Lots of people have dreams of doing something they love. Not all of them are able to fulfill those dreams for a variety of reasons and obstacles. What if your obstacle was being blind? That’s what Jay Blake faced when he decided he was going to build a race team. An industrial accident in 1997 that left him totally sightless never deterred him from making his dream of drag racing come true.
In 1999 Jay started the Follow a Dream race team with a Super Competition Car in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Sportsman Division. By 2002 Blake had outgrown the class and wanted more, so he went all out and bought an Alcohol fueled, Hemi powered Funny Car, a purpose-built race car with the sole reason for existence to go fast from a standing start for 1/4 mile.
His latest car, a 2014 Chevrolet Camaro is the team’s third funny car and is capable of completing a standing start quarter mile in the mid-five second range. At its top speed of over 260 Miles per Hour, the car would cover the length of a football field including the ends zones, in less than a second.
At the Lucas Oil National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Division One Regional’s in Lebanon Valley, New York, Blake was his friendly, optimistic self, and confident about the team’s possibilities for the weekend, especially after having won the event the past two years.
Blake is the only completely blind Crew Chief in any form of motorsports, yet it’s easy to forget his most obvious challenge. He does not utilize a guide dog, nor does he wear sunglasses promoting his lack of sight. He walks around the garage area, pits and track with little, if any assistance. As Blake puts it, he could stay home and sit on a couch and everyone would think it was OK. Blake may be without sight, but he certainly has a vision: to go racing and build a championship team regardless of the obstacles.
Working on a limited budget, Blake staffs his race team with a crew that shares his love of the sport. Many are volunteers from Blake’s local area. Some of the crew in attendance this weekend at Lebanon Valley were his tuner Tom Howell, who runs his own graphics business along with Blake’s engine man Scott Osborn who owns a fabrication company. Ed Parker, a racer himself, drives the transporter with the race car to all the events. Not all are locals however, some hail from a distance, such as driver Todd Veney. Veney, from Indianapolis was recruited to drive the Follow a Dream car in 2010. He and Blake have now combined for ten Divisional wins over their time together.
At Lebanon Valley, the crew of seven, plus a few support folks worked long hours to achieve the results. Days typically start at 8 AM and often end after dark. The car is completely serviced after each run with a clutch rebuild, engine bearing check, valve train inspection, new spark plugs and fresh oil. All this assumes no damage to the engine or car. If a major issue occurs, the team has spare components at the ready, just hoping for enough time between racing rounds to install them.
Blake himself has responsibilities after every run. First, he carries the front of the car body away from the car to facilitate service. Then he starts servicing the left side of the engine, removing spark plugs and the valve cover, turning the engine over by hand so his team cane inspect and service the bottom end, test compression and check the valve adjustment. He’s responsible for filling the car with alcohol race fuel, and after inspection, he reassembles his side of the engine, installing new plugs.
In the staging area, Blake helps driver Todd Veney with pre-race preparations. Veney wears a fire suit, special breathing equipment and is well secured into the driver’s seat behind the engine. Blake has the task of removing the safety pins on the parachutes, and the pin on the fire suppression system. Then Blake lights 526 cubic inches of supercharged, alcohol fueled engine, bringing 3,500 horsepower to life.
From there, it’s out of Blake’s hands and up to Veney.
Veney did not disappoint at Lebanon Valley. The team produced another win, their second this year. The winning Elapsed Time (ET) of 5.601 and Top Speed of 261.68 set both low ET and Top Speed for the event. The 261.68 Top Speed was also good enough to add a new track record. And as if that wasn’t enough, as a bonus, the team won the Best Looking Team Award while working on the car after each run and completing all the needed tasks for the weekend.
The many public appearances the Follow a Dream team completes over the year help highlight the “anyone can succeed” approach Blake has taken from the inception of the team. Andy Robinson, VP/General Manager of the team’s major sponsor, Permatex, is not only a sponsor, but also a supporter and fan. Blake does many personal appearances at High Schools, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, auto shows and more where he shares his story and inspires his audiences. Blake promotes education, self-determination, a can-do attitude and never giving up on your dream.
What’s next for the Permatex/Follow a Dream team? Blake would like to expand the racing schedule to full time, competing at all the national events, rather than a select few. His quest is for a National title. Going that next step would require full time staff and a greatly expanded budget. Beyond the full-time schedule, a move to a nitromethane powered Funny Car would bring yet again more speed and up the ante by competing against well established and well financed teams that vie for the big prizes.
Then he wants to run — and drive — a car at the Bonneville Speed Trails in Utah on the Salt Flats. Will a Bonneville Salt Flats record run be in the future? With the exceptional advancements in today’s autonomous cars, can this reality be far behind?
The Follow a Dream Team is a success story for hard work, good preparation, and a can-do altitude. Nothing stops these folks from getting it done, nothing. Blake however is not the only person on the team to follow his dream. The crew is along for the ride, and they’ll be there for the successes to come.