South Dakota driver in running for reality TV show

Stock cars race at local track
Stock cars zip around a local track while cars for the next race wait to enter the track.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Greg Gunderson grew up around the local race tracks. His grandfather was a driver and mechanic. Young Greg worked in pit crews for some of the locals. He knows the sights and smells of racing, but not the sound.

Greg Gunderson is deaf.

As he speaks with his hands, Gunderson tells about his first experience behind the wheel. It was when a local driver asked Gunderson to warm up his car before a race.

Greg Gunderson has car racing in his blood
Greg Gunderson has race care driving in his blood and is one of 50 race car drivers in the running for a new reality television show. He is deaf.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"I was like, really are you serious?" says Gunderson. "I was just taken by surprise and I thought why not. So I got to drive around and do the hot laps the ten laps. That's when I became addicted at that moment when I got behind that wheel. I wanted to become a driver, there was no doubt about it."

Gunderson's first car was a piecemeal project. A neighbor owned a race car but wouldn't let Gunderson use it.

"I kept asking him, 'Why don't you use your car?' He wouldn't sell it, he wanted to hang on to it. But I kept asking him and it took about two months of asking," says Gunderson.

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Finally the neighbor gave in. Gunderson borrowed the car and parts he needed from other drivers. He placed fourth in his first race. At the end of that racing season Gunderson had to return the parts and the car but by then he made a name for himself.

"I got enough sponsorships to build my own car. From that day on I kept racing and it's been about ten years I've been involved with racing," says Gunderson.

Gunderson isn't racing now. He fills in for drivers from time to time. Now his full-time job is as a stay-at-home dad for his two young daughters.

I've proven a deaf driver can win races. It'd be nice to see a deaf person with interpreters doing those interviews on victory lane.

His family room is filled with racing memorabilia. Trophies and pictures of winning cars fill all of the shelves and tables. A painted side panel from a car hangs on a wall. Gunderson sees the reality show as his one and only shot at NASCAR. The sport is expensive and dominated by generations of race car drivers and tough to get into.

Jerry VanDenHul knows that first hand. He's the creator of the reality TV show "Racin' for a Livin'."

VanDenHul is a former racer from South Dakota. He started in small cars and switched to larger stock cars. He never made it to NASCAR and was told at age 36 he was too old. So he turned his dream into what soon will be reality for someone else.

"We took everything that I wanted to step up into the NASCAR program and applied it and came up with this program. We offered it to other rookies out there and it might not have to do with age but reach and money and all these things," says VanDenHul.

VanDenHul is working on network contracts for the reality show and air dates. He won't release any details until he knows who the drivers are.

VanDenHul says thousands of drivers applied for the show and he selected 50 with different back grounds from around the country. Eleven are women.

Greg Gunderson's family room
Greg Gunderson's family room is filled with racing memorabilia. Trophies and pictures of winning cars fill all of the shelves and tables.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

The drivers are competing in an online election. Voting ends the end of July. So far there have been more than 100 million hits on the web site. The 15 drivers with the most votes and 5 wildcard picks get a shot at the show. Greg Gunderson has broken into the top 15 at points in the voting. This week he's in 20th place. He relies on the deaf community around the country for votes. It's his way of saying deaf people can do anything except hear.

Gunderson gets animated as he signs what's possible.

"I've proven a deaf driver can win races," says Gunderson. "It'd be nice to see a deaf person with interpreters doing those interviews on victory lane. It would be a good education for the public to see those things as well," he says.

Gunderson says it won't be difficult being deaf while racing on the big oval. He says technology is available to communicate with his pit crew through computers on his dash or visor.