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Hell on Wheels

When a motorcycle racing accident left him paralyzed, Ed Sandoz '03 shifted gears but never slowed down.

By Carol Cambo

High summer, July 1997. Heat rises in waves off the pavement at Loudon Racetrack (now the New Hampshire International Speedway) in Loudon, N.H. The smell of exhaust fills Ed Sandoz' helmet; his leather racing suit squeaks against his seat. High-octane adrenaline pumps through his veins. The engine of his brand new Suzuki GSXR 600 had blown up on the track the day before, so he pulled an all-nighter, installing a borrowed one. Now the machine purrs beneath him. Racing is the perfect blend of Sandoz' talents--technical acumen to tune a bike to perfection, physical agility to push through turns, and mental dexterity to navigate the pack at high speed.

He and his brother, Jesse, had formed a team: Lost Boys Racing. The group they run with: pure camaraderie. The wives and girlfriends come up to Loudon from Massachusetts for the whole weekend, bringing dogs and kids and kiddie pools. They keep the drinks cold and the grill hot while the guys race.

The checkered flag flies and Sandoz hits the throttle. Turn one is behind him, then turn two; turn three is a blur. He's leading the pack and that's fast for him, faster than he's ridden in his two years of racing. There's no time to look back and see who's on his tail. At a track in New York the previous weekend he had placed third, his best finish ever. There he'd had a breakthrough: he discovered that if he shifted his weight more subtly through turns he could shave crucial seconds off his laps.

Sandoz accelerates and leans into turn four. He feels his back tire start to slip. Then the rubber suddenly re-grabs the track, catapulting him from his seat. He is thrown from the bike at 80 miles per hour, his 180-pound body launching 75 feet--a length equal to a quarter of a football field. He finally comes to a stop after hitting a concrete Jersey barrier. In the ambulance speeding toward Concord Hospital he is coherent enough to know he has no feeling below his nipples. Arriving at the hospital, Jesse Sandoz, who studies exercise physiology, realizes right away that Ed's injuries are bad enough to be permanent, but holds off calling their parents until he knows for sure.

A New Vantage Point

The instant when speed and tar and rubber met, Ed Sandoz' life made a U-turn. Before the crash, the handsome, upbeat 27-year-old from Millis, Mass., lived in the moment. He fixed cars by day and spent every spare minute working on and racing motorcycles. "Everything I did was physical," says Sandoz. "I was definitely not an intellectual. I always fought that side of my personality." He had grown up working on a farm and was used to hard labor, loved going to the gym and working out to stay in shape.

The crash had injured his spinal cord between the C5 and C6 vertebrae. Some nerves were still exchanging impulses with his brain, leaving him with partial use of his arms. The doctors at Concord Hospital fused his vertebrae to stabilize his spine and reduce the chance of further injury while his neck healed.

Eleven days later, Sandoz rolled his new set of wheels into a waist-high view of the world. That's when he did what he knew how to do best: he shifted gears and hit the throttle. But first he had to learn how to navigate the world from a wheelchair.

Quadriplegics with Sandoz' type of injury are given electric chairs. But Ed would have none of it. "He wasn't going to take the easy road," says Jesse. Ed got a manual chair and specially designed gloves to protect his hands while he spun the wheels. A yearlong intensive therapy program through Healthsouth New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Woburn taught Sandoz the basics of getting along in the world. But he wanted more. He found out about the Shake-A-Leg program, a nonprofit rehabilitation organization in Newport, R.I., that treats the whole person--mind, body, and spirit. Shake-A-Leg's five-week summer residential Body Awareness Therapy program serves people with spinal cord injuries. Sandoz, in the company of other quadriplegics, worked on physical and occupational therapy, swimming, strength training, yoga, meditation, and massage. But it was the recreational therapy that Sandoz loved best: scuba diving, rock climbing, sailing, sea kayaking, and even kite flying.

"Having your life change so quickly is hard, but you need to move on. I'd take my old life back in a second, but I try to look on the brighter side. I'm the same strong person inside."

"At Shake-A-Leg I made huge leaps in my rehab," he remembers. "I like being challenged, and I liked learning from other quads." But the best part, he says, was feeling useful again. "I had a chance to teach other quads some of the tricks I'd learned along the way."

"Both Ed and I are very independent people," says Jesse. Before the accident the brothers were roommates near Boston. They could count on each other if they needed to. After the accident they continued to live together, but the balance had shifted. Ed had to have Jesse's help. "I was frustrated that my life was changing, too," remembers Jesse. "But what I was going through was small in comparison to what Ed was going through."

Not long after his accident, two high school students asked Sandoz if they could interview him about his life as a quad. Using keyboard skills he'd learned, Sandoz wrote to them, "I had very strong and agile hands before, now my fingers stay curled under. Like the rest of my body, they have shrunk in size from lack of use. It's hard for me to watch someone fiddle with something mechanical knowing I could breeze through it if only my hands worked. Having your life change so quickly is hard, but you need to move on. I'd take my old life back in a second, but I try to look on the brighter side. I'm the same strong person inside."

Ed Sandoz is still the same guy with a taste for speed; he's tested his chair's mettle. "One night at Shake-A-Leg I was out with a bunch of people," he says. "On the way home I let it rip down this long hill in Newport. I had the brakes on and I was still flying. All you could smell was burning rubber."

An Engineer Is Born

Sandoz had a few more turns to navigate on his new course. He'd often talked about going back to school, but it had been easy to put off with his life so full of everything he loved.

With a year of rehab behind him, he enrolled at Worcester's Quinsigamond Community College, beginning his transformation from auto mechanic to mechanical engineer. After adjusting to academic life and excelling at Quinsig, he transferred to WPI and continued his studies at a more intense level.

"He was a good student, more mature than most, very dedicated and hard working," says WPI mechanical engineering professor Robert Norton. "He became the natural leader of the team in my advanced engineering design class, in which the students designed a piece of equipment for Gillette. The students really respected and looked up to him. Older students bring valuable gifts to any class--motivation and a more serious attitude."

At WPI, Sandoz found a project that fit him like a racing glove: the construction of a Formula SAE car. He worked hard at his studies, but it was the SAE car that kept him up at night. Each year a small group of WPI students build a race car as part of the Formula SAE Collegiate Design Series sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers, General Motors, Ford, and Daimler Chrysler. The event pits student teams from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom against each other in a competition to design and build an open-wheeled, formula-type race car that is put through a battery of tests. The final showdown is at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

"The first year, Ed just kind of hung around," says Jim Johnston, a lab machinist at WPI and one of the chief advisors on the car. "The second year, he was running the show. We even had a mechanic's apron made up for him that read, The Boss."

"I spent more time on the car than in all of my classes combined," says Sandoz. For nearly four straight months he worked on the car every day, often leaving campus close to midnight. His project was the power train; he designed the intake and exhaust system.

"Ed is meticulous. He's also one of the most diplomatic people I know," says Johnston. "He knew how to get people to do what he wanted--by not cutting himself any slack. He'd say, 'If they see a cripple doing it, then they'll have to do it, too.'" Johnston says Sandoz' maturity and experience was the soul of the team. "He wouldn't accept anything but perfection."

En route to Michigan, Sandoz drove his specially equipped van as part of a convoy from WPI. "You know, there's not a sign on his van that tells you he's handicapped," says Johnston. "We're at this gas station and I ask Ed how he's doing, if he wants to switch drivers. He says, 'I've been sitting for six years now, a few more hours won't kill me.'"

At the competition, the car's rod end broke in the endurance event. "But we won first place for highest naturally aspirated horsepower, out of 118 schools entered," says Sandoz with pride. It was his design that took the prize.

One of the Crowd

Last summer, while Sandoz was interviewing for jobs and finishing up his humanities and arts project on Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, he became a television star. After submitting an essay and audition tape to the Discovery Channel's "Monster Garage" program, Sandoz was chosen to appear on an episode. Led by the infamous motorcycle mechanic Jesse James, participants perform extreme vehicle modifications. Sandoz was invited to join a team that would rehab a Mercedes SUV to be equipped for use with hand controls. Three able-bodied men, Sandoz and a paraplegic (also in a wheelchair)--all with mechanical experience--made the team.

Sandoz traveled to Long Beach, Calif., to film the show; the team had five days to convert the SUV--a job that normally takes several months. "We recorded 90 hours of tape to produce a 40-minute program," he says. "The first couple of days were hard because I couldn't do too much; a lot of the early work involved climbing around inside the car." The team had to remove and lower the floor to accommodate a driver in a wheelchair, install a folding ramp out the back, and retrofit the car with hand controls. "We had to move everything--the rear differential, the transfer case," says Sandoz. But by the third day, his talents were crucial as the team designed and built the electric ramp. "It was very cool to see it come together," says Sandoz, who got to drive the rig before James donated it to a young paraplegic injured in a car accident. The show aired in September 2003 and there was Sandoz, sporting a WPI T-shirt in a few shots.

Just as the show aired, Sandoz moved to Raymond, Ohio, to accept a position as design engineer with Honda Research and Development. "It's my first white-collar cubicle job," he says. The car mechanic had now officially become a mechanical engineer. He is part of a team at Honda that drafts the struc-tural designs for new models. "These aren't traditional car frames; they're one piece, or unibody," explains Sandoz. "The California office dreams up new cars and our job is to find out if we can actually build them."

One of Sandoz' favorite aspects of the job is that every employee at Honda--from engineers to vice presidents--wears a white jumpsuit with a small patch bearing just their first name. "It keeps the focus on teamwork and efficiency," he says. "For me it's refreshing to be just one of the crowd." It's hard to imagine Sandoz will ever be just one of the crowd. He certainly wasn't on Labor Day weekend last year. He'd just purchased a new racing go-cart equipped with hand controls and was taking it up to Loudon, hoping to run it for a lap.

Track officials let him test drive three laps in his new rig. Sandoz had finally closed the circle on that fateful day six years earlier. Best of all, he'd done it at his own pace.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 11:54 EDT
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