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A Mini Roadtrip

Reprinted from SNS January 2015

Minis are fun, sporty cars and people such as Ishmael Lara really push them to the limit when they tackle the road known as the "Tail of the Dragon."

Ishmael Lara, a T-7 paraplegic, was sitting in his 2013 Mini Cooper JCW Clubman waiting for the light to change when a black Scion FR-S “staged” alongside him. The Scion revved his engine — the international sign for “What you got under that hood?”

Lara’s Mini, “The Phoenix,” has a turbocharged, 1.6 liter, four-cylinder engine with a select-shift, six-speed transmission under the hood, governed by paddle shifters and a Driving Aids Development Corporation (DADC) Push Rock hand control.

While most hand controls are out there to get you from point A to point B, Lara and car enthusiasts like him believe they should do a bit more. Hand controls should be as much a part of the car’s performance as they are the functional modification necessary to drive. They should make driving a “performance” car fun.

Ishmael Lara drives a customized Mini Cooper ICW Clubman all over, including roadtrips on the twisting Tail of the Dragon and with the Zombie Outbreak Response Team. / Courtesy of Ishmael Lara

For the 55-year-old Lara, that means The Phoenix is a daily driver as well as a rally car and a vehicle for science fiction-based social groups such as the Mini Cooper Zombie Outbreak Response Team (more on that later).

“I highly recommend any para that has good upper body strength check out a Mini,” says the Sterling, Va., resident. “They are so much less of a hassle, and they are highly customizable.”

A Dragon By The Tail

Injured in 1994 by a hit-and-run drunk driver while riding his motorcycle, Lara doesn’t let his injury keep him from doing what he loves and isn’t afraid of a good driving challenge. Lara took on the road known as the “Tail of the Dragon” for the third year in a row last May as part of the 11th annual Minis on the Dragon rally. Considered by many as one of the world’s foremost motorcycling and sports car roads, the Dragon is a desolate, curve-filled road along the Tennessee/North Carolina border.

Since 2003, Mini fans from more than 30 states and Canada have been making the pilgrimage to Fontana Village, just outside Robbinsville, N.C., for the drive. The four-day event is now the largest grassroots Mini Cooper event in the U.S. with more than 800 Minis on the Dragon last year.

“The 11-mile road, with its 318 curves and breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains, is a very exciting drive,” Lara says. “And people are always surprised to see me hop out with my wheelchair. They have to have a look at my DADC hand control to believe it.”

In August, Lara was on the road again in the Mini’s Take the States rally, sponsored by Mini USA. The bi-annual, two-week event is a 5,142-mile odyssey from San Francisco to Boston, through 13 states and 18 cities.

Each day begins with a seven-hour drive to the next city and ends with a group event, such as Musikfest, a music festival in Bethlehem, Pa. Sponsored by Mini of Sterling, Va., Lara drove the third leg — 3,118 miles from St. Louis to Boston via Memphis; Chicago; Cleveland; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Bethlehem.

“Half the fun of owning a Mini is driving it in a group of other Minis,” Lara says. “Every day we’re on the road as a caravan, communicating on our walkie talkies, stopping for lunch and taking in the sights. Buffalo was our biggest crowd, when our Canadian friends joined us, with 1,100 Minis in one place!”

Making It His Own

An IT project specialist for the Food and Drug Administration in Silver Springs, Md., Lara bought his Mini because it has room for his wheelchair. Plus, the passenger side suicide door facilitates transporting his wheelchair and a passenger.

As a member of the League of Extraordinary Miniacs, Lara knows all about customizing the Mini. The group, they confess on their Facebook page (, is bound by their love of everything Mini, especially personalizing their look. They have more than 11,000 Facebook members who communicate on a daily basis.

“Each Mini has something special the owner did to make it theirs,” Lara says. “For me, it’s black, carbon fiber vinyl; a panel wrap; red, metallic pin stripes; an upgraded suspension; racing wheels; Brembo big racing brakes; and paddle shifters.”

When Lara isn’t customizing or racing his Mini, he’s preparing for the zombie apocalypse, which brings us back to the Mini Cooper Zombie Outbreak Response Team.

Zombie Alert

The team is a group of like-minded Mini fans who get together across the country at different events that combine a road rally with costume play and mock zombie kills.

“Anyone living with loss of limb or lack of feeling knows how important hand controls are to their day-to-day independence, but hand controls can also help get you back to doing the things you love to do,” Lara says. “Sometimes that means driving, and sometimes that means a good, old-fashioned zombie hunt!”

For more information on the Minis on the Dragon rally, visit For more information on the DADC Push Rock hand control, visit

Writer Cheryl Smith works for Driving Aids Development Corporation in Vienna, Va.


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