High-speed driving usually requires both hands gripping the steering wheel.
So how can a young boy race a high-performance car while steering with only one hand?
That obstacle is no roadblock for Noblesville (Ind.) eighth-grader Chris Hacker, who jokes that his mostly disabled left arm is “just along for the ride,” while he circles an oval track at speeds of up to 130 mph.
Why does he do it? “The adrenaline and being able to go fast,” said the 13-year-old, who won his first Champion Racing Association Late Model Sportsman race July 19 at the Anderson Speedway and is the youngest driver in the racing series.
PHOTOS: Chris Hacker makes history
An even bigger rush is knowing that he is the youngest driver in series history to win a CRA Late Model Sportsman event. He also took home the CRA’s Charger Award for working his way up through the field from ninth place to the winner’s circle.
It’s quite a comeback for a driver whose No. 24 Chevrolet was in a horrific crash during a race at Anderson Speedway on July 6, when a car in front of him hit the wall before landing atop Chris’ car. Shaken but uninjured, the teen spent 30 minutes in the ambulance recovering. But he was ready to race again a week later, just as soon as his car was torn down and rebuilt.
Since Chris began racing at age 8, he hasn’t let his age or his arm become an obstacle. “I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. I think it’s something unique about me,” he said.
Chris suffered a brachial plexus injury to his left arm during birth that caused nerve impairment. At first, he couldn’t move any part of his arm, except his fingers. While he has had three major surgeries involving nerve grafts and tendon transfers, Chris still can’t raise his left arm above his head or extend it out in front or to the side, or flex his wrist past the level of his arm.
At first glance, the disability isn’t noticeable. But then Chris struck a Popeye-style pose, comparing his thinner, weaker left arm, which has scars from his surgeries, with his larger, more muscular right arm.
“My seat is probably the smallest you’ll ever see in one of these cars,” Chris said as he pointed to modifications that his dad, mechanic and former race-car driver Michael Hacker, built into the race car.
The ignition switch was moved from the left side to the right side, the power steering was adjusted so that it’s easier for Chris to steer, and the seat and steering wheel align more with Chris’ right arm. To better accommodate his needs, the car’s pedals also are adjusted closer and he sits on a riser; otherwise he couldn’t reach the pedals or see over the dash.
“There hasn’t been any hurdle we haven’t been able to jump,” Chris’ dad said.
Chris’ left hand rests on the steering wheel to help steady it when he races, but all of the work is done by his right hand.
“It has never slowed him down in any race I’ve ever seen him drive in,” said Marty Griffin, 53, Indianapolis, a Legends series driver who’s competed on the track against Chris. He said he and other drivers don’t have any qualms with Chris’ age or disabled arm.
“The kid can drive,” Griffin said. “He’s definitely grown in the years that I’ve watched him race.”
Griffin was one of the drivers who voted to allow Chris, then 12, to move up from the Bandoleros car series to the Legends car series. That was after Chris submitted a letter seeking permission to join the series, which included a list of his racing accomplishments as well as references from other drivers. Chris had to do the same when moving up from Legends to the CRA Late Model car series..
“I kept saying, ‘He’ll be fine. He’s a pretty good driver,’ ” said Griffin, owner of an auto-body shop in Beech Grove. “I think he can do whatever he wants to do.”
Chris’ dream is to someday race in NASCAR. And it’s obvious from his car number that his racing idol is NASCAR legend and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon, against whom Chris hopes to race.
Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, will be in town this weekend to compete in the 20th annual Brickyard 400. Chris will get a big surprise later today, his mom said, when he gets to meet Gordon just before the 12th annual Jeff Gordon Bowling Event at Western Bowl, which benefits Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
Chris already has built quite a racing resume: He has raced at 14 different tracks in six states and has notched wins at the Indianapolis Speedrome, Anderson Speedway, Illiana Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
Like any good driver, Chris sweats the small details. During a practice session earlier this month at Anderson Speedway, Chris helped his dad check his car’s tire pressure, made sure the tank was full of racing fuel, and the handling was just right.
“By having hands-on experience, this allows him to learn and understand how the car works and handles,” said his mom, Yvonne Hacker, who watched her son go through the checkpoints and mentioned that Chris is also learning to weld.
“There’s not much he can’t do. He’s just learned to do things just a little bit differently, even the monkey bars,” she said.
On this particular afternoon, Chris was the only driver on the track at Anderson Speedway, which he rented to practice for the next day’s race. The 5-foot-tall, 80-pound driver — nicknamed “Smalls” after a character in the 1993 comedy, “Sandlot” — suited up in his fireproof racing suit and safety gear . He hoisted himself into the driver’s seat, using his right arm.
Chris then waited for his dad to give him the thumbs-up sign, before he hit the start button, put the car in gear and headed out on the oval to practice laps.
The 2007 Chevy Monte Carlo is a lot of car. With a four-barrel carburetor, and 604 Crate engine, it produces 420 horsepower.
“It’s a handful to drive for anyone,” said Shirley resident Scott Neal, 44, a team owner of CRA Jegs All-Star Tour cars and a mechanic who sets up Chris’ race car and occasionally acts as the teen’s crew chief. Race-car driver Kenny Wallace will drive one of Neal’s cars Friday night in the CRA Jegs All-Star Tour at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“He’s an amazing little kid,” said Neal, who praised Chris’ driving skills. But he admits that he was surprised at first when Chris and his dad came to see him to set up Chris’ race car.
“I was shaking his dad’s hand, thinking his dad was the driver, because the kid’s too little,” Neal recalled. “It was pretty funny.”
After the recent crash, Neal helped the family rebuild Chris’ race car, which in competed against brand-new cars in the July 19 race that Chris won.
“Hat’s off to him,” Neal said. “His ability is overwhelming. I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t move right up and drive in NASCAR with the right opportunity.”
Racing runs in the family. Michael Hacker raced street stock cars growing up and drove Late Models in Anderson and at Mount Lawn Speedway before Chris was born. Michael’s dad, the late Don Hacker Sr., raced Outlaws at the Indianapolis Speedrome, Modifieds at Lucas Oil, and drag raced at Bunker Hill.
Chris, at age 8, became interested in racing when the family went to a boat show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and he saw quarter midgets racing on a Mini Indy racetrack.
“Chris watched them for a little while and said he wanted to race,” his mother said. “We talked with some people and set up a test drive. After the test drive, there was no turning back.”
Yvonne Hacker, who goes to every one of her son’s practices and races, has been struggling to find the first sponsor for Chris. Maybe the latest win will help, she said.
Racing isn’t a cheap sport. She and her husband said they likely would spend about $40,000 this racing season. compared to Chris’ first year of racing quarter midgets, which cost less than $4,000. Both parents work (Yvonne is a registered nurse at Community Hospital North, and Michael is an auto body repairman), but it isn’t easy, especially since they are still paying for college for Chris’ older brother, Jake.
“We try really hard not to buy anything other than what we really need,” said Yvonne, who sometimes jokes that they may have to sell the family home to fuel her son’s racing habit.
“We don’t mind sacrificing things, because this is his dream,” she said. “We’ll do what it takes to get him where he needs to go.”