This story originally aired on September 15, 2012.
Jay Blake is the president and crew chief for the Follow A Dream drag racing team. The team’s funny car has a 3500-horsepower engine that goes from 0 to 260 miles an hour in races that last about 5.5 seconds.
On a hot sunny, July afternoon at the New England Dragway in Epping, N.H., the car was up on mounts with its blue, orange and white shell off. Blake made his way along the side of the car, pointing out key parts and features, even noting the colors of various buttons and levers.
Explaining how a race car works is a simple thing for a crew chief, but Jay Blake is blind … and has been since May 22, 1997.
“A forklift wheel and tire assembly exploded in my face,” said Blake, who had been working as a head mechanic at a transportation company. He was 31 years old and married with two kids.
“It was a two-bay garage, big enough to pull a tractor-trailer into,” Blake said. “When the wheel and tire exploded, it hit me in the face. I went up, almost to the top of the ceiling, over the top of the forklift, toward the outside of the building and back onto a concrete floor.”
The garage was on Cape Cod, where Blake still lives today. He was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“It took them 10 and a half hours to rebuild my face. My skull was cracked open. My nose was almost off. My jaw moved a little bit. My eye sockets were blown up. Looking at me you can’t really tell.”
But there was permanent damage.
“I have lost total sight. I have two prosthetic eyes,” said the 47-year-old. “I lost total sense of smell and taste mostly.”
Learning To Adapt
After nearly a month in the hospital, Blake went home. It wasn’t long before he found his way into his garage. The first thing he went for was his tool box.
“I just reached in and grabbed something. And I grabbed a GM distributor module and I could tell what it was through my hands,” Blake recalled. “So this little grin on my face got bigger, and I said, ‘I’m going to do this again.’”
To learn to navigate the outside world, Blake knew he needed help. He spent several months studying at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass. The school was an obvious choice.
“Jay’s father [Gary Blake] was on our board of directors back in the ’70s when the family had no experience with blindness,” the center’s rehabilitation director Rabih Dow explained. “It was just a social cause and ironically enough, years later, Jay ending up needing the same services that his father had supported.”
Ask people who know Jay Blake to describe him and the word “positive” comes up time and again. Dow, who is also blind, says that trait stood out, even in the early days after Blake’s accident.
“Jay came with the right attitude. He doesn’t know the word can’t or no.”
“The Lowest Point I Can Remember”
Blake says after the explosion he had a near-death experience and was given a choice to live or die, a decision he was questioning months later during his lowest moment.
“And out of nowhere comes my daughter, running around the corner,” Blake said. “She might have been six at the time, little. And she came flying around the corner, grabbed my legs and said, ‘Daddy, I am so glad you’re alive even though you’re blind.’ And ever since that very moment, I’ve never questioned it again.”
Blake eventually gave a talk at his daughter’s school. The reaction generated more requests. He now gives 20 to 30 motivational speeches a year for schools and businesses. He’s made five trips to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland to visit with wounded troops. And every summer he returns to the Caroll Center with his race car.
Dow says the message for blind students is powerful. “It’s not that they want to become mechanics. The message they leave with is: this is possible and if this is possible, what else is?”
Following A Dream
Blake had always loved racing and dreamed of working on a pro team. With no money, no sponsors, and – no car, Blake decided to form his own. Frank Manzo is the king of the National Hot Rod Assocation’s top alcohol funny car division. He has 15 national titles and the career record for most wins. Manzo also sold Blake the first Follow A Dream car.
“Sometimes I think I’m having a bad day or life is tough, but you take a look at Jay,” Manzo said. “I tell you what, honestly, he keeps a smile on my face all day.”
Follow A Dream is a non-profit organization. The 11-members of the crew – including driver Todd Veney – volunteer their time to travel to about 15 races around the country each season. Sponsorships and any prize money go toward the race car and travel expenses for Blake’s speaking engagements.
Maura McGonigle is the team chef. She says people hear about Blake’s story and drop by to meet him at the track, but have a hard time figuring out which team member he is.
“‘Where is he?’ He’s right there working on the car,” McGonigle said, describing a typical exchange. “‘What do you mean? He’s pulling spark plugs.’ Right, that’s Jay. ‘How does he know?’ He just knows.”
Blake says what he lost in that accident in 1997 is now just another part of who he is.
“I have a little phrase about blindness called, ‘it sucks,’ because it does. But you know, there are things a lot worse. So if you let it beat you, it will beat you. But if you beat it then you can have your life back.”
And for Jay Blake, life is a journey … interrupted by very short, very fast races.