CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Richie Parker can’t shake your hand, but that won’t stop him from endearing himself to you the minute you meet. He’s diminutive and handsome, with a stylish goatee, warm smile, and southern gentlemanly demeanor. Speaking with the crisp intelligence of an academic, he is instantly likable and any fear of awkwardness vanishes.
“I’m thankful that I don’t have arms,” he says matter-of-factly.
It might be unexpected to hear that, but he means it. When you hear him say it you believe it. In fact, when you get to know him and see the things he’s accomplished in his young life, you can’t imagine him being any other way.
Those accomplishments include baccalaureate and master’s degrees from Clemson University in mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship, respectively, as well as a career that took him to the heights of automobile racing design.
His story has touched people all over the world thanks to an Emmy Award-winning profile about him that was featured on ESPN in 2013. Now he plans to use his degrees and his experience to help others with disabilities steer through life.
“We have to be thankful for what we don’t have because a lot of times that’s what shapes us into what we are,” he said, sitting in his large workshop among a dozen cars in various states of repair. Several engines are lined up on the floor and when asked if he dropped them out of the cars himself he replies with an incredulous “Yeah?” meaning, who else would have done it? Never mind that most people with two good arms wouldn’t want to attempt pulling an engine out of a car by themselves.
Considering a person going through life without arms and hands – things that are so natural to the rest of us that we don’t even give them a thought – raises a lot of questions: How does he drive? How does he answer his cell phone? The smallest tasks would be monumental to us.
(The answers are he drives with a plate and pivot system he designs and installs in his cars himself that allows him to steer with his feet and shift with his shoulder. He answers his phone with his chin and lower lip.)
When he nonchalantly rolls a floor jack across the garage with his shoulder and lifts the front end of a Chevy Impala off the concrete, pumping the handle up and down with his torso, you start to understand: When Richie Parker wants to get something done it gets done, and there is nothing atypical about it.
“I want people to realize that point that they’re ready to give up is usually a lot earlier than it should be,” he said. “That’s what I want people to learn from me.”
Richie Parker sits on the edge of the engine compartment of car, under the open hood, and reaches for the air filter with his right foot.
Parker was born in May 1983 with bilateral amelia, an extremely rare birth defect marked by the absence of one or more limbs. His parents, Tracy and Lottie Parker, made sure his childhood in Beaufort was as normal as possible.
When his friends started riding bikes, Tracy modified a bike for Richie to ride right along with them. As a teenager, Richie took an interest in his dad’s hobby of wrenching on cars, so Tracy let him jump in on projects, sparking a passion for engineering in Richie that would carry him to the auto racing world in his adult life.
And, of course, in the Parker family, being a normal South Carolinian also meant growing up with dreams of being a Clemson Tiger.
“I grew up a die-hard Clemson fan,” said Parker. “My uncle Thales Parker went to Clemson in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so that’s where I got the bug, and of course growing up in South Carolina, if you want to go to engineering school, then Clemson is the choice. That was something that was a dream in middle school and high school. The day I got that acceptance letter was one of the best days of my life.”
He’d long since accepted and overcome the social stigmas of not having arms by the time he walked into his first class at Clemson in 2001, so his anxieties and expectations were those of any other student.
“Stepping foot on campus for the first time – it was a little bit of a shocker for me because I’m from a small town and the campus is huge, or it seemed that way to me,” he said. “It took me a few weeks to get used to being away from home, but when you get to Clemson everyone is so friendly and welcoming. It helped with my transition a lot. Within no time everything about Clemson felt like home.”
Parker received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2005. His four years as an undergraduate, he said, cemented him as a life-long Clemson Tiger.
“If anybody is considering Clemson I would tell them, first and foremost, it doesn’t matter what your major is or what you plan to major in. It’s a family. After four years you’ll have that orange blood like the rest of us do.”
With his degree in hand Parker landed a 10-week internship at Hendrick Motorsports, the winningest organization in NASCAR with 12 championships to its credit.
He was totally green in the world of stock car racing, but as with everything else in his life he just needed that small crack in the door and he could take care of the rest. He threw himself into the work, designing parts on his laptop with his feet.
His first assignment was to design the scale model cars used in wind tunnel testing. He quickly transitioned to working on full-size chassis components and body components and steadily rose through the ranks of designers at the company.
“There are certain advantages to having a disability,” he said. “I’m used to having to do things 10 times, 20 times, 30 times. That’s an advantage in the workplace. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who are ready to quit after something doesn’t work the first time.”
The 10-week internship was extended to 12 weeks and, ultimately, 12 years. For his last two years he was a vehicle design group manager, leading as many as 17 other engineers.
“Richie is a truly incredible person and a highly talented engineer,” said the president of Hendrick Motorsports, Marshall Carlson. “He was a fantastic teammate who was universally respected throughout our company for his many contributions and the way he carried himself. Personally, I was inspired by Richie’s dedication, knowledge and work ethic, and I certainly wasn’t alone in feeling that way. We were lucky to have him with us for so long and we’re proud of the great things he’s doing now.”
Parker looks back on his years at the company with the same fondness.
“I worked with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. … you name it,” said Parker. “But more important were the people that I worked with every day that had a huge impact on my professional and personal growth. I was able to grow a lot as a young engineer and a young man at Hendrick Motorsports and I’m very thankful for all of my years there.”
Two years ago, despite being engulfed in the fast-paced world of NASCAR racing, he began feeling stagnant. He needed another challenge. After considering a few different options, he decided to return to his alma mater and enrolled in Clemson’s Masters of Business Administration in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MBAe) program.
He’d been incubating an idea for a business for some time, and he knew the knowledge and experienced gained in the MBAe program – which is designed to give students essential business knowledge with added emphasis on the needs of startup companies – would help him get it off the ground.
He received his master’s degree on Aug. 11 after two years of taking classes while working full-time.
Parker credits the comradery fostered in the MBAe program with getting him through the grueling process.
“It was a tough road the last two years. The time management that’s involved with getting your MBA while working full time is tough. It’s something I had to experience with my classmates. We helped each other get through. There were several times I would have quit if they hadn’t convinced me to keep going.”
Likewise, Parker’s MBAe classmates are happy to attest to his character:
“He is a wonderful person,” said Jessica Cokins, who was a member of Parker’s MBAe cohort. “We all spent a lot of time together during our in-residency weekends. One weekend, I came up to Greenville from Charleston alone. Typically, my husband and kids would come with me, but this round they didn’t. Of course, that is the weekend that I got a flat tire and realized it at the end of the weekend when almost everyone had gone home. Luckily, Richie and another student were still there. Richie, being the car expert he is, helped change my tire and put on the spare. But he didn’t stop there, he followed me to a tire center and helped pick out a tire so I could get home safely.”
Dr. Matt Ort, an account executive for startup company Mobile Rescue Systems and another fellow MBAe classmate, echoed Cokins’ sentiments.
“I don’t know if words can justify who Richie truly is and how blessed I am to have him in my life,” said Ort. “He is one of the most genuinely kind-hearted individuals I have ever met. His drive, passion and willingness to assist others is unmatched. The word ‘limitation’ bears no meaning to Richie. He never ceases to amaze me with the many wonderful things he accomplishes and the many projects he has going on. Richie is a fellow tiger, but mostly, to me, he is a dear friend.”
Moving forward, Parker plans to put his MBAe to good use.
“The program has opened my eyes to opportunities outside of what my career was,” he said. “It has also given me the courage to take some risks in life. I was too comfortable in a lot of ways in the job that I was doing. My classmates have encouraged me to pursue things outside of my comfort zone. Watching my classmates who were professionals with good careers take that leap into entrepreneurship has helped me decide to step out and do something that will benefit me.”
To that end, he is in the beginning phases of launching a consulting and design business. After a lifetime of fabricating tools and automobile parts for himself, he wants to do it for others.
Chris Fay, a 2004 Clemson graduate and vice president of TPM, a design and engineering technology company based in Greenville, caught wind of Parker’s plan and set up a meeting.
“Although we were not far apart at Clemson, I originally learned about Richie watching the ESPN special on his life when he was working for Hendrick Motorsports, one of TPMs customers. I was immediately drawn to his motivation and will to not allow anything in the way of achieving his goals,” said Fay. “When my sales team contacted me about Richie and that he was getting ready to embark on a business of his own, I was not surprised. I also learned about his desire to help other children with physical disabilities which aligned perfectly with TPM’s Cradle to Career Initiative. We met in Charlotte and the rest is history.”
TPM and its vendor SOLIDWORKS made an investment in Parker’s business, getting it off and running before the ink was dry on his MBAe diploma.
“Tools for people with disabilities is what I wanted to do from the beginning,” Parker explained. “Some opportunities have arisen recently in the automotive industry that I believe will help support the initiative to design and manufacture tools for people in need and will ultimately help us grow into a larger and diverse company.”
The potential for Parker’s startup is through-the-roof, said Fay.
“What is so cool for me to see is the entrepreneurs that TPM has helped get started over the years and how their businesses have blossomed into thriving successful organizations,” he said. “We expect Richie will do the same.”
To prepare himself as he steps away from the grind of racing and grad school and into the next chapter of his remarkable story, Parker has given himself yet another challenge: getting into the best physical and mental shape of his life.
“Two years ago, I set a goal for myself to run a 5K,” he said. “To do that I had to lose 50 pounds, and I did. I want to keep spending time on myself because I believe that’s going to help me help others.”
So he’s been hitting the gym three to five times a week, and feeling great.
“I wish I had some eligibility left!” he laughs. “When I’m at the gym I feel like I’m a 6-2, 230-pound linebacker. That’s my mentality. I’ll have to call Dabo and see if he’ll let me walk on.”
Parker also plans to make use of the bit of fame that came to him from the ESPN profile.
“The ESPN feature has helped me come out of my shell and do motivational speaking. It’s something I never planned on doing in the past, but it’s something I feel like God wants me to do,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunities to speak to everyone from people at NASA, Virginia Tech and Clemson’s football teams, to local schools and churches. I’m thankful for that opportunity. I’m thankful for how God has allowed me to step out of my shell.”
The speaking engagements have been an unexpected blessing, but he still struggles to believe that anything he does could inspire others.
“I just don’t see it,” he said. “To me I’m just me. I often don’t realize the impact that I’m able to make on other people. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished that much in my life because I’m so consumed by what I need to do next. I don’t really see myself as a hero – I’m a work in progress.”
Ken Scar works in Media Relations for Clemson University.