Deaf racer defies odds, predictions

JIM CRESSMAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:02 AM ET

Kris Martin doesn't see himself as anything special -- but to others who are just like him, he's an inspiration.

Martin, 22, is deaf.

He was born deaf. In fact, doctors told his mother that all Kris would ever hear would be the sound of a jet aircraft -- and only if it landed right beside him.

But that wasn't going to deter Kris from chasing his dream, and that's driving a race car.

His is an incredible story and it's only playing out because of a cochlear hearing implant he received at University Hospital when he was eight, and now with the help of an FM receiver developed by Phonak Hearing Systems, a company based in Switzerland.

Phonak's systems initially were used to assist students to hear in the classroom. Then came helping those with hearing impairments use cellphones, MP3 players and portable DVD players.

And now it's helping the young man from Burlington travel safely around a race track at upwards of 150 miles an hour.

Martin was on the half-mile at Delaware Speedway yesterday to test a new Phonak device. Both passed with flying colours as he communicated clearly with his spotter and crew chief.

"If I can't hear, I can't race," Martin said, as safety is No. 1 at the track and that only comes through radio communication. He can't use the conventional two-way radio.

"We have spent many hours working on this together."

Last summer, armed with the device and a ride from Lee Faulk Racing, Martin qualified for an ARCA super late model event at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton, N.C.

After track officials initially balked, including a thought that they would start him at the back of the 28-car field, the young man exhibited in practice he could safely handle a racing machine.

He then went out and finished a stunning seventh in the race.

"Many people have told me I can't race, but I've never said I can't do it myself," said Martin, who begged his parents to let him drive a go-kart when he was three.

They said if he was still serious when he turned 10, then he could do it. His 10th birthday rolled around and he was in a go-kart.

His mom Kim is thrilled by her son's enthusiasm as she comes from a racing family rich in history -- father Doug Syer raced super modifieds at Oswego Speedway in Oswego, N.Y., and brother-in-law Warren Coniam, also a former super modified driver, is in the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame.

"The Phonak is just a fabulous opportunity for Kris, because that's what allows him to race," said mom. "And we'd love to see him here (at Delaware) because London has become like a second home since his surgery," performed by Dr. Lorne Parnes, head of the cochlear implant program at London Health Sciences Centre.

Peter Stelmacovich of Phonak said, to the best of his knowledge, Martin is the only race car driver with hearing loss from birth.

"His parents contacted me and presented me with the problem that Kris couldn't communicate with his pit crew. 'Is there anything you can do to help us?' " Stelmacovich said.

"More and more people are realizing these devices can enhance their quality of life outside the classroom."

Kris likes to say "I was born to become a race car driver." He's raced in a number of series, including open-wheel, but stock cars are now what's captured his passion.

"Racing has allowed me to realize my physical obstacles aren't large obstacles at all."

And he wants others just like him to know that, so he does motivational speaking engagements across North America on behalf of various associations for the hearing impaired.

"Racing has helped me become a sociable person and I love teaching others who have a disability."

He said he can see the excitement in their eyes when he speaks of his racing.

"You can play baseball, hockey, be a doctor, do anything -- there are no limitations," he tells them. "It's your choice. It's why I'm a race car driver. And it's been cool."


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