel had caught the front edge of the far lip of an 80-foot jump, 40 feet off the ground, causing his feet to fly off the pegs as he skittered through the air at 40 mph. There was zero chance of a soft landing.

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows the hand controls he built to enable him to operate the car at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows the hand controls he built to enable him to operate the car at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On impact, both legs straightened instantly, sending compressive fractures up and down his spine. He broke his back, both fibulas, both femurs, his ribs and punctured his right lung. He hit so hard his hard-shell racing boots literally exploded off his feet.

“There wasn’t a piece of him that wasn’t busted,” says Tim Parsons, Rob Parsons' dad, who was there when they transported his son to the hospital in Lethbridge, Canada, Rob’s hometown, and from there sent him by medical helicopter to the hospital in Calgary — where he would learn he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Six months later, after the surgeons had somehow managed to piece what was left of him back together, he rolled out into the Alberta sunshine in a wheelchair. At 25 he was a paraplegic.

But The Wreck did not transform Rob Parsons’ life.

It just meant he had to figure out new ways to do what he loved.

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows the hand controls he built to enable him to operate the car at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows the hand controls he built to enable him to operate the car at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

* * *

“Don’t quit living because stuff happens,” Parsons says as he sits at a workbench at Lyfe Motor Sports, a company that builds race cars in Murray. He doesn’t say this personal mantra of his in a preachy way, but as a matter-of-fact answer to why he does what he does.

He’s 33 now. It’s been eight years since he flew off the dirt bike and “broke almost everything all at once, except, thank God, my arms.”

In those eight years he has spent exactly zero time dwelling on the accident or second-guessing what went wrong or why it happened. When he woke up in the hospital and realized the new hand he’d been dealt, he refused to look back and instead got busy dealing with his new reality.

Where this attitude came from, Parsons isn't sure, but he remembers instinctively lying there flat on his back and thinking that stressing out and feeling sorry for himself wasn’t going to help anything or anyone, least of all him. Looking on the bright side made a lot more sense.

“From the day he went in the hospital it was like, ‘This is it and let’s go forward,’” confirms Tim Parsons. “It was amazing how he didn’t let what happened stop him. For a parent, it was hard to watch what he had to go through. But even before he was out of the hospital he had figured out how to make his race car.”

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Going fast had always been Rob’s passion — on a BMX bike, a dirt bike and especially in a car. He loved to race drift cars, steering sideways on purpose at 90 mph. As he recuperated in the hospital he dreamed of drifting again. But not having the use of his legs meant he couldn’t work the clutch, an essential part of drifting. So he began plotting a solution. He would engineer a hand-control clutch so he could shift with his arms.

As soon as he got out of the hospital, thanks to an insurance settlement and an iron will, he got to work building his race car from the ground up.

It took a lot of trial-and-error to get the clutch problem right, but eight months later he was the proud owner of a one-of-a-kind drift car with the electronic shifter right next to the steering wheel.

Word of his accomplishment spread and hundreds of friends and supporters showed up at an unveiling party at a Lethbridge pub to raise enough money to help send him and his car off to the racing scene in Southern California.

Hoonigan Industries, a Los Angeles-based racing company formed by champion rally car driver Ken Block, brought Parsons aboard as a driver, giving him his start.

Less than two years since the accident that left him paralyzed, he was back competing in drift races again, where he wasn’t some special sad case, but just another driver rocketing around the track, indistinguishable from anyone else.

True, the risk was still there — he could still get hurt doing this — but so was the exhilaration that brought him so much joy.

Before the wreck, “I’d always wanted to be in and around race cars all the time,” he says. “Now I found I wanted that even more.”

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race, cars talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race, cars talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Being back behind the wheel, going through the gears, worked wonders for Parsons. It was a feeling he wanted to share with others in circumstances similar to his. Through Hoonigan, in 2015 he met Eliza Coleman, a philanthropically minded professional stuntwoman, and together they formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit they named the Chairslayer Foundation (chairslayer.org).

“Our mission is to give back the freedom and independence of driving a car again, with the exhilaration of learning to control a performance vehicle,” says Coleman.

Through social media and other outlets, the Chairslayer Foundation makes Parsons, his car and his story available to anyone who solicits his help. He is currently in the process of building a drift car that the foundation will give away. With hand controls, of course.

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows some of the machines he uses to build the car parts at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, shows some of the machines he uses to build the car parts at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He’s got this great positive energy about everything,” says Coleman. “He is doing as much as he can with the time he has, and really making his life happen regardless of his situation. I have never heard him say, ‘Oh woe is me.’”

“His willingness to show other people how to move forward is unbelievable,” says Tim Parsons. “It’s just been amazing to see.”

Says Rob Parsons, “I found very quickly that not a lot of people have that coping mechanism to deal with something traumatic. What we’re trying to do with the foundation is set that spark of inspiration that gets you going again.”

He was able to do just that with a British teenager named Ben Conolly. By the age of 17, Conolly had survived two bouts with cancer. But complications from fighting the disease had left him without the use of his legs. He was despondent and lethargic, questioning whether life was worth living, when the Chairslayer Foundation flew him to California to meet Parsons.

Then Parsons put him behind the wheel of his race car and hopped in the passenger seat.

In front of his disbelieving parents’ eyes, Conolly started shifting gears, drifting sideways and doing doughnuts — and came alive. You can watch it all on YouTube.

“It feels incredible to touch someone like that,” says Parsons. “We want to keep doing that.”

In the meantime, he’s got his day job to pay the bills. About a year and a half ago he came to Utah to work at Lyfe Motor Sports, where he helps design and build race cars, getting his hands, and his mind, as greasy as possible on a regular basis.

“He’s so talented, from design to actual production,” says Cole Powelson, founder and owner of Lyfe Motor Sports. “It’s not just engineering. He can fire up a lathe and make a part.

Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Rob Parsons, a paraplegic who builds race cars, talks about what makes him do what he does at Lyfe Motorsport's shop in Millcreek on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"But more than that, he’s a guiding light for everybody in the shop. Everything’s so much harder for guys in chairs. The world’s built for upright people. But you never hear him (complain) about it. All these guys walking around with two legs feel silly complaining in his presence.”

Parsons downplays any suggestion that he’s extraordinary, let alone some kind of superman.

“I have to talk myself out of dark holes sometimes,” he says. “But I’ve never stayed down there very long.”

He looks around the shop where he gets to work, gazing at the racing cars that fill up the space, enjoying the clang of wrenches and the sound of engines revving.

“It’s crazy to hear, but I would not give up the life I have now just to walk again,” he says.

Don’t get him wrong. He would dearly love to have the use of his legs. But he wouldn’t give away what he has for what he doesn’t have.

“I’m just waiting and praying that robot legs come out sooner rather than later,” he says with a grin.

Then, after thinking that over, he adds, “I could probably design them.”