MARIO BONFANTE: "Differently Abled"
No Pedal. No Wheel. No Problem
Like any serious athlete, a race car driver needs skill, knowledge, determination, and most of all, a passion for their craft. A race car driver who is determined to do whatever it takes to get to the top of their chosen discipline will live, eat, and breath racing. They will go through the process of securing sponsors, putting a crew together, and driving miles going from track to track. They will sleep in their tow vehicle, trailer, or race car in order to save a few dollars to put toward their race career. Most say the sacrifice is worth it in order to live their dreams and reach their goals. It is a rare mold reserved for the creation of the best.
Rallycross360 recently headed out to DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Washington where we had the pleasure of talking with a man named Mario Bonfante who fits this mold. Like many other racecar drivers, he works hard and sacrifices much in hopes of making his dreams a reality. But, what makes Mario so different from other racers is that he is a quadriplegic.
That's right. Bonfante does not have use of his legs, he has partial use of his arms and limited dexterity in his hands. Yet he has been able to overcome obstacles and defy nay sayers in order to live the life he has always dreamed about. Rallycross 360 caught up with him as he was getting ready to take the next step in his racing career and test his skills in the driver seat of a professional rally car.
Mario has dreamed of racing since he was a young boy. He began racing on a BMX bike. "My step-dad bought me a BMX bike," said Mario, "and that's how I got started racing. It was a great graduation platform to the next level I wanted to get to. It taught me a lot of body awareness and bike control and a lot of what I needed to know in order to get to where I needed to go." He raced BMX for almost two years and went to all the nationals on the west coast and did extremely well.
By the time Mario made it to the eighth grade racing became more serious and he graduated up to motocross. "At that time we had a friend that had loaned us a piece of property to build a track on," said Mario, "so that I could go and practice whenever I wanted. My parents had given me the choice of either playing football or motocross racing. So, I made the decision that I wanted to be a racer. They were going to back it, so I wanted to make it happen. My dad would pick me up from school and take me to the track. I began to get really fast. That [track time] took my racing to the next level and things started picking up a lot quicker. People began noticing what I was doing.
A few years later Mario went from competing in motocross to competing in motorcycle road racing. He received his pro license at the age of 16 and was making a name for himself in road racing when in 2006 he was seriously injured after crashing on a BMX bike. Bonfante broke his neck and became confined to a wheelchair. Of course, the injury was life-altering. But for Mario, it didn't mean the end of his race career. It gave him another challenge that he was determined to overcome. He has always had a can-do attitude and he thrives on proving people wrong.
Bonfante knew that in order to continue racing and to achieve his dreams, he would need to think outside the box. To him, thinking outside the box also meant literally reinventing the wheel. He took on the task of designing a steering device that has allowed him to continue racing on four wheels instead of two. His first prototype was designed for use on a go-kart. Today he uses an updated prototype (dubbed the KripTrol) in his racecar, a BMW M3 e46.
Mario explained, "I originally called them my 'KripTrols' because I'm crippled and 'Troll' is my step-dad's nickname. But the name is a little abrasive so it really doesn't have a [official] name, to be honest. They have all been redesigned and the current design is the prototype II. I have the next phase that I need to put in the car but I just don't have the funds to do it. I've had requests from all over the world for these controls from other individuals in the same situation."
"My car is a BMW M3 e46 which comes with an SMG (sequential manual gearbox) transmission. Instead of having to actually depress the clutch to actuate it a little robot does all the stuff for you. The only reason I could use this with an M3 is because it has that clutch feature integrated into it. My dream is to get into GRC Lites. So if I could get into that I would use a clutch and ebrake. I redesigned [KripTrols] for a little more efficiency and ease of install. This application is not good for a daily driver but you could put it on a track all day long."
Bonfante said a driver is able to control the car with the device by using a twist throttle. Braking is done by pushing foward on the left side of the control. Upshifts and downshifts are done by pushing the right control either forward to downshift or back to upshift, much like a sequential gearbox.
Last month Mario attended a three-day class at DirtFish. His goal was to get more seat time while learning techniques and skills that will not only benefit him in his road racing career but to also give him a taste of rally driving, a discipline he is considering getting into. RallyCross360 asked him why he wants to give rally a try.
"It's the best of both worlds. You've got motocross and road racing . You got grip and you got slip. It's calculated chaos at it's finest. That's the best way I can describe racing. It's all math and you're figuring out how to utilize it in your best interest. If you have 100 hp and the guy next to you has 120 hp you're going to figure out how to hold that throttle on to keep the RPMs up. There are certain things you learn how to do to compensate to figure out what your machine is doing."
About a week before he arrived at the rally school, DirtFish had been busy getting ready for Mario's arrival. "Our design was a little bit different with regard to the hand controls and how they worked," said DirtFish instructor Trevor Wert. "We integrated it into one of our school cars."
DirtFish had been tossing around the idea of starting a program for others who are, as Mario says, "differently-abled" and in the same situation he's in. "We've run the idea by quite a few times," said Wert, "and I think this was kinda of the first step of getting into it. He approached us expressing interest on learning how to drive on loose surfaces. It was the perfect opportunity to not only give him what he was looking for but also to figure out the best way [for DirtFish] to do it."
Wert continued to say that the school would like to get more into teaching people like Mario how to drive and how to pursue their passion for driving. "His feedback is huge for us," said Wert. "His feedback helps develop future classes, how a car is set up, how our building is set up and how our bus is set up. There are more people other than those who just want to race. There are people like veterans and Make-a-Wish participants who want to come here that have [limited] function in just either their legs or arms."
Mario's story is a true inspiration and a reminder to everyone, and as Mario says, "We are all 'differently-abled'. Everyone is disabled to a certain extent. It's just whether your mentally or visibly disabled. So, I just do what I have to do in order to do what I want to do. There are so many other individuals like myself and this hasn't been done before and it's kind of mind blowing. I feel that I owe it to the community as well. I go to hospitals and talk to injured patients when I can. The biggest thing that pushes me forward is that I know I haven't reached my full potential. I know that I'm capable of so much more not only behind the wheel but also in life. I know that I have a lot to offer to humanity. If I can do that in anyway possible then it's a bonus."
In Mario's opinion the worst thing to waste in life is talent. "I think too much talent goes to waste because either funds aren't there or the support is not there," said Bonfante. "Or, maybe, someone is there to say you can do it and give hands-on support. I've had too many friends lose careers because they didn't [receive support]."
Bonfante says that for a lot of people, they are their own worst enemy. "That is the biggest thing I found with being injured," said Mario. "Whatever the doctors or their parents tell them they can't do is the most debilitating thing that is done to people. They tell them that they have this condition and can only do this or that. [The doctors or parents] are basically formulating their life for them without the differently-abled person having any say or input."
Mario obviously has two things he wants to get out of life. First, to be a success at his life-long dream of motorsports racing. Second, Mario wants encourage others to wring the most out of life. "Too many people don't enjoy life. It's just ridiculous," said Bonfante. "There can be passion for life. Some think that they aren't meant to have fun and not meant to be happy. They work nine to five and are currency bound slaves. They go party on the weekend to get their release and then go back to work and do it all over again. That's not me. That's not my mentality. People have way more to offer."
Bonfante often doesn't even realize he's in a wheelchair until he finds he can't do something. It's at that point that his grit and determination kicks in, his zest for living fully. The wheelchair doesn't define him, it just modifies his angle of attack, both on the track and off. His passion for life lives in that angle.
For more information or photos of Mario, head to 'Keep'em Spinning Racing' at www.keepemspinnin.com Facebook: Mario Bonfante Instagram: mariobonfante_37
Photo credit/ Header -Jeff Dempler/ Stephanie Brennan; Rallycross360(1,3) ; Photo:Grassrootsmotorsports.com (2) Photos provided by Mario Bonfante ( Header, 4&5)