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Yuma man overcomes disability to race off-road

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 12 2011 7:55 p.m. MST

Brothers Alonzo and Juan Dominguez sit on an ATV outside Yuma, Ariz. on Dec. 31, 2010.  Both brothers  recently joined Nuttbar Racing for the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race, helping lead the team to a first-place finish.  Juan Dominguez, had his eye removed at age 11, after an accident when he was a child.   (Yuma Sun, Jared Dort, Associated Press) Brothers Alonzo and Juan Dominguez sit on an ATV outside Yuma, Ariz. on Dec. 31, 2010. Both brothers recently joined Nuttbar Racing for the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race, helping lead the team to a first-place finish. Juan Dominguez, had his eye removed at age 11, after an accident when he was a child. (Yuma Sun, Jared Dort, Associated Press)

YUMA, Ariz. — The adrenaline was pumping. He was emotional, yet zoned in on the task at hand.

Juan Dominguez was at the starting line, moments away from achieving his dream of riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) in the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race.

But there was just one tiny thing the then 19-year-old Yuman resident forgot to mention to team captain Brad McLean before the start of the race.

Dominguez didn't tell McLean he could see only out of one eye.

It was Jan. 30, 1998 — the day of Vicente Dominguez's, Juan's father, birthday. Juan, then 7 years old, was playing kickball in the front yard with other family members.

During the game, an ice cream van and its melody of tunes passed by.

Juan Dominguez rides an   ATV  in Yuma, Ariz. on Dec. 31, 2010.  At age 11, Dominguez had his right eye removed after a childhood accident.  Juan, along with his brother Alonzo  recently joined Nuttbar Racing for the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race, helping lead the team to a first-place finish.   (Yuma Sun, Jared Dort, Associated Press) Juan Dominguez rides an ATV in Yuma, Ariz. on Dec. 31, 2010. At age 11, Dominguez had his right eye removed after a childhood accident. Juan, along with his brother Alonzo recently joined Nuttbar Racing for the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race, helping lead the team to a first-place finish. (Yuma Sun, Jared Dort, Associated Press)

When the van stopped to serve its customers, Juan and a cousin thought it was cool to hop on the back of the vehicle. But when the ice cream vendor finished, only the cousin jumped off the van.

Juan said he held on to the van's handlebars to avoid falling off. It turned out to be a bad idea.

"As I was on the back of the ice cream truck, two (teenagers) were shooting some BB guns out there in my neighborhood," Juan said. "One of the kids decided to shoot the ice cream truck. He ended up shooting me in my right eye."

When Juan's father heard what had happened, he rushed to his son's aid.

"When he came back, my dad was like all panicky," said Alonzo Dominguez, Juan's older brother. "He's like, 'Get in the car, get in the car.' I saw my brother with a towel all red full of blood."

X-rays revealed the BB entered Juan's head.

"The BB went all the way almost to the brain," said Marina Dominguez, Juan's mother. "It was removed, (doctors) said, with a magnet."

The only thing Juan said he remembered about the disastrous day was that he didn't stop crying for a couple of hours.

For about four years afterward, Juan used a prosthetic over his crippled right eye until the age of 11, when it was removed after he had an eye implant.

"It feels like nothing is there. It's like amazing. When I had my eye, I used to have pain all the time."

Juan gradually began living a normal life. Attending Cibola High, he played varsity baseball his senior year and he became more social and made friends. But since many can't tell he has a prosthetic eye, Juan said he usually doesn't tell his friends about it until he has confidence in them. And if his friends don't believe him, all he has to do is take off his prescription glasses and tap the prosthetic, which makes a knocking sound.

"They freak out," Juan said.

Alonzo attended the Baja 500 in 2006. He liked it so much, he persuaded his brother to attend the Baja 1000 with him. Like his older sibling, Juan fell in love with the sport, particularly the ATV division.

Little did they know those races would change their lives as two years later, they embarked on a racing career.

The brothers started Pirrunas Racing team and in their first race, the San Luis 250 at San Luis Rio Colorado, they finished seventh out of 25 entries.

Alonzo, however, admitted he had doubts whether his younger brother could succeed racing with just one eye. But he said he also remembered how well his younger brother rode ATVs in the sand dunes with limited vision.

"I knew it was going to affect me but I looked at it like, 'If they can do it, why can't I?'" Juan said. "I have a disability and I got to live with that. I make my only eye work as if I had two eyes."

In 2010, the brothers made the step up and entered two SCORE International Off Road Racing events. At the San Felipe 250 and the Baja 500, the brothers failed to finish both because of transmission and electrical problems, respectively.

But at those races is where they also met Canadian Brad McLean, captain of Nuttbar Racing. McLean and the Dominguez brothers became friends.

Their friendship proved vital.

About a month before the Baja 1000, the Dominguez brothers decided not to enter the race because of a lack of finances.

Two days later, McLean discovered the brothers' plight on Facebook and invited them to join his team for the legendary race. McLean wanted the brothers to cover the first 335 miles of the 1,000-mile race that winds down the Baja Peninsula from Ensenada to La Paz.

When Juan received McLean's invitation, he said, he was shocked. And when he told his older brother, Alonzo thought he was playing a cruel joke.

"I honestly didn't believe him," Alonzo said. "Stop playing with me. Don't play with me because that was our dream."

After careful consideration, the brothers accepted McLean's invitation.

Juan was chosen to start the Baja 1000 on Nov. 18. When he arrived at the scene, he visited the sites he last saw the race four years earlier. Memories came flooding back and Juan said his emotions got the best of him.

At race time, though, Juan was focused. He took a deep breath and went at a decent pace in an effort to get through his part of the course unscathed. Juan heard about booby traps and wanted to avoid them at all costs.

"There's a lot of dust ahead of me," Juan said. "There's also the fog and a lot of spectators out there. The spectators would make these booby traps. They would do stupid things like bury telephone poles under the dirt — anything to give them a show. They basically wanted you to wipe out because that's fun for them. I pretty much went through that with my eyes wide open and dodging those obstacles."

Juan rode the first 185 miles from Ensenada to San Felipe, successfully handing the ATV over to Alonzo who rode the next 150 miles to El Crucero.

From there, McLean's team took over, riding the remaining 665 miles to La Paz for the win.

Lost in the victory was why Juan didn't tell McLean about his disability. Juan said it was an honest mistake.

"I was going to tell him but with all the adrenaline pumping before the race, I just forgot," Juan said. "I even forgot to take a picture of the whole team together. I was just so excited and just so many things were running through the mind, I just wanted to focus on the riding."

However, Juan told Nuttbar Racing teammate Kye Walstrom about his one eye. Word spread and eventually McLean found out about Juan's disability, but not until long after the race was over.

"I didn't find that out until I got home," McLean said. "One of my teammates told me that. I never knew that. I thought he did a pretty amazing job for having one eye. If I had known about the one eye, it wouldn't have made any difference. I would've still picked them on my team."

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