That’s So Clutch

When I write a story, especially about someone I’ve never met, I do an interview… if not in person, at the very least on the phone. Usually, that phone call lasts all of 15 or 20 minutes. Then I called Jeffrey Binder and that all changed. Some people just have an energy that comes through the phone. An optimism. When you’re done with your business, you find a reason to stick around. Jeff is that kind of guy.  What would have been a brief chat turned into more than an hour of talking like a couple car guys who had been buddies for years. I knew this was going to be a better than average experience.

Jeff lives in Tucson, Arizona, and has been an enthusiast his entire life; his dad was a Camaro guy and his mom was into Cadillacs. In fact, he took his driving test in a 1989 Fleetwood Brougham. “So I don’t want to hear anything from anybody about parallel parking!” he laughs. When the Dodge Viper was released in 1992, he was wowed by the American supercar, then his buddy’s father got a 1996 GTS and that’s when Jeff promised himself he’d have one someday.

Fast forward and that day came, he got that Viper. “When I meet somebody who’s got a Mustang or Corvette, if they love that car like I love mine, then we’re fine.” Jeff goes on, “I can’t afford an Aventador, but I meet people with Lamborghinis who are just as nice to me because it’s not a money thing, it’s about passion… Car culture may be going away. Younger people these days aren’t getting their driver’s licenses, they Uber, they Lyft, they wonder why you’d want to own any car; so I consider us ambassadors to this culture. I’ll let people sit in it; it’s a car, it’s meant to be enjoyed!”

That passion and enthusiasm got him into a board position with his local club. It led him to track days. And then he had his accident…

“I was out with some of my car buddies; we had gone for coffee, a drive, then we were going to one of the guys’ houses for a barbecue. And a minivan crossed the double line. I made a move to avoid her and assumed I’d spin out into the dirt, maybe mess up the suspension… well, I found a tree… and I found it good.” The impact was so severe, the tree went almost all the way to the Viper’s center console, wedging Jeff’s legs in the car. First responders quickly got there to rescue him and they tried a hydraulic ram (the “jaws of life”) to spread the wreckage apart, but it didn’t work. They attempted to pull the frame open by strapping it to a tow truck and pulling, but that wasn’t enough. Jeff notes, “At hour three, I started to go in and out of consciousness and with my physiology degree, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. The clock was ticking.” Finally, after three-and-a-half hours, they got him out of the car, into the helicopter and off to the hospital. For a couple of weeks, they thought they could save his left leg, but on the advice of his specialists, Jeff decided to amputate. “I know I made the right call. And having a say in that decision, in my own destiny, helps.”

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At this point, I’d like to say that Jeff’s voice through all of this was nothing but optimistic, as if he was blowing through these ugly details so he could get to the “good part” of the story. Honestly, as we were talking about this, he would laugh at things that must have been pure hell to deal with at the moment. But that’s just the kind of guy Jeff is.

So let’s get to the “good part”!

As a car enthusiast, Jeff was determined to drive a manual transmission again. He bought a Gen 3 Viper, but there was a problem: “I don’t have an ankle in the traditional sense anymore, so I have to press the clutch from the knee” (to push his prosthetic leg against the pedal). However, the shoe would catch on the carpet and he’d miss the pedal. Or, if his prosthetic drifted to the right, he could inadvertently hit the brake pedal. So, that’s where ingenuity comes in. Jeff got together with some friends (Randy Weidner from Zero Altitude Flight and Jon Brobst from Viper Parts Rack) and began to develop a pedal modification that would allow his prosthetic to stay on the clutch pedal… and the result is simply brilliant. It’s fully adjustable, gives him the stability he needs and has now been on the car for more than 40,000 miles! In fact, he’s let other folks drive the car and they barely even notice it’s on there. But, the thrill it gives him is truly priceless. That pedal brings him freedom to drive the Dodge he fell in love with all those years ago.

Obviously, a story like this starts to spread, and there was an amputee in Phoenix who wanted to try out Jeff’s pedal. They met one morning and went for a drive. The guy loved it and traded his automatic Porsche for a Gen 5 Viper that same day, knowing he could put that pedal on! And that’s where we are now: Jeff is currently working on a new version that will allow him to quickly move the pedal from one car to another because he’s still doing track days and gets offers to drive his friends’ cars. Plus, the pedal design can be adapted to pretty much any car with a manual transmission, so it’s not limited to just Dodge vehicles. Jeff has been working with a medic treating military veterans who have lost limbs, sharing his story and his design with them so they can have the same freedom he enjoys. In fact, the pedal is so adaptable, non-amputees are finding it helpful: he mentioned a husband and wife using it so they can share the car, allowing both of them to comfortably reach the pedals.

Ready for this? He’s not charging anyone for the design. “It’s not a laptop where there’s three in every home! I believe in the spirit of it and I’m happy to share it with anyone who believes it’ll help them or someone they know.”

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That crash changed Jeff’s life forever, but he’s clearly made lemonade from lemons. Two years to the day after the crash, he went back, drove that road in his car and visited the firefighters who saved his life. I congratulated him on his great attitude and optimism and that’s when he replied, “It’s so important to me that I show my appreciation to everyone who has helped me through this. I never want anyone to think they wasted their time with me.” With confidence, I can say no one has.

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