How a Racer in a Wheelchair Drives His Ford GT On Track

Jason Watt lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident, but that hasn't slowed him down one bit. Especially when he's in his hand-control Ford GT.

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Bruno Dias

When Danish racer Jason Watt took delivery of his new Ford GT earlier this year, he said it was "probably the world's fastest car that can park in disabled parking spaces." Watt is paralyzed from the waist down, the result of a 1999 motorcycle accident that came just a month after he clinched second place in the Formula 3000 championship. His injury ended his shot at a career in Formula 1, but it hasn't diminished his love for fast cars—including the world's only new Ford GT with hand controls.

Cars with hand-operated accelerator and brake controls aren’t uncommon, but they usually take the form of a wheelchair-accessible minivan, not a Ford GT. Over the phone, Watt explained that the conversion actually wasn't too complicated. "I opted for a system for my right hand where I can both brake and accelerate. This means that I can only steer with my left hand, but it's not a problem, to be honest," Watt said. "I can go as fast with one hand as I can with two."

Watt's GT has a stick that comes up from the floor to the right of the steering wheel, with a squeeze control similar to a motorcycle brake lever on the end. To accelerate, Watt squeezes the short lever; to brake, he pushes the whole control stick forward.

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YouTubeMisha Charoudin

Above: Watt about to take YouTuber for a lap of the Nürburgring.

The hardware was provided by Watt's friend, Max Birkelund, whose company makes its own patented hand control system called Click & Go. Like Watt, Birkelund is a racer who is paralyzed from the chest down. He used to compete in rally and touring-car events with hand-operated cars, and now tracks a Ferrari 360 Challenge.

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Watt, driving No. 26, leading Juan Pablo Montoya at the International F3000 race at Spa-Francorchamps, August 1997.
Getty ImagesMark Thompson

Birkelund was inspired to design his system following a trip to the US a few years ago, where he had trouble renting a car. "A lot of new cars have a knee-bolster airbag, so the old hand controls they have at the airport do not fit anymore," Birkelund told me over Skype. "When I got back home from the trip, I thought about it, called around, visited some builders in Denmark, and Googled the stuff, and I could not find any smart hand controls.

"Well, then I have to invent one," he concluded.

The Click & Go system is designed for cars with drive-by-wire throttle, so no physical connection to the accelerator pedal is required. Automax installs a small box under the dashboard that allows its hand control to communicate with the throttle system. Braking with the Click & Go system is totally mechanical—the handle moves a rod anchored to the brake pedal. This gives drivers like Watt and Birkelund real feedback from the brakes. "In my hand, I have the same feel as anybody else will have in their foot," Watt said.

The typical Click & Go installation uses a spindly lever for throttle and brake control. Watt's GT uses a beefier setup to counteract the GT's incredible cornering capabilities. "When you're in a wheelchair, you don't have much balance in your body," Birkelund noted. "You use the hand control to keep upright when going around a corner." Birkelund has a similar system in his Ferrari.

The squeeze-for-throttle, push-for-brake action also mimics the natural weight transfer of the car under load, which helps Watt maintain balance in his seat. Birkelund told me this design allows the driver to be on the brake and gas at the same time, allowing for more precise control of the vehicle.

All of these nuances are important to Watt, because he drives the hell out of his car.

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Bruno Dias

Watt’s previous car was a 1000-hp twin-turbo 2005 Ford GT with hand controls, a six-speed manual and a pushbutton-operated clutch. He used it for , selling two-lap rides around race tracks throughout the country. Over time, Watt gave roughly 1000 passenger rides in his heavily-modified Ford.

He continues to do this in his new GT. At his first charity event with the new car, Watt gave 90 rides, each costing 1600 DKK (around $250), lapping his car all day at a track not far outside Copenhagen. And these aren't just parade laps.

"At the charity events, I'm already getting the Aventador, Performante and the Porsche GT3 RS," Watt told me. "We haven't seen a GT2 RS or a 720S yet, but I'm by far the quickest guy around the track."

And like a true racer, he's already seeking more speed.

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Watt with his Ford GT, before the current green vinyl wrap was applied.
Ford

Since Watt's right hand is busy with throttle and braking, he can't use the upshift paddle to the right of the steering wheel. That forces him to leave the transmission in automatic mode, taking away control of the gearbox. He's working on a system to let him upshift and downshift with his left hand; Ford and Multimatic—the Canadian company that builds the GT—are helping out.

Before Watt installed hand controls on his GT, Ford and Multimatic engineers were apprehensive about what he was attempting. That changed when he met some of those engineers earlier this month at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"When people don't know how it's going to be done, they tend to be a little bit skeptical, which is, I suppose, totally normal," Watt said of the engineers. "When I drove it to Le Mans, some of the technicians from Multimatic were there, and they looked at the car and they were well impressed.

"They just think we've done a cool job. So that's great."

Despite how advanced this system is, it doesn’t require any permanent modification. "I can snap the handle off and disconnect it. And then it just drives totally normally," Watt said. "It takes 10 seconds." That allows Watt's wife Majbrit to drive the car as if it was a standard GT.

The Watts drove the GT all the way from their home in Denmark to Le Mans—including a visit to the Nürburgring—with a wheelchair and a suitcase attached to the GT’s roof via suction cups. It was a sight to behold, attracting attention everywhere.

A post shared by (@jason_watt_dk) on

"I was the superstar of the parking lot," Watt said of his visit to Le Mans. "When they saw this car they were jumping up and down going, 'Oh give it some, give it some!' It was great, I loved it."

He even lapped the Nürburgring with the wheelchair and suitcase on the roof. To be sure his cargo stayed firmly attached to the roof, he limited his speed to around 100 mph, but he still got the amazing photos you see here. Watt told me he wants to go to another race track to see how fast he can go with his cargo mounted, noting that the wheelchair has a very small frontal area, so it shouldn't add much wind resistance.

He also wants to go back to the Nurburgring and lay down some serious speed.

"I definitely need to go there and give just a half-decent go and feel the car the way it's built to go," he told me. I suggested he could set a Nurburgring hand-control lap record there, and he told me it's a real possibility—the current record for a hand-controlled car is in the nine-minute range. He thinks he can do better in the GT, and I don't doubt it.

"It just brakes and handles like it's on rails," Watt said of his car. "The stiffness and the lack of roll in the car is unbelievable.

"Until the tires properly heat up, it actually feels too stiff. You have understeer in the car and you will hear the tires go wirrr because it just can't grip. So the tire needs to be up to proper temperature [before] it can handle the stiffness in the car. If you put slicks on this car, it will be a track weapon without comparison."

There's an argument to be made here that Watt is using his new GT more thoroughly than just about any other GT owner. He's putting tons of miles on the car, pushing it to the limit, and sharing it with all sorts of enthusiasts.

"I'm not in it to make a quick buck," Watt said. "I'm here to enjoy the car."

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Bruno Dias
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