Blind Crew Chief Jay Blake Refuses to Give Up on NHRA Dream

·17 min read
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
  • Jay Blake can tear down and rebuild a 3,500 horsepower drag racing motor by himself, and he can fix flat tires on his trailer that tows his race car across the country

  • The 55-year-old Blake lost his sight in an industrial accident on May 22, 1997, when a forklift wheel and tire assembly exploded in front of him.

  • Lacking a primary sponsor, crew chief Blake is determined to have his car return to the track in 2022, even if it means paying for everything out of his own pocket.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit a lot of people hard, physically, mentally and emotionally. But while he’s fortunate he didn’t catch the disease, drag racing’s Jay Blake—the only blind crew chief and team owner in motorsports (yes, you read that right, he is totally blind)—was still hit especially hard.

Blake was preparing for the start of the 2020 season for the Top Alcohol Funny Car class in Gainesville, Florida, when COVID shut down all sporting events. Such a calamity couldn’t have come at a worst time for Blake, who was coming off losing a primary sponsor of his Chevrolet Camaro after a 14-year relationship.

He was prepared to go into the 2020 season without a major sponsor and only a handful of associate sponsors whose contributions would not pay the bills like a primary sponsor would.

“COVID basically took me out at the knees,” Blake told Autoweek. “I was close to putting a deal together for a new sponsor and then COVID hit.”

Photo credit: Courtesy Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Courtesy Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

But in the inimitable positive personality that he’s known for, Blake turned lemons into lemonade in a way when COVID shut him and much of the drag racing world down.

“We were able to park everything, and not have to deal with the uncertainty of everything that was going on,” Blake said. “I mean, people didn't know if you could fly. And then people were flying into different areas and having to rent cars to drive to different races when racing started to resume.

“It was a nightmare for some people and fortunately, we didn't have to live that nightmare. I was able to park everything. And the crew, when everybody was able to stay home and not have to add that piece of life, to the frustrating things and the difficulties that everybody was trying to deal with. The uncertainty and everything was odd. And our (“Follow A Dream”) speaking program came to a screeching halt. It was months and months that went by before we were able to do the virtual presentations and things started to come back a little bit.”

Blake, of Marstons Mills, Massachusetts (on Cape Cod), has now gone two full seasons without getting his Funny Car back on the drag strip. And even though he still remains without a primary sponsor, he’s determined to get his car back racing in 2022, even if it means paying for everything out of his own pocket.

“That's one of the things about racers: they are not people that sit still well,” he said with a hearty laugh. “Living on Cape Cod, my life has been generally normal the past two years. I get up, I go to work every day, I haven't been traveling and racing and speaking as much, but I mean, it's not like I've been boarded up at my house.”

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

Blake has always been frugal and efficient with his money, so he’s able to fund things in 2022. But there’s another reason why he can’t wait to get his car—piloted by veteran racer Phil Burkart—back in front of drag racing fans primarily on the East Coast: he hopes to attract sponsors.

“We want to show what we as a team and our car can do, as well as our Follow A Dream program, and hopefully attract the attention of a sponsor or two,” Blake said.

The 55-year-old Blake lost his sight in an industrial accident on May 22, 1997, when a forklift wheel and tire assembly exploded in front of him. He almost died, endured 11 hours of surgery, had to have much of his face rebuilt, but Blake, in his inimitable style of always seeing the good from bad, quips on occasion that he “only” was robbed of his sight.

Yet today, nearly a quarter-century after his life-changing mishap, Blake remains not only an inspiration but also a near-miraculous example of what a person can do even without their sight.

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

If you watch Blake—whose mother nicknamed him “Happy Harry” as a child because of his positive demeanor and sense of humor—around his race hauler or race car, you’d swear he could see. He moves with a flair and grace that has made countless individuals find it hard to believe that his glass eyes really are essentially placebos.

“He puts up the awning (from the trailer in the pits),” Blake’s first driver, Todd Veney said several years ago. “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. 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. They’ll say, ‘He can’t see? What, are you shitting me, he’s blind? No way.’ That’s the ultimate compliment to him.”

Blake can tear down and rebuild a 3,500 horsepower drag racing motor by himself, he can fix flat tires on his trailer that tows his race car across the country, and for fun, Blake rides ATVs, dirt bikes and go-karts, or goes knee-boarding (similar to water skiing).

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

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

And yet, even after 21 years of total darkness, “He may not see with his eyes, but he has vision,” Jay’s older brother Jim Blake says of his sibling.

Even though he hasn’t seen a wrench or hammer or any other tool for nearly 25 years, Blake still knows how to use them today. He envisions how they looked back when he still had his sight, and utilizes that memory to do the tasks at hand.

It truly is miraculous to see him move effortlessly. He does everything his sighted volunteers can do, with the exception of driving the car.

Well, wait, there’s a caveat to that: Blake does occasionally pilot the car as it’s being loaded or unloaded from the hauler—with the engine off, that is, and his team pushing the car to and fro.

About 10 years ago, Blake was approached to pilot a Lakester, which is a type of modified dragster designed to run solely on the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Blake was hoping to set a world record for the fastest run in a race car by a blind driver. Unfortunately, funding for the effort fell through—but he still holds out the dream that one day he’ll still see that become reality.

One of Blake’s long-time rivals, the now-retired Frank Manzo, paid his former competitor a great compliment when he said five years ago, “When I go see Jay, I don’t treat him like a blind person. 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.”

2022 Schedule

Blake is still working on what his racing schedule will look like in 2022. Right now, he plans on attending and competing his car in at least one national event and six regional events in and around the Northeast. If additional funding becomes available, Blake is open to expanding his schedule.

But racing is only part of Blake’s life. He’s a die-hard classic rock fan who loves to go to concerts, mainly in and around Boston. He also is a dedicated family man.

Another element of Blake’s life is the considerable public speaking he performs as part of “Follow A Dream”, a non-profit organization he founded two years after his accident that is designed to educate children and adults on the power of positive thinking, self-determination and teamwork through motorsports.

Through “Follow A Dream,” Blake has become a nationally recognized and in-demand motivational speaker who has given his trademark “Five Tools For Your Life’s Toolbox” speech to hundreds of groups and thousands of oftentimes awe-inspired audiences over the last two decades.

Even though Covid shut down his racing agenda, it didn’t shut down Blake’s work ethic. Virtually every day, Monday through Friday, since the pandemic began, he called a taxi to take him to/from his shop, about 2.5-miles away from his house. Even though he has no boss other than himself to answer to, Blake is quite consistent: he shows up between 8 and 9 a.m. and sticks around until 4:30 p.m. or later every day.

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

“Going to the shop is my sanity,” Blake said. “I work on the car, the hauler, do pretty much whatever needs to be done. Usually it’s just me or one other person helping me. I also work with wood or I work with metal, but I’m very careful. So, basically, I'm either at home or I'm at the shop or at the racetrack.

“When COVID shut everyone down, I did some of the projects that were on my to-do list for a long time. There were times that it was just you got up, you did something, but there was a lot of low, quiet, depressing days. But you try and fool yourself by doing something and I wasn't as productive as I would have liked to be. Looking back, you're like, ‘Oh, I should have done this or I should have done that.’ There was one time during COVID where you didn't even know if it was ever going to end.

“I mean, I tend to think positively. So I always believed it would (end). But sometimes it's tough just getting the motivation, to get super fired up.”

There’s all kinds of things to keep him busy at the shop. Not only has he done extensive repairs and renovation to his race car and its hauler, he’s spent countless hours making phone calls, sending emails and pitching potential sponsors.

All he needs is just one well-heeled sponsor who not only believes in Blake, but equally as important believes in Follow A Dream, as well.

Blake is one of the most personable and funny individuals in drag racing today. Even with all that he’s gone through as a result of his accident, he is one of the most positive and upbeat individuals you’ll ever want to meet.

What’s more, that positivity is not staged or artificial, it’s truly genuine. That’s how Blake is: what you see (even if you’re blind), is what you get.

He’s always looking for ways to promote Follow A Dream and his race team. In doing so, he’s become a mini-star on social media with a variety of videos on YouTube and Facebook that show him golfing, carving pumpkins with power tools, impersonating Elvis, operating a crane in his shop, and even driving (under closed conditions).

After letting COVID dictate what he could or couldn’t do racing-wise, Blake is ready to return to the race track and do to COVID what his team does in every run down the quarter-mile: go for the jugular.

“In true honesty, COVID caused me to stop racing, and it kept me from traveling and speaking,” Blake said. “But in the big picture, I'm healthy, my family is healthy, I didn't lose my race car, I didn't lose my shop, I didn't lose my house. There are people that have been devastated or died from this thing.

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

“But, and it's been brought to my attention by a couple of different people that my lack of sight sometimes minimizes the visual impact. Like, I have never walked in a grocery store and seen (empty shelves). I've never walked anywhere and saw where everybody wore masks on.

Then, Blake quips with a chuckle, “Actually, the news has been so negative, I stopped watching it. So, as bad as the blindness is, it can save you from seeing some of those things.”

Blake went to two national events this past season as a spectator. Even though he can’t see, he can still pick up a lot from his other senses. And in the end, being back at the track, even as just a spectator, was so good for Blake.

“It was great going to the races,” he said. “Basically, if you turn on the TV in today's world, they tell you how terrible everything is, how people are fighting amongst each other, and then even more about how terrible everything is. There's no positivity, there's no optimism. There's no unity, watching the news or television.

“But when I went to the races, everybody was happy to be there. They were optimistic. They were excited. They were enjoying themselves. They were happy to see people. Everybody was feeling good. And that's what it's all about, right?”

Blake’s Follow A Dream program is also getting more traction. He’s fully vaccinated and schools and organizations have increasingly been inviting him back for in-person speaking engagements to hear his message of positivity and growth.

Blake can’t wait to get back on the race track. Even though he can’t see, he escorts the car to the staging lanes every run and then “watches” through what he hears and can gauge how the car is performing.

The Ultimate NHRA Goal

While Alcohol Funny Car has been the class he’s run in for nearly 20 years, Blake has one dream he’d still like to follow: he’d love to move up to the top ranks of NHRA in either a nitro Funny Car or perhaps a Top Fuel dragster.

“In a heartbeat,” he said emphatically. “Those are the ultimate. I can’t afford to do it on my own, but it’s possible with sponsorship. I was a dragster guy before funny car. I feel dragsters are the ultimate. If the right situation came along, absolutely, I’d do it.”

In about six months, maybe less, Blake’s Alcohol Funny Car will be back on the race track. He can’t wait.

“The whole time going through COVID, as difficult as things got, there was always optimism that we would race again and get through the difficult times of COVID,” Blake said. “Even with COVID, we were still trying to motivate people and keep teaching our Five Tools.

“We didn't give up on our mission just because COVID slowed everything down. Just like racing, you may lose a round or two, but you still have to keep going because who knows how many of the next rounds you’ll wind up winning.”

Two Decades of Alcohol Funny Cars

Since it started competing in Alcohol Funny Car in 2003, Blake’s team has won nearly a dozen regional and national NHRA events, as well as two regional championships in the Northeast.

His first driver, Todd Veney, can’t say enough about his friend and former boss.

“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 (for so many) 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.”

Whenever they run into each other these days, there’s still a friendly, brother-like banter between Blake and Veney.

“You have to wonder about a guy who gets into a 260 mph car after a blind guy worked on it,” Blake once said of Veney, with a hearty laugh.

But growing serious, Veney, 55, is a huge believer in faith—and Blake.

“This happened to him,” Veney said in an interview five years ago. “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. He did the latter.”

Early on in his driving tenure with Blake, Veney and his wife decided to put a blindfold over their eyes and tried to be “blind” for an hour to see—no pun intended—what Blake goes through every day.

“One of us made it five minutes and the other made it 10 minutes,” Veney said. “We couldn’t stand it, it was just too much, and that really gave me an appreciation for what he goes through.”

Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream
Photo credit: Jay Blake/Follow A Dream

Blake has advanced so much since that fateful spring day in May 1997. But it hasn’t been easy, especially at the beginning. Still, surviving what he did made him stronger than he ever has been and the positive person he is today.

“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,” Blake said of the post-accident difficulties he went through.

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.

“That’s how I see today. I still see. I know what I’m doing, 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.”

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

Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski