When Torsten Gross was 15 years old, he dove head-first into what he thought was seven feet of ocean. It was three.
“Everyone thinks of sand as soft,” he said. “It’s not.”Gross broke his neck, drowned and was clinically dead for two and a half minutes. He returned to life as a C6 quadriplegic. The accident left him in a wheelchair and with limited use of his arms.
Now 44 and living in Sharon, Gross is not just a survivor, he’s a risk taker. Whether it’s as a high-powered executive (he’s head of global advertising and media for Tata Consultancy Services, an IT firm that is one of India’s largest companies) or as a skier, skydiver, or the “world’s only quadriplegic that’s a rescue SCUBA diver,” Grossthrives on pushing the limits.
“I do anything that challenges my life insurance policy,” he said with a laugh. “I’m 44 and doing stuff that 20-year-olds don’t do.” Disability doesn’t guide him. Mindset does.
He most recently focused that mindset on high-speed performance track driving, when his wife Maggie boughthim some time at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville for an anniversary gift.
“I had an instructor who did not care that I was in a wheelchair. He said he was going to treat me the way he treats everybody else. And he did,” Gross said.
It wasn’t just the instructor who treated him equally. He discovered that the sport itself did, too.
“Nobody on track knew that I was in a wheelchair. It was the first sport that I’ve ever done in 29 years, and I’ve done a lot of them, where I am able to compete against able-bodied people,” he said. “Nobody knows that I’m in a chair unless they’ve seen me. The car doesn’t care that I’m in a chair. The other competitor shouldn’t care that I’m in a chair.”
He says that the experience exhilarated him more than any other sport.
“I am equal to everybody else and… it’s like losing your virginity and getting your driver’s license at the same time,” he said. “It is this moment of euphoria and freedom. It’s just indescribable.”
The feeling inspired Gross to offer that thrill to other quadriplegic and paraplegic people. In 2022, he founded the Just Hands Foundation, which works to bring the experience of performance driving to people who need to use hand controls to operate a car.
“There’s such a stigma around disability. This removes the stigma,” he said. “I never dreamed I could do this because I didn’t see myself. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me who did this.”
In its effort to normalize the use of hand controls in performance driving, Just Hands Foundation has equipped cars with hand controls at tracks all over the world, including in Belgium, Germany and Austria.
The foundation is supported in large part by Pennzoil, and was recently gifted a Porsche Cayman by Hoffman Porsche in East Hartford.
Along with Gross’ BMW track car, the Porsche will help the foundation serve the paraplegic and quadriplegic people on its five and a half-year waiting list.
Gross said that the reasons for the popularity of this experience go beyond the thrill of racing for handicapped individuals. He’s seen that race car driving can strengthen and encourage entire families.
Once, the mother of a seven- year-old approached him after her husband became wheelchair-dependent.“
Fathers are heroes to their sons, and the woman says to me: ‘When my husband landed in a wheelchair a couple years ago, my son lost a hero. He stopped looking at my husband as a hero,’” Gross recalled.
The boy’s perspective changed once he saw his father speeding on the track at Lime Rock Park.“ [She said] ‘Now my son is looking at my husband out on track and all he can say is ‘I want to be like daddy. I want to be a race car driver… You brought back hero [status] to my husband,’ and man, that brought the water works right there,” said Gross.
“That’s one of those moments where you… know we’re doing something bigger and I hope that I was part of that right the reason that the kid thought that way.”
But it’s a sport not without risks. Two days after this interview, Gross crashed the Porsche Cayman while practicing for his first competitive track-driving event that was scheduled for Memorial Day.
According to his Instagram account, his car hit a wall sideways at high speed. The crash broke three of his ribs, punctured his lung and broke his femur so badly that it needed to have a rod implanted, he wrote on the social media site.
And, though the car can be fixed, he wrote, it “won’t be cheap.”
He seemed undeterred by the incident.
“I WILL be back,” he wrote. “I WILL complete.”
For more information about the Just Hands Foundation, visitjusthands.org.