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Blind Crew Chief Makes Grade
From USA Today
July 19, 2000
By Skip Wood

OK. Ready for a nice, uplifting story?

Well, try this one.

Dave Shell is crew chief and engine builder for the International Hot Rod Association car driven by Jim Spencer.

Thing is, Shell can't see.

Yep. He's blind. Legally blind, anyway.

All of which begs a question.

Yo, Jim. Wouldn't you be better off with a crew chief who can actually see what he's doing?

"I wouldn't trade him for anything," says Spencer, who competes in the IHRA's Funny Car division. "He does a fantastic job on the car."

Yo, Dave. Wouldn't Jim be better off with a crew chief who can actually see what he's doing?

"I really don't think so," Shell says matter-of-factly. "I feel my quality is second to nobody's. I think I pay attention to details that maybe a sighted person wouldn't.

"I can feel things. I can hear things. If, say, a valve is just slightly off, I can tell. When we start the motor to warm it up, I can tell by the frequency of what I hear if something isn't quite right."

High hopes, low funds

The team, based in Lawrenceburg, Ind., had a top-10 points position much of the season before falling to 20th after minimal funding forced it to skip a couple of races.

But Spencer, who also has spent time in the more established NHRA, believes the 5-year-old team has the potential to challenge for a championship. And he gives Shell, 53, much of the credit.

"He can do things with his hands that just amaze me," Spencer says. "And what little bit he can see, he takes full advantage of it."

Exactly how much can he see? Let him explain.

"What you would see at 800 feet, that's what it looks like to me a foot away," he says. "But I'm able to put that to really good use."

His vision began to deteriorate soon after birth, and by the time he was 2, Shell says his sight was basically gone.

He didn't realize it, though.

"That's because my father didn't want to admit he had a blind son," Shell says. "I just thought I was a klutz. I got beat up a lot because I would walk into people. Step on toes. Walk into doors that were closed."

Didn't belong behind wheel

And get this. Shell actually used to drive. On highways.

He says his father, who used to be a cop, arranged for him to get a driver's license despite having flunked the driving test miserably.

"I could see movement of cars, but certainly not the speedometer or the gauges or anything like that," says Shell, who didn't discover he was legally blind until his early 20s. "I couldn't see traffic lights, so I would just go when the other traffic starting going."

He drove for 12 years.

"Then one day I almost hit a kid," he says. "Luckily, I didn't, but that was it for me. I quit driving right then and there."

Shell needs his seeing-eye dog, Rye, whenever he leaves his house.

He reads with the aid of a device that magnifies material 46 times its size.

But when working on engines, he needs neither.

Shell began fiddling with engines when he was 15. A friend had an older brother who was a mechanic, and Shell picked his brain constantly.

A year later, he began to visit racetracks and was more fascinated with the guys working on the engines than the guys driving the cars.

From a hobby to a job

But for Shell, tinkering with motors always was more of a hobby than anything else. He spent years in sales for an electrical supply company before having to leave when his lack of sight prevented him from doing his job on newly introduced computers.

Then, in 1993, while building a hot rod for his son, Shell came down with a form of meningitis that put him on the shelf for several months.

His wife, Anera, found out that another area resident, Spencer, happened to know quite a bit about dragsters and their engines. Spencer agreed to help the family by finishing the hot rod.

"He did it for nothing, and that's how we met," Shell says. "And we got to talking about things, and we decided to get together."

They opened an automotive business, Machine and Speed Shops, and soon went racing together, as well.

"I would put Dave up against any crew chief I've ever worked with," Spencer says. "He's that good."

But Shell never actually sees the results of his labor. To him, Spencer and the car are little more than a fuzzy blob.

"I stand right in the middle of the track and I just listen," Shell says. "Other crew members give me information as to what they see the car do, and I put that together with what I hear.

"In some ways, that makes everything even more satisfying to me. That's true teamwork."


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Date last modified 8/19/2000