We have tried to raise the boys with the mindset that “Disability is a state of Mind”
This article about Jon Parish appeared in the Spring of 2017. Jon won his second championship after it was written. You can find a link to his 2017 stats HERE. You can read more about Jon and how he copes with challenges. When you’re through – maybe you’ll think disability is a state of mind too.
In his three-year career, the 13-year-old has won 11 feature races, including the 2015 Bandoleros Junior Bandit Division Championship. Cody Tucker/Lansing State Journal
MASON – In the Parishes’ family business, a quarter of a pound of tire pressure can mean the difference between winning and losing.
That’s why Jeff Parish found himself leaning down on the concrete on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon to let air out of the left front tire of his son’s No. 36 bandolero race car.
On-the-fly adjustments are part of the Friday night experience in the pits at Spartan Speedway
, and Jon Parish is always looking for an edge.
Something must be working. In his short three-year career, the 13-year-old from Springport has won 11 feature races, including the 2015 Bandoleros Junior Bandit Division Championship.
His $7,000 bandolero car looks like a go-kart and sounds like a lawn mower. Bandoleros are beginner cars for youth ages 8 to 14. Traditionally, they are the first car a driver ever races.
But don’t let the delicate reverberation of his engine fool you. Parish gets his car up to 70 miles per hour on the back stretch. He also made the rapid ascent to the senior division, which means he no longer has a restrictor plate in his car that impedes it from going faster than 50 miles per hour.
“He’s a natural,” his father said, wiping off his callused hands.
Wearing a bright red fire suit and a black helmet with red lightning bolts outlined in yellow, Jon Parish squeezes himself into the small white race car three hours before show time. His blue eyes peer through the front of his helmet, and his infectious smile rests under a protective shield.
He’s been playing out this night in his head all winter.
He is eager to take his second practice lap of the day. The first 10 trips around Mason’s quarter-mile track produced a “squirrely” ride, especially in the corners.
“The track is still a little dirty,” Parish said. “It will be ready by race time.”
Competing is in his blood. His dad was a driver. Two of his older brothers have also gotten behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, the comparisons don’t end there. Four of the five Parish boys share a hereditary disorder that causes their lower limbs to progressively grow weaker. It’s called hereditary spastic paraplegia.
It’s the reason that Jeff Parish is pushing his son’s race car onto the road with his cherry red mobility scooter.
Jon Parish has dealt with this disorder his entire life. It’s only obvious when you see him walk.
His determination to live a normal life is so evident that he doesn’t even know what the initials of his disorder stand for, interrupting his father to ask.
“My disability doesn’t limit me,” Parish said. “It gets progressively worse, but it will only get worse if you get lazy and give up. I maintain an exercise program and do therapy. I push through.”
For Parish, racing is the great equalizer.
“When I was really young, I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with my friends playing regular sports.”
“Now I am faster than all of them,” he said with a smile.
A family affair
Jeff Parish has watched more than 1,200 races at this speedway. He calls it his hometown track, even though it’s 20 miles from his home in rural Jackson County.
He has officiated races, waved the checkered flag and even driven around the odd-shaped oval.
Today he is in his new position – sitting on his scooter with a chest-high concrete blockade and chain-link fence between him and the track. In his left hand, his cell phone keeps tabs on Jon’s practice laps. He’s looking for 16 seconds per lap.
So far, 16.5 is the best time of the afternoon.
“I just tell him to be smooth and avoid trouble,” Parish said as he motored back to the pits to check tire pressure once again. “The car is OK, but we have work to do.”
Parish, who sells racing parts at his business racingpartsales.com, is a full-time track father. He said he stopped racing once his oldest son started passing him on the track.
He is obsessed with getting Jon’s car just right, but also works on competitor’s cars out of parking space No. 2. He hauls rivals’ cars in his trailer behind a matching white dually truck and hands out last-minute parts.
As much as he wants his son to win, his ultimate goal is opening up this sport to everyone.
The patriarch of the Parish family is soft spoken and patient, sometimes hard to hear over the roaring engines of cars rumbling by en route to the weigh-in scale.
Though his legs fail him more times than not, he is not afraid to hop off his scooter and latch the roof down before yet another practice run.
Zach Parish has a unique approach to life as well
Zach Parish, 15, is Jon’s older brother and a former driver. Today, he is rolling through the pits in a royal blue wheel chair with a matching shirt featuring his school mascot and a fedora on his head. He is an honors student at Springport High School. His father quipped that he’s “the brains of the operation.”
“Yet no one listens to me,” Zach was quick to snap back before doing his own tire inspection on his brother’s car.
Zach Parish, whose hereditary spastic paraplegia has been more aggressive than Jon’s, finished the 2015 season second on the senior leaderboard at Spartan. For most, that would be a successful campaign.
Not for him.
He says the stress was starting to get to him. And if he didn’t end the night in the winner circle, he was not interested.
“It’s mentally exhausting,” Zach said.
Now, he spends his time on the stage at school, singing and acting out Shakespeare. He is comfortable there. Not so much when it comes to watching his brother take up the sport he left behind.
“It’s an exciting feeling,” he said. “It is also terrifying. You never know what is going to happen. I get the same kind of feelings he does: butterflies.”
Zach was once known as “The Sledgehammer,” but his nerves get the best of him watching Jon.
“He has wrecked. In fact, he has wrecked me,” he said with a chuckle. “One time he did a 360 on top of my car during a race.”
Pamela Parish remembers that night, along with the dozens of other crashes she has witnessed from her three racing sons and husband. She admits that she was always nervous watching her boys race each other.
Competitive driving wasn’t completely foreign. Her uncle was a driver, and she spent many nights at the race track. She met Jeff in a race parts junkyard, and he met her father in a beat-up car that left four different tire tracks.
She laughs that she was “doomed” from the beginning, but admits that watching her youngest son do what he loves makes the late Friday nights and random cars and parts around her property worth it.
“It’s in his DNA,” she said. “He has always been around this world.”
After Jon Parish’s fifth practice lap, it’s time for his pre-race tradition. Parish roams the pits talking to drivers and giving out well-wishes before retiring to the trailer to eat pizza.
His mom always has pizza, he said, and makes sure everyone is hydrated.
“She also keeps my dad in line,” Jon laughed.
Living the dream
Jon Parish has dreams about being in NASCAR. Some nights, he is a crew chief, flying around the pits getting a race car ready for its next 50 laps. Other nights he is a driver, jetting past the lead car on the final turn at Talladega.
The dreams are vivid. Sometime he wakes up wondering if they were real.
“Anything to do with NASCAR,” Zach Parish said of his brother’s dreams. “He wants to make it to the ‘big leagues.’”
“I dream about cars,” Jon Parish said with a smile. “I am a gear head.”
Jon’s confidence was shaken because of the way he walked when he was young, but a trip to the Shriner’s Hospital in Chicago changed that.
They put him in a pair of casts to straighten his feet to attempt to make him walk normally. The hospital put him through a rigorous regimen of therapy and workouts to ensure that he would not have to use a wheelchair anytime soon.
“They helped me a lot,” he said. “If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be walking right now.”
Not walking is a real possibility in the future. Jon knows that, but said he doesn’t see that happening to him. He doesn’t know where the confidence comes from, but he is so determined to stay on his feet that he even played basketball this winter.
“He wasn’t very fast, but the coach said he wishes the rest of the team had half of Jon’s heart and they would be champions,” Pamela Parish said.
Just minutes before the bandoleros opening heat of the night, Jon Parish is preparing for arguably his most important pre-race tradition – a trip to the bathroom.
It’s race time.
He hops up and slithers into the tiny cockpit of his car. His dad is ready to push him back from the front bumper.
In the grand scheme of things, he knows that he is winning every day he walks.
“The more I do, the longer I hold this thing off,” he said of his weakened legs. “I am not going to let this get in the way of my dreams.”
The end of the day concluded with this feature win.</blockquote>