Keep Em Spinnin
Written by Ed Higginbotham
From the Nov. 2014 issue
Posted in News and Notes
“Life’s too short not to have a good time,” Mario Bonfante replies when we ask him why he decided to start racing again. Mario’s a quadriplegic who’s planning to enter professional motorsports.
Before the accident, he’d paved a career path into motorcycle racing. He started in BMX, moved to motocross, and at 16 earned his pro license in road racing. He was the up-and-coming talent, and people could tell he was going places. He checked off every box: a strict training regimen, support from his family and, most important of all, the skill and sheer determination to be a front-runner in his sport.
September 15, 2006: While out riding BMX, Mario got a call from one of his friends. “Come check out these new jumps,” he said. That’s how it happened. Mario was carrying too much speed on his fourth run through the jumps, causing him to over-jump one section and crash into the next.
He woke up experiencing an out-of-body state, “watching everything from 30 feet above.” In his first post-accident memory through his own eyes, he was apologizing to his parents.
Unfortunately, the incident broke his neck between the C5 and C6 vertebrae. After two surgeries, he was classified as quadriplegic–just three days after he signed a sponsorship deal and planned his next jump in the motorcycle racing world.
This is the point where many people would give up on being an athlete. But to Mario, the accident was just his “premature graduation to racing on four wheels.” Immediately antsy to get on track again, he started designing a system that would allow him to race using his remaining physical abilities.
First, he had to choose his weapon. He went with a 2002 BMW M3, one with an SMG sequential transmission so he wouldn’t have to control a clutch or H-pattern gearbox. Mario has limited use of his hands, so he designed a driving interface that would allow him to steer, accelerate, brake and shift through a jetfighter-esque steering wheel. Pushing and pulling on the right side of the wheel indicates shifts, and twisting the right handle controls the throttle– much like on the bikes he used to race. Pulling on the left side of the wheel applies the brakes.
But before Mario could put his setup to the test in wheel-to- wheel competition, he had to overcome a few important obstacles. First of all, his parents had one reasonable request: that he wouldn’t race until he could move from his chair to the driver’s seat and back under his own power. It took him about three years to reach that point.
Once in the car, Mario faced another set of challenges. Using the new controls proved to be a fairly difficult transition, so he was only tapping into about 60 percent of the car’s potential. Think about it: Driving is easily a full-body activity, but he could only use two hands. On top of that, the SMG transmission began to overheat from time to time. Fortunately, Mario gradually adapted to the interface, and some modifications solved his transmission ills.
Due to his professional racing experience, Mario was allowed to bypass the lower rungs of the HPDE ladder. He eventually earned his competition license, and now he’s racing his first full season in NASA’s GTS series.
After a full season of working out the kinks in his new system, he’s looking to take his first step into four-wheeled professional motorsports. The specific venue is still up in the air, but his most likely destination is Pirelli GT3 Cup Trophy USA West, a onemake series for the 996- and 997-chassis Porsche GT3.
After talking to Mario, we think we should officially resign the right to make excuses. So what’s standing in your way?
Mario Bonfante has certainly made it a long way in a short time, and he’s had a lot of good help. He has his family to thank, as well as supporters like Spy Optic, OMP, GoPro, HMS Motorsport, Hooked on Driving, Wheel Tech, SmartDrive, BimmerWorld, Leatt, D2 Racing, Rynopower, Spinergy, and TruSpeed Motorwerks. Of course, more support is always welcome as Mario pushes toward the next level.
Read this in the magazine. Great inspiration! Kinda puts all my BS "challenges" into perspective.
Just saw Mario at SEMA today. Yes, an inspiration. If you're at the show tomorrow, look for him and his BMW out in front of the center hall.
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