Mark Driscoll will soon go hunting in the woods of Montana for the first time since multiple sclerosis took his ability to walk in 1995, thanks to the brainchild of two cousins in Grove City.
Last Christmas, Driscoll bought an all-terrain TracFab wheelchair designed and produced by Grove City-based Trac Fabrication. He loves it so much that he has started selling the tracked chairs that can take users through sand, snow or mud, day or night.
“I can do everything outside, like anybody else now,” said Driscoll, 57, of Bozeman, Mont., who outfitted his chair with equipment to help him aim a rifle and carry a fishing rod. “It let me go back to work. The only thing it doesn’t do is wipe my nose.”
Trac Fabrication has sold more than 250 of the chairs since cousins David Kennedy of Volant and Ben Ridenbaugh of Slippery Rock started the company 21⁄2 years ago.
“We wanted to feel like we could make a difference,” Kennedy, 32, said recently as a dozen workers assembled a shipment of chairs headed to a charity that planned to distribute them to wounded veterans. “It’s nice to hear when people can get back outdoors and get back to normal.”
Veterans serve as the inspiration and target client for the unique chairs. The cousins started designing them when they heard Kennedy’s wife — then a physical therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs — talk about the added pain of patients who could no longer get outdoors.
Kennedy and Ridenbaugh, who both worked for a company that serviced robots used to inspect plumbing, “took a Hoveround that grandma wasn’t using” and made a prototype. They started making the first models for online sales with their grandfather in his garage.
Now, they have 16 employees working five or six days a week in separate fabrication and assembly sites in Grove City. They can produce 20 chairs per week.
“It’s like working in the garage with buddies,” said shop manager Steve Dickson, 42, of Grove City.
Trac Fabrication tries to recruit veterans to work in the shop. Employees said the company fosters a family atmosphere.
“After driving a truck for 34 years, now I’m working for two guys who know how to show appreciation for what you do,” said employee Dave Smith, 62, of New Castle.
The chair features a racing-car seat with a five-point harness. The arm rests go up and down for easier access in and out of the chair. It features bright LED headlights — since the sun goes down at 5 p.m. in the winter, Kennedy noted — special suspension to soften the ride for users with back injuries, a cellphone-like display near the control stick and two 24-volt motors, powered by lithium batteries to move rubber tank-tracks.
“We’ve climbed hills you’d be nervous to walk up,” Kennedy said.
In addition to the standard 36-inch-wide, 435-pound model, TracFab makes a 30-inch model to fit through standard doors and in vans. The company can adjust the speed and drive ratio to fit the size and desires of the user.
All parts but the electronics are made in America.
“Veterans don’t want junk from China,” Kennedy said. Depending on customized features, a chair sells for between $12,000 and $15,000.
Neither insurance nor VA benefits will pay for the chair. Kennedy and others work with charities and veterans groups to raise funds and help defray costs.
“I feel like I’m giving back to the world working here,” office assistant Jennifer O’Toole said.
She and others at the company talked about a recent trip they took with a customer to Erie for a photo shoot.
“He didn’t think he’d ever go out on a beach again, and there he was,” O’Toole said.
“He was all smiles,” Dickson said. “It brings a tear to your eye.”
Kennedy said he feels proud when he sees someone using a TracFab, such as a recent sighting at a fair. The chair served as an icebreaker in interactions with others.
“When people see someone in a wheelchair, they’re either overly nice or they shy away. This puts the attention on the chair, as something they can talk about,” he said.
“We never even thought about that benefit.”
Driscoll, who sold plumbing and electrical supplies, said the chair’s features made him a loyal customer and ambassador. The company’s philosophy motivated him to sell the chairs.
“They’re more about the people than they are about the products,” he said.
David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.