|NASA Great Lakes
|Factory Five Challenge
When NASA racer Paul Arnold broke his back in a freak karting accident a couple of years ago, most people would have understood if he quit racing.
The crash involved the neighbor’s large dog running onto the track, and the collision sent Arnold’s kart spinning into a cedar tree. Arnold was initially confined to a wheelchair with a broken back and a badly bruised spinal cord, but anyone who had raced against him in the Factory Five Challenge series knew he could overcome the life-altering event.
Thankfully this tale has a happy ending for Arnold and the four-legged friend.
Nearly two years after the crash, Arnold was not only back racing, but he placed 10th in the Mazda Race of NASA Champions at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May. The top 10 finish was even more impressive considering Arnold still hadn’t regained full strength in his right leg.
“That I was able to pass that many guys that are champions in the condition I was in, I was elated,” Arnold said. “I was like it was just one more step, let’s keep going forward. It was totally positive experience for me. “
Few racers are as optimistic or as competitive as Arnold, who lives in Franklin, Tenn., and races his Factory Five Cobra in the Great Lakes Region. The class is a tightknit group that readily shares setup secrets and parts with each other.
“He’s a hoot to have around in the pits,” said Factory Five Challenge racer and friend, John George. “It’s the people like Paul that make the series worthwhile. But he’s definitely a competitor through and throughout.”
Arnold grew up in a military family in Europe and his father fought in the Vietnam War. As a teenager, he began racing motorcycles but gave it up in his late 20s to focus on his career as a land developer. The high-stakes occupation, it turns out, has many of the same qualities as racing.
“You have to be able to deal with the risks and compartmentalize it and then not let it not affect your decisions,” he said. “You are still looking at the data and still moving forward, which is the same as racing.”
Eventually Arnold got back into racing, competing at Skip Barber Racing School and running on dirt tracks. He was obsessed with bettering his performance.
“It’s amazing how you just get focused on shaving tenths,” Arnold said. “You literally forget everything and it was therapeutic for me.”
Arnold’s longtime driving coach Keith Watts said his student’s approach is calculated and methodical, something he’s rarely seen in his 23 years of coaching.
“He can do calculus in his head. Somebody who can do that can calculate how the race goes,” Watts said, later adding, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone that motivated to fulfill goals.”
To understand how passionate Arnold is about racing, he created a karting track in a housing development his company was building. The city required a 12-foot-wide walking path and instead Arnold built it 15 feet wide to run laps in his kart. Once the housing project was close to completion, the track/path was turned over the city.
Arnold also would walk the racetracks in the early morning hours with a tape measure, a tennis ball, a small hand level and a bottle of water to study the contours of the track. “I just started collecting that data and when I got ready to build the first one, I knew what I wanted to practice on, so I built one like that,” Arnold said.
Arnold constructed a 1.1-mile track on his farm about 8 miles outside Franklin with plans to host kart racing events. Neighbors petitioned to stop the races, but Arnold was able to keep his track for personal use.
It was July 7, 2013 and near darkness as Arnold was getting some final laps in. Coming under a bridge running 60-plus mph, a 100-pound dog ran onto the track. Rather than hitting the animal straight on, Arnold swerved and clipped the dog’s leg. The impact sent Arnold off into a tree.
Having broken his back before, Arnold knew the drill. But the doctors at Vanderbilt University were guarded with their prognosis of a full recovery because Arnold’s spine was so badly bruised. That would only motivate Arnold, who quickly moved from a wheelchair to a walker and eventually back into a racecar.
“That’s a life-changing experience for him,” Watts said. “Nobody wants to have to go through a challenge like this. He just saw it as another challenge. He didn’t see it as, ‘Well, I got hurt. Maybe I should reconsider doing this.’”
The neighbor’s dog, which broke its leg, would come over while Arnold was rehabbing. Arnold worked on regaining his strength and agility while his nerves started to slowly reconnect.
“I had down days as much as anybody else,” he said, “because when I was in a walker, I would normally be riding my mountain bike, so that was not a fun time for me.”
True to the challenge, Arnold was back to racing in 2014 and qualified for the Eastern States Championships. Arnold won his class and earned a trip to Monterey, Calif., for the Mazda Race of NASA Champions.
Arnold loved the experience, but qualifying was a challenge. During the first lap his MX-5 was hit by another racer and on the second qualifying lap the car’s brakes went out on entry to The Corkscrew. Arnold qualified 18th and put on a command performance in the championship to finish 10th. Arnold’s finish was even more impressive because he was far from healed, Watts said.
“Mentally he was 110 percent, but he was still only 90 percent when he went to California as far as being fully rehabbed,” Watts said. “He was still impressive at 90 percent.”
NASA racers will likely see more of Arnold next year as the 56-year-old plans to semi-retire.
“I wake up pretty happy,” Arnold said. “I thank the Lord I’m on this side of the dirt so I can do something fun.”