Driving to Excel Aims Beyond Neurological Rehabilitation

Brenna Bean was 18 years old when she injured her spinal cord in a car accident, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.

But that didn’t stop the now 24-year-old Arizona State University student and Barrow neuro-rehabilitation intern from riding alongside a professional driver as he did 110-mph hot laps around Firebird International Raceway.

photograph of driving to excel participant brenna bean preparing to head on to the track
Brenna Bean straps on her helmet before taking to the track at Driving to Excel 2015.

This was Bean’s first year participating in Driving to Excel, an outreach and fundraising event put on by the Barrow Connection to provide recreation for people with physical and neurological disabilities.

“I realized that it was my ability to be involved in sports and community that made my life so good after my spinal cord injury,” said Bean, who plays wheelchair basketball at ASU. “I wanted to help other people do that, so that’s why I’m here.”

Driving to Excel formed five years ago out of a relationship between Barrow and former racecar driver Bob Bondurant and his wife, Pat. Bob Bondurant was told he would never walk again after he flipped his racecar eight times in 1967, but he overcame his injuries and opened the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler in 1990.

“They wanted to give back, and we talked about how important this program could be to get people who are at home active again,” said Barrow Connection Program Coordinator Jo Crawford. “It’s been an amazing experience ever since.”

The Bondurant School’s chief instructor, Mike McGovern, has been involved with the event since its inception and said it is a special one for the Bondurant staff.

“Each and every year, it’s rewarding, it’s exciting, and it’s great to see people with a smile on their face and excitement in their voices,” he said.

Participants not only rode alongside professional drivers on the racetrack, but those with valid driver’s licenses had the opportunity to drive Bondurant racecars on the skills pad.

“The goal is to take folks who typically live kind of a reserved, sedentary lifestyle and introduce them to what you can do,” Crawford said. “We’re finding that when they leave here, most of them initiate doing something with their life.”

Bob and Pat Bondurant and professional disabled drivers Eddie Alexander and George Hammel spoke to the group at the start of the event.

Alexander, who broke his neck in an ATV accident in 1984 when he was 17 years old, took participants for rides in his car, which he operates using hand controls. He started racing cars in 2006 and has participated in Driving to Excel every year.

“I do the event because I want people to realize that you can do what you want in life,” he said. “It’s not just about sports or driving cars. It’s about life. I don’t want people just to sit around thinking that all they have in life are the four walls of their house.”

Hammel took participants out on the skills pad in his Yamaha YXZ off-road vehicle. The former professional dirt bike racer broke his lower back and is now an incomplete paraplegic.

ariel photograph of the bondurant racing school
Participants were able to ride along for a hot lap on the Bondurant track.

After five years in a wheelchair, he was able to start walking with forearm crutches. Now, he walks with only the use of lower leg braces. Hammel has raced in the X Games, and he has completed the 111-mile El Tour de Tucson bike race and an Ironman triathlon in Oceanside, California.

“They told me I wasn’t going to be able to walk again,” he said. “It was a lot of rehab and a lot of hard work. Now, I have the opportunity to do stuff that most able-bodied people don’t do because I’ve worked so hard to be able to get to this point.”

Crawford said Hammel and Alexander exemplify how people with disabilities can live a full-throttle life.

“That’s what you went through rehab for, not to sit around and watch television but to get active in your life again,” she said. “That’s why Barrow and St. Joseph’s Hospital are so important. We recognize that our patients are not successful just because they came through St. Joseph’s; they’re successful when they live an active life.”