Opening the car door of a 1964 Chevy Impala SS with his chin and shoulder. Clicking in his seat belt with his shoulder and cheek. And starting up the engine by turning the key with his toes.
That’s how Richie Parker starts off to work at Hendrick Motorsports, a NASCAR racing organization, where he is an engineer.
Not only does that point out the obvious, it doesn’t tell the full story.
Parker first became interested in cars in his teens, wanting to drive but with many saying he could easily just take a bus or taxi. But that wasn’t his way. The 1964 Chevy that Parker has owned for the past 15 years is one he even had to convince its previous owners to sell to him.
How does he drive with no hands? It’s not with his knees as many people with hands are known to dangerously do at times — it’s with his feet and a modified disc he can turn on the floor.
Parker as a vehicle engineer for the last eight years with Hendrick Motorsports as an automotive engineer where he designs the cars’ chassis and body components. How? Again, with his feet — the mouse and keyboard are situated on the floor below his desk at a modified workstation.
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Despite his perceived limitations, he doesn’t seem to need much. His parents, Tracy and Lottie, gave him plenty of love and basic necessities, often through the prism of innovation a person without arms requires. The three of them worked throughout Richie’s childhood to ensure he had all the same opportunities all children have.
When Parker reached high school, his interest in engineering led him to Mike Allen’s classroom.
“I was initially worried about him being at an unfair disadvantage compared to the other students,” said Allen. “But I found out he could type faster with his toes than most people can with their hands.”
Allen also found that Parker’s “unique ways of participating” became an inspiration to him.
Parker was equally inspired by Allen, whom he credits with giving him the exposure to engineering that he didn’t grow up around.
“Battery Creek (Beaufort, South Carolina) was my foundation,” said Parker. “The diversity of the students, the experiences in class…it all positioned me to move forward.”
For Parker, moving forward included heading to Clemson after graduation. The campus there, amid rolling hills and steep climbs to classrooms, is a daunting traverse for those with all four limbs. But no quarter was given and no excuses made, and the foundation laid in high school and continued in college found its final, firm footing at Hendrick.
When a driver like Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt, Jr., needs to make an adjustment to his car to win a race, he looks for Richie Parker.
If life itself is a race, Parker is winning by making constant adjustments to his own equipment.
“In truth, Richie’s entire life has been one remarkable study in engineering,Nearly every task requires ingenuity.”
“I don’t know that there’s a whole lot in life period that I can say that I can’t do — just things that I haven’t done yet,” Parker said.