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Cody Unser: Never Say Never Again

In 1999, the racing world was stunned to hear the news that 12 year old Cody Unser, oldest daughter of Champ Car driver Al Unser, Jr. and his wife Shelley, had contracted a little known disease, Transverse Myelitis, which left the middle schooler paralyzed from the waist down. The Unsers sought care for their daughter in Albuquerque, Phoenix, and later, at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. In spite of their efforts and the excellent medical care given to Cody, it became apparent that she would be among the one third of TM sufferers who do not recover from their paralysis. Deep Throttle’s West Coast Editor, Lisa Davidson, talked with Cody Unser after the 2007 Long Beach Grand Prix to find out what’s new with this remarkable young woman.

Long Beach, California — Cody Unser was told at the age of 12 that she would never walk again. Years later, Cody said she would never have a boyfriend, in part because of the limitations imposed by her paralysis. And, due to the difficulties her parents encountered with their lives in racing, problems which eventually led Al and Shelley to divorce, Cody was really, really sure she wanted nothing at all to do with racing. Never, ever again.

One thing that Cody Unser knows today is that no one should ever say never to her again. At the age of 20, she has a happy, healthy relationship with her boyfriend of two years, while at the same time embracing her role as “a woman in a chair.” When all is said and done, she is far more a woman, period, than a woman in a chair, but that is clearly a part of who she is. The boyfriend is, of course, part of the world of racing, but Unser acknowledges that “racing is a part of me,” and so it’s really not so strange that her man is part of the racing world, too.

Few young people have such a strong heritage in auto racing. Cody is the granddaughter of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, Sr., and grand niece of racer Bobby Unser. And, few drivers have been as successful in Champ Car as her father, Al Unser, Jr. Perhaps no driver is as much associated with the Long Beach Grand Prix as the “Emperor of the Beach.” But after the crowds went home, Al Jr. had to deal with many family tragedies, including the breakup of his marriage, and eventually sought treatment for his alcoholism. Cody’s father is racing again, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of his daughter. Cody and brother Al’s obvious integrity are certainly a reflection of the love both parents have for their children.

It is Cody’s mother, Shelley Unser, who has been so instrumental in helping her daughter deal with her condition and it was Shelley who helped Cody start her foundation, Cody Unser’s First Step Foundation. When Cody became ill in February 1999, her father was preparing to race in the IROC at the Daytona 500. He was replaced in that race by Bobby Labonte, who donated his IROC earnings from that race to start CUFSF. Eight years later, the Foundation is the centerpiece in Cody Unser’s life, and what a life it has become.

When we first speak, Cody is busy with papers and finals for the sophomore year at the University of Redlands in the coming week, because the Foundation is presenting a major symposium at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. Unser is able to focus on running her foundation while carrying a full time class load because she is enrolled in Redland’s innovative Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. At the Johnston Center, students design their own majors and write contracts for their course work. Because of this, some of Cody’s coursework has dealt with a subject that is now very close to her heart, namely, stem cell research.

For many years, actor Christopher Reeve was the most prominent proponent of stem cell research in the United States. Unser was able to meet Chris Reeve and learned at his side the intricacies of fund raising and advocacy for the paralyzed. Most scientists searching for a cure are convinced that the chances of Cody’s and others being able to walk again depend directly upon the advancement of stem cell research. Reeve was able to get federal funding dramatically increased during his lifetime. With his death in 2004 and his wife Dana’s passing in 2006, Cody Unser is now stem cell research’s most visible face as she races for a cure.

Unlike other major foundations, CUFSF has no big board of directors charged with fund raising and accumulating press clippings. As she says, “it’s a crazy wild ride,” and she and Shelley have had to learn as they go. It’s an approach that has its own particular set of advantages. For example, when it came time for Cody to drive, she discovered that there weren’t a lot of programs that taught how to operate hand controls. As she continues her quest to “redefine normal,” of course Cody wanted to have a much cooler set of wheels than the expected “handicapped van”... Today, she drives an Audi A3 which allows her to lift her chair. But, when she began driving several years ago, she discovered that even finding hand controls she could use in modifying her vehicle of choice were difficult.

Photo courtesy of Veronica Verve

Fortunately for Cody, her brother Al (“Just Al” or Al III) went online and found her first hand controls which allowed her to avoid the dreaded handicapped van. It seemed a simple solution for her driving was always going to be a hassle until she met Daniel Reyes, President of RediAuto Sport, whose company markets Soft Touch hand controls in the US. While widely used in Europe and endorsed by former Champ Car driver Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a horrific racing accident in 2001, Soft Touch is relatively new here. Cody explained to me that it works with an accelerator ring behind the steering wheel. In the week before Long Beach, Cody raced at Irwindale Speedway in the Redi Auto Track Challenge 2007 and of course loved every minute of the experience. Reyes drove a specially equipped pace car as part of the Long Beach Grand Prix, so we hope we don’t have to wait too much longer to see Cody Unser take her own first laps at the Beach.

Whether it’s being able to race or being able to live independently, it is clear that Cody Unser is well on her way to her goals. As I frequently said at the height of her father’s career, it’s never (there’s that word again) a good idea to count Al out, no matter what happens. Well, I think it’s also never a good idea to count his daughter Cody out, either. She has enough energy and determination for 10 people, and she is mature enough, even at a relatively young age, to realize that while her paralysis is unfortunate, there have been benefits even so. She’s been able to see the world, meet Christopher Reeve, and accomplish more than any other 20 year old that I know. Moreover, it’s made her the woman she is today.

So, remember, never say never to Cody Unser. She said she’d never have a boyfriend, but I am quite sure a certain gentleman is very grateful that’s no longer true. Cody said she’d never be involved in racing, but there she was, just last week, out on a race track. Driving fast with her legendary “lead hand” and trying to be faster than everyone else. I think that’s called racing, and if there’s one thing this country loves, it’s an Unser racing. And the doctors who told her that she’s never going to walk again? Well, my money along with my prayers is with Cody Unser. I’m just betting that if anyone can, she will.

Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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