‘He may not see with his eyes, but he has vision’

After losing his eyesight 17 years ago, Jay Blake is now an NHRA crew chief out for racing glory

Photo courtesy of Follow A Dream, Inc.

Jay Blake can tear down and rebuild a 3,500 horsepower drag racing motor by himself. He’s lost count of the number of times he’s single-handedly climbed out of the cab of his truck to fix flat tires on the aging trailer that tows his race car across the U.S.

He hangs cabinets and repairs whatever needs to be fixed around his house. He’s also an in-demand public speaker, particularly his inspirational “Five Tools For Your Life’s Tool Box” program (positive attitude, education, passion, determination and teamwork).

For fun, Blake likes to ride ATVs, dirt bikes and go-karts, or goes knee-boarding (similar to water skiing). He tells his wife Ann, who admits to being directionally challenged at times, how to get around their hometown of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

All of those activities and more seem rather mundane and routine until you realize that Blake accomplishes all those tasks despite an enormous mountain of an obstacle:

Jay Blake is blind.

We’re not talking just legally blind. Rather, Blake is completely sightless, the only blind team owner and crew chief in professional motorsports today, having lost both eyes 17 years ago in an industrial accident.

Musician Stevie Wonder once said, “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”

That perfectly describes Blake. He has accomplished more without sight in 17 years of total darkness than many sighted people do in their entire lives.

And it all starts with Blake’s own vision – not the sighted type, but rather the inspiration and a won’t-be-beat attitude that has driven his life since that fateful day when everything permanently went black.

As older brother Jim says of his kid brother, “Jay Blake: He may not see with his eyes, but he has vision.”

* * *

May 22, 1997 began like pretty much any other day for Blake. He went to work as head mechanic for a transportation company and was in the process of repairing a forklift wheel and tire assembly.

“Suddenly, four of the bolts that held it together snapped, the wheel came apart and threw me 45 feet in the air,” Blake recalled. “It was a pretty horrific accident.”

So much so that Blake vividly recalls the moments immediately afterward and the near-death experience he believes he had while waiting for first responders.

“At some point, I felt like I woke up inside a cloud,” Blake said. “It was very white and very, very bright. This was true serenity, amazing peace. A voice said, ‘Do you want to stay or do you want to go (back to Earth)?’ I believe that was God asking me if I want to die or keep living.

“I was married and had two kids at the time, so I said, ‘I have to go.’

Given little chance of survival, Blake was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he underwent nearly 11 hours of surgery to rebuild his face.

“The next thing I remember is I was awake and I said, ‘Am I alive?’ And my older brother was at my bedside and said, ‘Yes.’ I then asked him am I blind and he said, ‘We think so.’ At that time, they were trying to save my right eye. They were unable to save it, but three-and-a-half weeks later, I walked out of the hospital.”

Blake not only lost both eyes in the accident, his nose was literally blown off his face. In addition to losing his sight, he also lost his sense of smell and taste for the rest of his life.

“From that point, my world was changed forever and it was time to learn to live life a new way,” Blake said.

* * *

Understandably, Blake went through numerous emotions in the ensuing days and weeks, including depression and even thoughts of suicide.

“I had lost everything, I had no job, I had nowhere to go, I had nothing to do and I soon after that got divorced,” he recalled.

Then came the most cathartic moment of his life, one he recalls as if it was yesterday.

About two weeks after leaving the hospital and still trying to adjust to his 24/7 world of darkness, Blake made his way to familiar ground: the toolbox in his backyard garage.

“I went over to my wrench drawer, opened it up and I pulled out a wrench,” Blake said. “I put it in my hands and I could physically tell what it was. I got this little smile on my face and I said ‘alright!’ Then I went down into my junk drawer and reached in and pulled out a GM (General Motors) distributor module. I could see it through my hands, I knew what it was, and I told myself everything I could do before, I would learn to do again. I was determined to learn how to work on cars again because I realized I could see through my hands.”

Blake has developed an uncanny knack of using his memory to recall how things looked like before his accident, able to differentiate between dozens of different tools all the way up to disassembling and then reassembling a full-blown race motor all by himself – all by feel.

“That’s how I see today,” Blake said. “I still see. I know what I’m doing, I know where it’s at. I know where things are located at. I know where my tools are at, I know where the parts are at, I know where the plugs are at, I know where the wires are at, I know where the bolts are at. I still ‘see’ them, even though I’m blind.”

Blake is only the second known blind crew chief in NHRA annals. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Minnesota native Dave Edstrom, who lost his sight at the age 29 due to diabetes complications, built both Top Fuel dragsters and the aptly named “Blind Faith” Funny Car that his son Mike drove for several years in local races around the Midwest and at selected NHRA national events.

* * *

A little over a year after his accident, a group of friends, intent on cheering Blake up, invited him to attend a National Hot Rod Association race at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa..

They could see how difficult it was for Blake to maintain a positive feeling about life. At first, he declined to go, but finally relented.

When he got to the racetrack, while he couldn’t see or smell the sensory onslaught that makes up NHRA races, it was almost as if a light switch came on in his otherwise all-black world and Blake suddenly saw his future.

“We arrived on Friday morning and by the end of the weekend, I found I could still enjoy the sport,” he said. “Even though I couldn’t see it, there was electricity in the air and there was something there and I still wanted it. I realized at this point that I was capable of doing things, but I also realized that because of the blindness, no one would ever hire me to do anything because I’m blind.

“So I decided that weekend to start a race team. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go for it, what have I got to lose?’ I had nowhere to go but up.”

One thing about Blake that those who know him well all agree upon: when he sets his mind to doing something, stay out of his way.

“My first reaction when he said he was going to go racing was he was crazy,” older brother Jim Blake said.

But Jay would not be deterred. There was a method to his supposed craziness: he would build a racing program that would be centered around a more important social message of inspiration, motivation and determination.

“With that, I started what has become ‘Follow A Dream,’” Blake said. “It really all started by going to that race.”

Since 1999, Blake has operated the non-profit Follow A Dream (FAD), which spotlights the adversity he has overcome, as well as spreads a message of inspiration for others to follow their dreams, as well.

“Our motto is, ‘Do not let your fears stop you. Let your dreams drive you.’”

The centerpiece of Follow A Dream (FollowADream.org) revolves around the race car Blake owns and campaigns in the NHRA’s Top Alcohol Funny Car (TAFC) class, essentially the little brother league to the NHRA’s showcase Nitro Funny Car category.

Shortly after starting Follow A Dream, and to show how determined he was – some may call it bullheaded or stubborn – to succeed, Blake left his home in Cape Cod, Mass., to check out a Super Comp sportsman race car that he had heard was for sale.

“He wanted me to go with him to get the car,” Jim Blake recalled. “I told him, ‘If you want the car, you go get the car.’ He’d been blind for about a year-and-a-half at that time.

“So he got on a bus in Cape Cod, took it to Boston, got on a train in Boston and took it out to Gardner, Mass., I picked him up at the station and drove him to New Hampshire. He made a deal to buy that first car that started Follow A Dream. He and I campaigned that car for a few years (around local New England tracks), I drove for him and he did all the work.”

But that wasn’t enough for Jay. He wanted to play with the big boys in the NHRA.

* * *

It sounds almost like perfect fodder for the punch line of a joke:

So this blind guy walks in and wants to buy a Funny Car.

But there was no humor with Jay. He was dead serious to start Phase 2 of FAD in 2002. To prove how much, he purchased his first Top Alcohol Funny Car (TAFC) from the best in the business, Frank Manzo.

While John Force is acknowledged as the king of NHRA Funny Car racing, Manzo was his equal in TAFC, tying Force for most NHRA championships (16) and over 100 career national event wins before retiring after the 2013 season.

“He remortgaged his house to buy the Funny Car from Frank Manzo,” Jim Blake said. “People often think Jay suffered this industrial accident and received a huge settlement and did all these things, but that’s not the case. He suffered this horrible accident, but he risked his house – he remortgaged his house twice, against my better judgment, I will tell you.”

Manzo did sell Blake a race car, but in hindsight at times, wonders if maybe he shouldn’t have, given how tough a competitor Blake would ultimately become.

“Whoa, very much,” Manzo said. “Don’t put your guard down because he’s a blind person. Wrong. Jay will come at you. I raced Jay for something like 10 or 11 years.

“His car, after the first season after he bought it from me, was a championship-caliber car that could win any time at any place. Don’t ever feel that, well, it’s just Jay Blake. Wrong. You’ll get your ass kicked.”

Even though he’s now retired, Manzo still commands respect. But when it comes to giving respect back, Blake is right near the top of Manzo’s own list.

“When I go see Jay, I don’t treat him like a blind person,” Manzo said. “He’s a tough competitor. He’s just one of the guys. And he’s so talented and he works so hard.

“He takes the valve covers off, starts the car, takes the blower starter off, hands it to one of the guys. He’s unbelievable. I had trouble doing all that kind of stuff, and I can see.”

* * *

Credit: Follow a Dream, Inc.

When Blake debuted his new ride on the 2003 NHRA national circuit with driver Todd Veney, the sanctioning body was particularly welcoming.

But that’s not surprising, as NHRA has long been arguably the most progressive motorsports organization in the U.S. when it comes to giving opportunities to women, minorities and, in Blake’s case, blind crew chiefs.

“There was no cause for concern when Jay came to the NHRA,” said NHRA vice president of competition Graham Light. “He was welcomed with open arms when he entered into the sport. Our record speaks for itself when it comes to diversity. The success he has had again proves that NHRA has a documented track record of welcoming anyone.

“He has done a phenomenal job with the team and the successes they have had through the years. I’ve also heard Jay speak at numerous functions during the years and he does a tremendous job. He is regarded as a top level crew chief and one that is well respected in the pits.”

Light isn’t the only one to respect Blake’s ability and drive.

One of Blake’s biggest idols, John Force, vividly recalls the first time he met Blake several years ago during an event where Blake was the keynote speaker.

“That guy is an inspiration,” Force said. “You meet people that show you how lucky you are. You see people overcoming amazing things and they keep on trucking. Jay is one of those guys. He could have given up but he followed his dream and that is what I try and do.

“He is really amazing. I was glad I got to meet him and talk with him. If he drew any inspiration from me, then it was a two-way street because he impressed me that night.”

Since he started in TAFC, Blake’s team has won eight national NHRA events, as well as a regional championship in the Northeast. And he’s done it with a limited budget, with a very small team of just 11 people, of which more than half are volunteers.

They believe in Blake, but none more so than the guy behind the wheel.

* * *

Driving for a blind team owner and crew chief takes a special sort of individual who implicitly trusts his life and the safe preparation of a race car to someone who, without being trite, can’t see what he’s doing.

Todd Veney is that kind of person. Son of legendary NHRA driver and team owner Ken Veney, Todd first drove for Blake in 2003, then returned in 2010 and has been behind the wheel of the Follow A Dream TAFC ever since.

“When people see Jay for the first time, working around the car or walking around the pits, they can’t believe it, that it doesn’t seem possible (that Blake does what he does despite being unable to see),” Veney said. “I see it all the time. It’s kind of a wonderful thing. It shows you what a human being is capable of. He doesn’t astound me anymore because I’ve been around him six years.

“But sometimes I’ll still be blown away. We might be unloading something and I’ll say, ‘Jay, be careful, look out for…’ and he pops up and says, ‘I know, I know.’ You worry about him, I worry about him because I don’t want anything to happen to him because he’s my friend. But after time, you learn not to worry. He’s fine, he’s got it handled.”

Veney has become more than just a driver for Blake. He’s also become one of Jay’s best friends and a foil at times for Blake’s uncanny sense of humor.

“Yeah, I was pretty desperate,” Blake laughs when asked why he hired Veney not once, but twice. He continues the story with another laugh:

“You have to wonder about a guy who gets into a 260 mph car after a blind guy worked on it,” Blake said. “The whole team likes Todd as a person and has faith in Todd for doing the right job. He’s not perfect, but he’s not afraid to admit he’s not perfect, either. We have learned from each other and we continually grow to be better.”

Veney, 49, admires Blake and draws inspiration from him every day.

“This happened to him,” Veney said. “He had two choices. He could roll up in a ball and feel sorry for himself, or he could go out and do something with his life.

“I’m not glad he’s blind. If I had my choice, I would never have driven his race car and had just one win and not eight race wins. My dreams of being a racer is all because of him, but if I had my choice, I’d rather he could see.

“These last five years have been the best five years I’ve ever had in racing and the best five years of my life – and it’s pretty much all because of Jay.”

Early in his driving tenure for Blake, Veney and his future wife tried to emulate what Blake goes through every day.

“We wanted to see what it was like being blind, so we decided to blindfold ourselves for an hour,” Veney recalled. “One of us made it five minutes and the other made it 10 minutes. We couldn’t stand it, it was just too much, and that really gave me an appreciation for what he goes through.”

While it would be natural for a driver to be protective of or guarded about his crew chief and owner, Veney stopped worrying about Blake long ago.

“It’s old hat to me because I’ve seen it for six years now,” Veney said. “He puts up the awning (from the trailer in the pits). There’s nothing that amazes people more than that. Every race we go to, when we’re setting up the pit, Jay climbs up on top of the trailer and puts up the awning.

“People come up and say, ‘Oh my God, get him down.’ I tell them, ‘Dude, he does it every race.’ It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. He’ll bump into something every once in a while because he can’t see it, but a lot of times you’d have to watch him for a while to figure out he can’t see. You set up the pit area the same. He doesn’t count his steps or measure things out. He just kinda knows where it is. He can grab a 7/16 wrench and a 3/8 wrench and he knows which is which.”

Blake works on virtually everything on the race car, with one exception. Team crew member Tommy Howell tunes the motor, but Blake has significant input nonetheless.

“He cannot read a computer screen because he can’t see it, but short of that, he can tear a whole motor apart, I mean, he does,” Veney said.

In more than 40 years in the sport as a drag racing writer and racer, Veney has known his share of crew chiefs. None compare to Blake, not because of his lack of sight, but for the inspiration he gives to those who meet and know him.

“I’ve seen many times where people, if they haven’t been told beforehand that Jay’s blind, it takes them a while to figure out he’s blind,” Veney said. “They’ll say, ‘He can’t see? What, are you shitting me, he’s blind? No way.’ That’s the ultimate compliment to him.”

Then a smile comes across Veney’s face when asked what Blake is really like.

“You know what really pisses him off? Not too much does, but he’ll walk around from time to time and he’ll get a cut across his forehead because he smashed into something because someone left a cabinet open. That pisses him off, that makes him mad. There’s not too much else. He just walks around and figures it out. It’s just nothing to him. He just rocks and rolls and keeps right on going.”

* * *

Credit: Follow a Dream, Inc.

Besides his 82-year-old mother who still calls him “Happy Harry” (his legal name is Harry Jay Blake), two of the most important women in Blake’s life are his second wife Ann, as well as Terri Donlon, who has served as Blake’s office manager for the past 15 years.

Blake met Ann in 2002 on a, no pun intended, blind date. Both were divorced single parents.

“It just took realizing that he really is different, so unique and so different from the typical guy that I’ve ever met,” Ann Blake said. “It was just so refreshing. The blindness, I remember being a little bit worried in the beginning. But he’s just so independent and self-confident. The blindness has just seemed to fade into the background and it doesn’t really affect him that much.

“He has such a busy schedule, travels all over the country, goes to the airport and goes on flights by himself. In the beginning, I worried a little bit, but he does it so often that I stopped worrying a long time ago. He does whatever he needs to do.”

The Blakes married in 2006. Jay has a son, 26, and daughter, 23, from his first marriage, while Ann has a daughter, 19, and 18-year-old twins (daughter and son).

Donlon, meanwhile, joined Blake as his first employee shortly after he formed Follow A Dream in 1999. She had an immediate comfort level because the father of one of her best friends growing up was blind.

“I would never have guessed then it would go as far as it has today,” Donlon said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.”

When asked what kind of boss Jay is, Donlon laughs and calls him “a pain in the butt,” only to quickly turn serious again.

“There are bad days, there are bad hours in days,” Donlon said. “It’s kind of how he handles it. But instead of taking a spiral down, he tends to catch it very quickly and turn it around. That’s his personality, to stay very positive anyway.

“But it can be difficult at times, it can be very difficult. … He’s very much a micro-manager, wants to know everything.

“On the days where it’s really a little bit difficult, you have to remind yourself when you walk out at night, you look around the shop at the race cars, the trophies and the awards and remind yourself what a great place this is to work. Not everybody gets opportunities like this every day.

“There’s always someone else who has it more difficult than you. … If Jay can get up and go to work every day and do what he needs to do with the limitations he has, really, there’s very little to complain about and very few excuses not to get up on your own way and keep moving forward.”

* * *

Blake’s future boils down to two things.

First is to finally win that elusive TAFC championship, something he’s been pursuing since 2003, when he first signed on with primary sponsor Permatex, a Hartford, Conn.-based company that produces a variety of automotive products.

The Permatex/Follow A Dream Chevrolet Camaro won one national event in 2014, but struggled to a 12th place finish in the season standings. Still, things wound up on a high note in the season-ending Auto Club Finals last month when Veney pushed the FAD car to all-time bests for speed (262.85 mph) and elapsed time (5.53 seconds),

Add in the third-place finish in that race and after 12 years of proving he can do what many thought impossible, Blake may finally realize his long-held dream of winning the TAFC championship in 2015.

“Every year, Jay’s car and program and equipment gets stronger and stronger and stronger,” Manzo said. “Jay’s a competitive guy. It (a championship) can happen. It will happen – and when it does happen, it will not surprise me.”

And then there’s perhaps the most ambitious project Blake has ever worked on.

“Jay has a dream to be the world’s fastest blind man,” brother Jim Blake said.

Jay Blake wants to strap himself into a specially-made race car that will cover the expansive Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at what he hopes will be a speed of over 200 mph.

While some may think such an idea is ludicrous, technology is available to allow Blake to do so – even though he can’t see. At 10 miles long, the Salt Flats would give him plenty of space and time to safely get up to speed and then come to an equally safe stop, hopefully after he’s set the world record.

But that dream is way down the road, if it ever happens. Winning the championship is what drives Blake every day, every race, every speaking engagement.

“The reality is why is it okay for people to give up?” Blake said. “If I had chosen to sit home, drink beer and smoke cigarettes and be miserable for the rest of my life, everybody would have said, ‘Poor Jay. He had a horrible accident and look at what’s happened.’

“And it would have been accepted. But when I stood up, kicked down the front door and said I’m going racing, everybody stood back and said, ‘This guy’s nuts.’

“And that’s the question: Why is that nuts? I just didn’t give up. Why is giving up okay? It shouldn’t be. Sometimes we don’t want to give up.”

And on those rare days when he gets down, Blake quickly remembers what could have been.

“There was only one time I questioned whether I made that right decision (to live) or not. It was in the first few months of being home. I was very depressed, I was standing up in my kitchen and said to myself, ‘This sucks. Did I really make the right decision? Should I just never have woken up?’

“My then six-year-old daughter came running through the kitchen and grabbed my legs and gave me this huge hug. She said, ‘Daddy, I’m so glad you’re alive, even though you’re blind.’

“I have never, ever, ever questioned it again.”

(To find out more about Jay Blake’s organization, please visit followadream.org.)