Parapalegic race car driver Dwight Bakken is joined by the youngest member of his pit crew

Back in the fast lane

Campbell River driver returns to race track 21 years after accident left him paralyzed

Dwight Bakken’s days of putting the pedal to the metal are over. But that didn’t keep him from the winner’s circle at Saratoga Speedway Saturday night.

Bakken, 45, has returned to Saratoga this season following a 24-year absence from stock car racing. During that break, he married, fathered children, got a steady job as a mortgage broker … and suffered a broken spine that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

“I love it,” Bakken said after piloting his 1986 Nissan to victory in the opening Hornet Class heat race Saturday at Saratoga. “I feel at home here. Sitting behind the wheel, I feel completely normal.”

The car, however, is anything but normal.

With help from racing pal Trevor Vogel, who talked Bakken into a return to the sport this season, the car has been modified with hand controls for not only steering, but for the throttle and brakes as well.

And perhaps its most unique feature is a sheet-metal slide from the passenger window to his driver’s seat, to help him enter and exit the vehicle.

Because of the effort involved in that process, though, once he straps in for his first heat race, Bakken remains behind the wheel until he completes the main event, often watching other races with six-year-old son Axel propped beside him on the slide.

Bakken spent his youth running with racing buddies like Vogel and track stalwarts Jason and Martin Beaulieu from 1989-91. He had taken a break from racing when he shattered his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in a dirt-bike accident in 1994.

“The doctors said I would never have use of my arms,” he said. “They said the best I’d be able to do is kind of shrug.”

Yet, two months into his rehabilitation in a Vancouver hospital, Bakken began to move his arms. After eight months of gruelling physical therapy, he was released and promptly reclaimed his mobility.

Besides an electric wheelchair and a Honda dune buggy outfitted with hand controls, Bakken also acquired, through a social assistance program, a lift-equipped van once owned by quadriplegic former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.

“Anything on wheels, I feel at home with,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy, and something I’m good at.”

His return to racing at Saratoga followed Vogel’s return from work in the oil patch in Alberta. Vogel suggested Bakken give the track another shot, and set about helping configure the hand controls for the Nissan purchased this January.

On opening night, Bakken placed third in his heat race, then was spun out in the main and finished 14th.

But in his return Saturday, he worked his way past several other cars to the front and pulled away for the heat win as friends in the pits whooped.

“He’s one of the most inspirational people you’ll meet in your life,” said one.

Vogel remains nearby in the pits at Saratoga Speedway, his Harris modified racer parked next to Bakken’s Nissan.

Their crew is something of a family affair, with Bakken’s nephew, Aiden Broadhurst, also doing duty.

Broadhurst admitted he is new to the racing game, but appears to have caught the bug.

When asked if he has raced before, he replied, “Not yet.”

Bakken also got the complete backing of his employer, Dominion Lending, which signed on as a sponsor along with Real Pro Real Estate and several others.

“Everyone’s been so accommodating and supportive,” Bakken said. “The whole thing has been amazing.”

And, if he has his way, it will continue to stay amazing.

“My plan is to do it for the season,” he said. “And do it for a lifetime.”