We haven’t been at the track a half-hour when Seth challenges me to a race. He does it nicely, subtly cushioning the challenge inside a joke.
But then I look up from my notebook, where I’m furiously scribbling notes on this 26-year-old who broke his neck last year, was believed to be paralyzed from the shoulders down and has somehow clawed his way back into a go-kart that he drives like a skilled madman.
I look up, and Seth Wannamaker is staring at me. He’s staring right at me with a look that says, “Bring it, paper boy. I will whip you with one arm tied behind my back.”
And here’s the thing: We both know he will.
“I have to win,” Seth confirms later. “Had to from a young age.”
“Compared to the average American, he’s an absolute beast,” says Jaime Johnson, a life path specialist at QLI, the rehab center for brain and spinal cord injuries in northwest Omaha. “That quality ... is one of the very best things he has going for him right now.”
Now, they don’t actually tie Seth’s left arm behind his back at Joe’s Karting in Council Bluffs. But after hoisting him into his go-kart with a lift that Joe’s Karting built, Buddy Ray Jones, track manager, does push Seth through a 25-lap time trial, forcing him to steer with only his right hand — the weaker and less functional of Seth’s hands. Jones handles the gas and brake in the two-seater kart since Seth has no function in his legs.
At Jones’ urging, Seth weaves the 600-pound go-kart left and right around a series of cones and hairpin turns at speeds nearing 40 mph.
Steering this go-kart one-handed is hard work. I tried it, nearly wrecked on the first lap, and could sense the burn in my wrist and shoulder after two.
This is part of Seth’s physical therapy — his long road back from June 30, 2017, when the industrial painter fell off a platform, tumbled 10 feet, landed on his neck and back, crushed his spine and nearly died.
But this weekday morning at Joe’s Karting is something else, too. It’s proof positive that if you want something like Seth wants this, and you find allies like Joe’s Karting and QLI, you can sometimes transform the impossible into reality.
“When I woke up in the hospital, the first conversation I had with my family was about go-karts,” Seth says. “My very first thought was go-karts.”
After Seth finishes the time trial, they hoist him out of the two-seater and into a one-man go-kart that Joe’s Karting specially designed for people who can’t use their legs. The accelerator and brake are controlled on the handle bars, similar to the gearshift and brakes on a mountain bike.
It’s time to race. I have begged off, weakly citing my need to take notes. Jaime the QLI therapist; Jeremy Kime, the Joe’s Karting employee who built the lift; and QLI public relations employee Carsten Froehlich have all volunteered to race Seth.
As they pull onto the track, it’s easy to forget that eight months ago, as Seth lay in a hospital bed after the first of several surgeries, doctors told him he was a complete quadriplegic. He would never use his arms or legs again.
Imagine how you would take that news, especially if, like Seth, you made your living painting massive ships in the Pacific Northwest and then spent nearly every second of your free time becoming one of the best amateur go-karters in the region.
Here is how Seth took that news: He didn’t believe it.
Within a day, he was moving his fingers. Doctors changed Seth’s diagnosis: He was actually an incomplete quadriplegic.
Within weeks, he figured out how to squeeze a bottle of his favorite beverage, Mountain Dew, in his armpit and pry it open with his left hand. Within months, long before his therapists thought possible, he was teaching himself to transfer from a wheelchair to a chair.
In September, he came to QLI, a 24-hour rehab center that uses both time-tested strategies and cutting-edge technology to help people with spinal or brain injuries regain as much function and independence as they can. Today, after hours and hours of intense therapy, Seth can write. He can dress himself. He can cook his meals. He can make his bed and clean his room.
Nearly everyone but Seth considers it the most stunning progress they have ever seen. Seth himself sees it as exactly the thing he set out to do.
“If I’m going to be independent, I have to do this,” he says. “And I’m going to be independent.”
He’s also going to drive a go-kart at insanely high rates of speed.
Shortly after he reached Omaha, Seth learned something that warmed his speed-loving heart: Joe’s Karting, the Council Bluffs track, had previous experience helping people in wheelchairs race at its track. In fact, Joe’s already had a specially designed go-kart for just this purpose.
In late January, after enduring an agonizing months-long wait as QLI made sure it was safe, Seth entered Joe’s Karting. Jones, the Joe’s Karting manager who has years of experience with head-and-spine injuries — his brother long ago suffered a traumatic brain injury — made Seth promise to take it slow. Seth agreed.
Then he got on to the track and floored it.
That first week his fastest lap time was 17.2 seconds — pretty darn quick, especially for someone who was operating the go-kart with one functional hand. Seth kept doing his hand exercises. Jones helped him develop a new flexibility exercise for his thumb.
As he starts the race today, Seth’s fastest time is down to 15.6. That’s better than nine out of every 10 drivers who come to race here.
The checkered flag drops and Seth floors it, immediately passing Jaime and taking the lead in the first turn. He speeds away from the field, fully intent on victory.
But The World-Herald has inserted a serious kink into Seth’s winning strategy today. We asked to move our GoPro camera to the front of his kart midrace. This means Seth has to make a pit stop and wait impatiently as the camera is moved. By the time he peels back onto the track, he is in last, a half-lap down to the leader, Jaime.
Seth doesn’t give up. He passes Carsten. He passes Jeremy. He tries to ignore the burning in his right arm. He inches ever closer to Jaime. But there’s not enough time. Seth crosses the finish line second, his GoPro pit stop too much to overcome.
“Five more laps, I woulda had you,” he tells a triumphant Jaime afterward.
Seth has set a new best lap time, 15.4 seconds. He knows he can go faster.
Soon he will move into his own apartment. He will continue to rehab at QLI.
And you darn well better believe he will be back here at Joe’s Karting whenever he has a spare hour or two. Soon, he will be strong enough for a 50-lap race. Sooner still, he will demand a rematch with Jaime, who is gloating a little too much for Seth’s taste.
“I had a handicap!” Seth yells and smiles. I look at Seth’s face again, and I know he’s not talking, not even thinking, about the handicap that everyone else sees.