Narratively is excited to present the online debut of this story, which appears in the September issue of The Red Bulletin, a magazine that tells captivating stories of inspirational people and their achievements within adventure, sports, music, culture, technology and innovation.
Mario Bonfante Jr.’s spirit ascended from the earth as quickly as his body slammed into it. This happened in 2006, when he was just 17, but he still can recall the details of the moment. It was a hot September day in the scratchy town of Gilroy, California, and Mario hovered above himself, observing the scene of his injury from an ethereal remove of 30 feet. He felt no fear or pain. Because he’d launched over the handlebar and landed headfirst, he could only see the back of his wiry body. From above, he watched a fire truck and ambulance arrive, and saw first responders flip him onto a gurney. With mental acuity as certain as the force that had just pulverized his upper spine, Mario saw a light, a luminous entity, a whitish glow distinctly different from the washed-out afternoon sun. It hovered unthreateningly around him. Silently but out loud, the entity spoke: “Do you want to stay or do you want to go?”
“What kind of question is that?” replied Unearthly Mario. “I want to stay. I’m not done yet.” And with that, Mario’s soul transitioned back into his heretofore nimble young frame. Then he looked up and saw his parents standing over him. “I’m sorry,” he told them. “I’m sorry.”
Go ahead, roll your eyes. Mario does not care if you think he conjured the out-of-body experience from the confines of his wheelchair so reporters, sponsors and investors would take interest in his car racing or his invention, a contraption that allows “quads” and “paras” to drive in new ways. He isn’t offended. He knows what happened. So if you want to know how a guy who can barely get a sandwich in his mouth drives a BMW M3 at 130 miles per hour using technology he built in his bedroom, then ponder his story. If you want to know why a teen who sustained a crushing injury is now an adult who races cars, just go with it. Sure, there are other ways to explain his proclivity for risk — neuroscience, daddy issues, ego, even extreme selflessness. But in the end, Mario’s higher power is his engine, his navigator and his driver.
This explains why he’s not afraid of meeting his demise in a wreck. Mario has kind, intelligent eyes; because his diaphragm is virtually out of commission, his speech is calm and benevolent. “No, I’m not afraid of death,” he says. “When and how I die is not in my hands.”
* * *
On a 100-degree day in June, Mario’s hands are clamped to the steering wheel of his M3 as he hits 120 miles per hour at Willow Springs International Raceway, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Actually it’s a steering rectangle. When he met the entity in ’06, his C6 vertebra had disintegrated, along with his ability to use almost everything below his nipples. The apparatus he’s designed isn’t just a vital part of the car; it’s an extension of his body. But to understand the ingenuous way it functions, you need to comprehend the scope of Mario’s own disability.
People ask him how someone with any upper-body mobility can be classified as quadriplegic. A “quad” (his word) is someone with severely restricted use of all four limbs. How severe? His feet and legs are forever “on strike,” as he likes to say, though they shake and twitch under duress, in extreme heat, for example.
Folks wonder other things, too. And he’s cool with that. Catheter? Yes, but only when he pees (it’s not permanent). Erections? Yes. Colostomy bag? No. Moving up the body, Mario is lizard-thin through the stomach. His thumbs, index, middle and ring fingers are unusable, gnarled and curled as the funkiest Cheetos in the bag. His pinkies are just functional enough for pecking a keyboard or smartphone; because of the time he spends on all things digital, muscles have sprouted like shiitakes from his otherwise meatless forearms. Don’t be fooled by Mario’s biceps. They’re his “moneymakers.” And his triceps, shoulders, traps, lats, delts and scapula muscles are ropy like an MMA flyweight’s, a result of pushing his chair, driving and working out.
Mario is at Willow Springs to show his invention and driving chops to Mitchell deJong, a pro rallycross driver and holder of at least 10 auto-racing titles or gold medals. The two have met before but have never been in a car together. After sliding from his wheelchair to his M3, Mario shows deJong how it works. To attach himself to his controls, Mario raises his arm using his shoulder muscles and puts his left hand on a vertical spool; with his free hand, he wraps his fingers around the cylinder and flips a lever that locks his palm and digits in place. Someone else then helps him get his right hand around its designated spool and clamps it in. While he’s passed safety regulations that require him to exit the car without help, freeing himself from the controls and getting out of the car in a real-life scenario — with an injury, for example — could be a serious issue, given that fires are common in race-car driving.
Pro drivers are typically control freaks who don’t like to ride shotgun. DeJong is no exception. But when I ask him if he’d rather be driving the car, he offers a humble response. “I don’t know,” he says. “It looks kind of complicated.”
The widgetry in Mario’s invention is hard to explain. It’s spring-loaded in what seems like a hundred ways, which allows him control of the vehicle. To brake, he pushes his left shoulder forward, which in turn moves the left side of the apparatus. To throttle, he twists the right spool, motorcycle-style. Shifting, performed with micro pushes and pulls on the right side, is sequential, not unlike what you’d find in an Audi or VW.
It’s remarkable how well it works, especially if you consider that Mario has no post-high-school education, and no formal training in SolidWorks, the engineering program he uses to design it. “Mario has made something that performs beyond expectations,” says Tyler Reid, a SolidWorks trainer. “The stress analysis and virtual simulation has proven strong so far. If the market is there for a product like this,” he adds, “then the design is close,” meaning it’s almost ready for others to use. The invention’s marketability remains to be seen, but in the meantime Reid is helping Mario with design and 3D printing resources.
It’s one thing to wow engineering weenies with mechanical wizardry; it’s another thing to impress a pro like DeJong. But that’s what happens as the two spin laps for an hour, reaching 120 mph and drifting out of hairpins. DeJong, in his boyishly enthusiastic manner, puts it like this: “When you have full use of all your controls and your limbs, you can steer, you can put one hand on the shifter, the handbrake, you can press buttons, you have your two feet for gas and brake and clutch while you’re doing other things. But with [Mario’s] controls, you need to do it all at the same time, with your hands only.” DeJong is pleasantly surprised by the technology. “It was actually really controlled,” he says. “It flows. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest, but after a lap, I had full trust in him.”
* * *
Mario Bonfante Jr. Could there be a better name for a race-car driver? The nomenclature makes perfect sense, similar in cadence as it is to the name of the legendary Mario Andretti; it’s also evocative of the younger Dale Earnhardt, who followed his father, Dale Sr., to NASCAR fame. Yet it’s hard to imagine why Mario would want to be associated with his old man. By any account, Mario Sr. wasn’t a paragon of parental love and support.
The real father in Mario’s life was his stepdad, Chris Tripp, who came along after his mom, Adriana, split up with Big Mario. Chris and Adriana were just 21 when they got together; Mario Jr. was already a plucky toddler who jumped off everything in sight, “like a little monkey,” Adriana recalls. But his high energy wasn’t always cute. Perhaps for attention, or due to neurological hardwiring, or because his biological father was off starting another family, Mario would throw next-level tantrums and hold his breath till he passed out. Physical activity was his elixir. At first it was tee ball, jiu-jitsu and pee-wee leagues. Mario was small for his age, with the focus and agility of a border collie. “When he said he wanted to play hockey, he hadn’t even been on skates,” Chris says, sitting at his kitchen table in Paso Robles, where Mario currently lives with his parents. “It turned out not to be his thing, but he was top scorer and offensive player of the year.”
Chris had grown up on BMX bikes, so it didn’t take long for Mario to start pedaling. By his 10th birthday he’d become a state champion. Next came competitive motocross. Adriana and Chris gave their full support, on the condition that Mario’s commitment didn’t waver. This was rarely a problem. “They gave me so much,” says Mario. “They were young and working class, stretching their budget. They pushed me because they believed in me. So I believed in me, too.”
All the while, Mario played middle school football. And with time so limited, his parents made him pick a sport. The choice was easy. During a big game, his coach had made a decision that cost the team a victory. “I didn’t want someone else’s choices to determine my future,” he recalls. “If I make a mistake, I don’t want to be able to blame anyone but myself.”
Just shy of turning 16, Mario asked his parents if he could get a street bike, to get to and from a job. The answer was yes, but he had to learn to ride it on a track. On his second training lap, he sat astride his 600cc Honda and bested his instructor’s time. Weeks later he was perfecting knee-drops. In less than a year, he turned pro. In his spare time, Mario was still BMXing and skateboarding — breaking boundaries and his share of bones. So as his street-bike racing got serious, Chris and Adriana sat him down. “If you want to be a pro,” they told him, “you have to give up everything else.” For one thing, said Chris, “a small injury like a broken arm can cost you a season.” There also was the matter of quality of life. Now in his mid-30s, Chris was starting to pay for the abuse he’d done to his own body as a rowdy young athlete. He wanted Mario to age with less pain. “If you keep doing this,” Chris told him, “you’re gonna be crippled at 40.”
Mario agreed to their terms. He began independent study, skipped parties, tried to ignore the toys in the garage. He trained and raced hard, won local events. At his first big race, a national event in Utah against grown men with as much as a decade more experience, he took first place in the 600cc production class and the 600cc Super Bike class. For kicks, he entered the 750 class (on his 600) and won that, too. Sponsors called. Offers came. A viable career was under way.
But he couldn’t keep the monkey in the cage. One night, for example, while hanging with some buddies, he did a back flip off a 10-foot-high In-N-Out Burger sign. The next day, he stopped at a “six-pack” of BMX jumps that some kids had built. In violation of the pact he’d made with his parents, Mario grabbed a bike for the first time in 18 months, got airborne, and bailed, landing poorly and bruising his heel. He crawled off the track but didn’t take the bum landing as a warning. Instead, he hit it again, this time sticking the landing but with no style. He kept going until The Crash. “The lip of the first jump blew out and I went over the bars. I don’t remember the impact. I just remember leaving my body.”
Sitting at his desk, surrounded by proto-parts he made with a secondhand 3D printer, Mario looks up from his screen. “It’s like I’d been going 200 miles an hour all my life and finally God said, ‘All right, you have to sit still for a second until we figure some stuff out.’”
* * *
This is the part of the journey where most people discover another way to push boundaries, to access whatever bursts of dopamine or joy flood the brain when gunning the accelerator, launching big air or otherwise courting danger. Many top pros have been known to step back. Extreme skier Scot Schmidt made the decision while launching off a 100-foot cliff. War reporters, after dodging bullets or being held captive, ask for saner assignments. Another extreme skier, Kristen Ulmer, had a similar revelation when she attended Burning Man and, as she tells me, “accessed the altered states I usually got through risk. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can get there without skiing off a cliff.’”
Ulmer describes herself as an addict whose drug of choice wasn’t adrenaline. It was fear. But, like a lot of extreme athletes, she says she didn’t understand what was going on in her brain. “There’s this notion that people who take these risks — people like Mario — are fearless, or that they have a death wish,” she says. “The reality is that fear, not fearlessness, induces the adrenaline rush.” The neurochemical orgy one experiences under extreme fear, she explains, is what makes us feel more alive. “This guy Mario doesn’t have a death wish. He has a life wish.”
To get reacquainted with fear, to get himself from a hospital bed to a racetrack, Mario had to adapt to new limitations. His grit, he says, was only as strong as his faith. He was good with God way before he broke his neck. Christianity had come his way when a good friend, Jeremy Baeza, a teenaged motocross racer, died during a practice session. After the tragedy, Jeremy’s parents started a Bible study group, and Mario took comfort in the meetings. After the injury, someone at Bible study in the hospital told him, “God will never put more on your plate than you can handle,” a statement that might have wounded other quadriplegics. But Mario took it as a compliment. “I appreciate what God put on my plate,” he says. “It means he knows I can handle a lot.”
Doctors said someone else would have to feed him; he scoffed. They said he’d need a full-time caregiver to push him around, or that he’d need a power chair, “like Timmy from ‘South Park,’” he says. “I was like, ‘That’s not gonna be me, man.’” He refused help unless necessary. He fought the physical weakness and the self-doubt and occupational therapists who didn’t know his body as well as he did. It didn’t happen as fast as his mastery of hockey or BMX or motorcycle racing, but he proved everyone wrong. Mario learned to push his own chair, balance a burger on his knuckles, maintain his catheter. Then he taught himself to transfer into and out of a passenger car, which he operated using the standard-issue controls provided to differently-abled drivers, essentially a pair of rods connected to the brake and gas pedals.
To most quads, this level of mobility would be a win. To him it was warm-up. Back when he was a motorcycle racer, Mario, like many of his peers, had always planned on racing cars later in life. Of course, no one close to him wanted Mario to race now; they worried about his safety and the danger of false hope. But his parents knew they couldn’t stop him.
This is Mario, they reminded themselves. Staring into the abyss is all he knows.
* * *
In 2013, Mario took a drive from his hometown of Gilroy to the Orange County office of TruSpeed AutoSport, a small Porsche team whose drivers range from gentleman racers to pros. As much as he hated asking for help, he was hoping to get support for something he’d dreamed up — a steering mechanism that also functioned as shifter, brakes and throttle.
It initially didn’t go as he’d hoped. The guys at TruSpeed, he says, “didn’t have enough confidence in the idea or the time to help. So it didn’t work out.” But, he adds, “I’m used to things not working out.” To him, the rejection paled in comparison to losing his chances at a motorcycle racing career.
Mario took some crude drawings to a machine shop near San Jose; they told him to come back with cleaner designs. A few weeks later, having mastered Google SketchUp, he returned with a better representation of the contraption. “No,” they said, “you need dimension drawings, the kind that auto manufacturers use.” Mario discovered SolidWorks on the internet, pawned most of his belongings to buy it and watched hundreds of hours of instructional videos until he could make schematics that a machinist could fabricate. With help from his stepfather and a few mechanic friends, he got the new controls working in a used and gutted $10,000 M3, and started training.
One afternoon in 2014, Mario was spinning laps at Sonoma Raceway when TruSpeed’s manager, Tyler Tadevic, recognized him. In his late teens, Tadevic had raced cars with dreams of making the pro circuit, but he abandoned his goals after he broke his neck from C4 through C6. “I got lucky,” he recalls. “My vertebrae were salvageable. But for the grace of God, I’d have been in a wheelchair.” Tadevic was dumbstruck by Mario’s driving, and his moxie. “He’d gotten farther as a quadriplegic driver than I had with four functioning limbs,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe that in a year he’d pushed the boulder up that hill all by himself. I remember thinking, ‘This guy is a bucket of raw talent, creativity and tenacity. He’s low-hanging fruit.’”
Tadevic gave him a job at TruSpeed’s shop in Costa Mesa, but this victory was followed by a setback. Tadevic had also given a job to a friend of Mario’s, whose dog bit a customer’s child. Mario and his friend had to go. Soon, Mario was back at his parents’ house. Since then, each success has been followed by setbacks that would derail anyone else: short-lived relationships and near misses with corporate sponsors; well-intentioned but noncommittal investors; a shot at a pro career in Finland that was derailed by a manager who turned out to be a grifter. While he always cobbles a few grand or a small favor or a set of tires from a patchwork of admiring individuals and businesses (and supplements his income giving inspirational speeches), no one but Mario’s parents have proven to be true believers. He hasn’t had his Shark Tank moment. No one has stepped up to assemble the whole package — money, handlers, trainers, technology — that a guy with his potential needs to put all of his energy into what he deserves most: a racing career and a way to make his technology available to other paras and quads. In a way, the same determination that has gotten him this far is also what holds him back. “Part of the reason he hasn’t achieved everything he’s set out to do is because he dreams so big and has taken too much on himself,” says Tadevic. “His tenacity is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.”
* * *
The most visceral way to digest Mario’s doggedness, his addiction to adrenaline — his “life wish” — is to ride shotgun in his M3. After DeJong takes his laps at Willow Springs, I hop in the BMW. And after a few turns, I feel confident in his ability to keep us safe. As we fly down the tarmac, I can feel his confidence grow. By the end of lap two, his need to push the car, and himself, are as obvious as the heatwaves rising from the asphalt. It’s thrilling, but I begin to have concerns. During lunch, Mario was visibly fatigued from the heat; because his body’s thermostat is also on strike, he had to douse himself with water. It took him an hour, soaking in an air-conditioned room, to cool off. But the moment he felt refreshed, he zipped into his nonbreathable fireproof suit and hit the track. His mother and stepfather were with him that day; their concern was palpable.
Approaching the apex of a blind roller and coming into a curve faster than we took it a lap earlier, I begin to see how Mario made the decision, at age 17, that put him in a wheelchair. In ways that most people can’t comprehend, he still has a teenager’s disregard for boundaries. As Tadevic puts it, “The dude’s Give-a-Shitter is totally broken.” By the end of lap three I’ve had enough.
Not Mario. He spins laps with characteristic abandon, as if driving in a race rather than a photo shoot. An hour later he loses control in a turn, taking out a chain-link fence, launching over a gully, eventually coming to a stop with the fence wrapped around the car. The crash, which he says was caused by a transmission issue, happens out of sight from where anyone is standing, so several minutes pass before anyone even realizes what has happened. The M3 is badly damaged, and Mario has to be carried to a support vehicle. The next day over lunch, Mario exhibits no signs of regret. “If I’m going to win races and bring my technology to market so other people can use it,” he says, “I have to keep testing my limits.”
A few weeks later, heading home to Central California from a meeting in Orange County, Mario conducts another test of his limits. He is exhausted, but pulling over for a nap would be, in his view, a minor setback. And Mario, understandably, is tired of setbacks. He tries to fight fatigue but nods off, hits the center divider and wakes up to the impact of the driver-side airbag, which breaks a bone in his hand. Minor setback, meet major one. Now his race car and his daily driver are out of commission. When I ask if he’d finally gotten carried away, he has none of it. “I don’t know a limit,” he says. “I haven’t found one and I don’t want to know any different.”
* * *
Six weeks later, Mario doesn’t have the money to race; and his invention, however brilliant, is too costly to produce and market on his own. So here he is, sitting still like God told him to and trying to figure things out — without a complaint or a trace of self-pity or a whisper about calling it quits.
The more people get to know Mario, the more conflicted their feelings become. Not about Mario the person, who’s undeniably likable. It’s everything he does, and everything he wants, that raise concern. On one hand, he’s Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill; as much as those close to him want him to race professionally and succeed in business, it can be hard to watch him take such risks, only to hit another obstacle. On the flip side, of course, Mario’s determination, rife as it can be with decisions that don’t always serve his best interests, is nevertheless humbling and inspiring. By age 17, he’d achieved more than many people do in a lifetime; then, as a quadriplegic, he doubled down.
In the end, his passion to race reflects his soul and life experience, but it seems like a long shot. However admirable his ambition, racing as a pro likely isn’t a means to a sustainable career for virtually anyone, let alone a quadriplegic. By contrast, Mario’s passion to invent arguably has more upside. Yes, he’s overextended and lacks a partner who can take his idea from bedroom to boardroom, but he has created technology that allows severely disabled people to race cars or drive them in new ways. How it all shakes out remains to be seen. No matter what, it seems, he’ll continue driving and perfecting his invention. It’s all he knows, and it gets him out of bed each morning, amid great physical and emotional challenges. Nothing short of a deadly car wreck will stop Mario from trying to achieve his twin dreams; as he told the glowing entity that day back in 2006, “I want to stay. I’m not done yet.”