LAKEVILLE, Ind. — Story and audio by Senior Editor Tom Baker for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online – Photo courtesy Eric Saunders – Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this scenario…
It is hours before your 18th birthday. You’re at your Midwest home and you decide to take some practice laps on your Motocross test track in the backyard to prepare for the Pro Race in Steel City. You’re racing for Tony Stewart’s Motocross Team and you’re full of promise and potential.
Life is good.
A few short hours later you’re in ICU with five tubes in your chest, bleeding on your spleen, a hole in your lung and two broken vertebrae.
Your life stops for just a moment before medical personnel bring you back.
This is the story of one of the most courageous young men you’ll ever meet. Now 22, Eric Saunders has adjusted from life as a vibrant, tenacious 18-year-old motocross racer to life as a paraplegic sprint car racer.
That’s right. This articulate young man has turned a tragic circumstance into one of the most magnificent and inspiring examples of not letting life get in the way of living that I personally have ever seen.
Eric is now a paraplegic who races sprint cars.
Following his two-wheel crash, Eric first was taken to Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Indiana — where the diagnosis that he would never walk again was given. However, those words were only the beginning of life, interrupted.
He was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he spent a month in ICU undergoing three major surgeries. The first surgery Eric had was on his back, then another on his spleen and a third surgery to repair the hole in his lung.
Life, interrupted had now become life, forever altered. But for Eric, it would not be “life over”. He would not only survive, but through his deep faith, God’s grace and the outpouring of help from both his biological family and his “racing” family, he would turn adversity into opportunity.
Eric speaks of what now passes as “normal” for him.
“The only difference between you and me,” he says, “Is that when you put on your sneakers, I get into a wheelchair. That’s it. Other than that I am fully functional and capable of doing everything for myself. I’ve never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me and I don’t feel sorry for myself. I am still far better off than many in the world who don’t have what I have and can’t do what I can do.”
At first, racing seemed to be the one thing he wanted to do but no longer was going to be able to.
Then Ed Kennedy bought Plymouth (Indiana) Speedway in the Fall of 2011 and put dirt on it. The 600cc Micro Sprints instantly became a popular class there, and a sudden inspiration was born with one simple idea.
Someone suggested Eric should be a part of the 600 class. Kevin Miller, CEO of USAC, hailed the class as a stepping stone out of the ¼ Midget cars that youths can race as early as age 5.
Enter Randy Sweet, well known racer and Owner of Sweet Manufacturing. Randy designed a set of hand controls and a brake for the steering wheel of Eric’s open-wheeler. Jerry Russell, former owner of Eagle Chassis, stepped up as well.
Now throw in priceless assistance from Tracy Trotter of Calico, FlexWatches, Momo Racing Engines, Engler Injection, Wiseco Pistons and the prophetic encouragement and involvement from close friend Tony Stewart, and you have life, gloriously rebooted, for young Eric Saunders.
“I’ve learned so much from this last three years that I never would have known if it hadn’t been for the accident and everything that’s happened since,” Eric says. “God has given me an opportunity not just to race, but to use my racing to inspire others and show them that just because you’re in a wheelchair that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goals and dreams. I don’t intend to stop at racing 600 Micro Sprints unless I have to. If I can race those cars, I can race anything. I want to go as far as I can in the sport. I want to be in NASCAR someday.”
Eric has proven his ability to race and win. Last season he graced victory lane with his presence no less than a half-dozen times. He had three seconds, a third and a fourth at Plymouth as well. He ran in the Open Class, both with and without a wing.
Pushing boundaries has become not just his mindset but his mission. In the near future, Eric is hoping to run some POWRi Series shows and also to take a road trip East to NASCAR Country and get into a Late Model Stock Car on pavement to try his hand at full-fender racing.
Those of us who are fortunate to be his “friend” on Facebook are treated to his repeated messages of hope and determination.
It isn’t often that I write of how special doing a phone interview with a racer was, but Eric’s friendly voice and barrier-busting approach to life are infectious.
His father, Irish Saunders, is the Manager of Contract Sales at Hoosier Tire. I have known Irish since my earliest days of writing about open-wheel Supermodified racing in the 80’s. He has always been good to me as he is to everyone who knows and loves him in the motorsports world.
Of Eric, Irish speaks with a tone and approach that only a father who has lived a story like this could.
“My wife, Sheila, got the call that day saying Eric was badly hurt. He was saying he couldn’t feel his legs. He was taken to Memorial Hospital and we joined him there. The doctor called us into the room after a while and told us he may never walk again. We needed to get him to Methodist Hospital, and I called Dr. Terry Trammell and asked if he could see Eric. They had to realign his spine. So many good friends stepped up for us in that time. Kevin Miller offered us his condo to stay in. We were there four weeks. Eric was in ICU for three of those weeks. Then Tony (Stewart) offered us his suite. We stayed in our motor home at Indy for six weeks.”
“All you can do is pray each day and do your best to remain positive and be in communication with the doctors so you know what’s going on. There is no way to describe how going through something like this feels to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It just tears your heart out. Eric’s attitude, courage and determination amaze me every day, all over again. He downplays his limitations but some of the simplest things that we take for granted are very difficult for him. He just gets up every day, thanks God for the chance to live and goes out and makes the most of that day.”
Today, Eric is racing competitively in 600 Micro Sprints, along with younger brother Garrett. His home has been adapted for his needs and his life, if you ask him, is as normal and filled with possibilities as it ever was. He just has to do things a little differently.
Eric is forging his own relationships within the racing “family”, one step at a time. He has motivational T-shirts and is constantly using social media to inspire others. His heart is set on climbing the racing ladder, not just for his own gain but to show others that obstacles are made to be overcome, if you just have faith and are willing to do what it takes to overcome them.
If you spend even ten minutes with Eric Saunders on the phone or in person, you instantly become a believer that he can indeed do all things through his Lord, who strengthens him, and that the number of lives he will touch in a deep, positive way over his own lifetime is likely to be uncountable.
His T-Shirts say, “I can, I will.”
In the hearts and minds of everyone who knows him, he already does.
HEAR from Eric as he talks about his racing, Tony Stewart and those who have helped him overcome his challenges and do what he loves!