Ben and Karin’s is a love story that wasn’t love at first sight. It simply can’t be, because Ben Felten is completely blind.
They met 13 years ago – the same time Ben lost his sight to a degenerative eye disease.
After all that time together, Karin sees a different side to her boyfriend. “He’s just a top guy, really,” she reveals. “[He’s] very easy to get on with and we had a lot of things in common.”
What Ben is about to do something truly remarkable – ride a motorbike nearly 270km/h, setting a new land speed record, all without him seeing a thing.
It might seem like an impossible task, but Ben’s passion for bikes goes back almost as long as he can remember. “My dream as a kid was to race motorbikes,” he tells Sunday Night’s Alex Cullen. “I thought, ‘Ben you can’t do that, you idiot, you’re blind.’ And I thought about it a bit more… [and] I thought, ‘You know what, I reckon I can do this.’”
His love of motorbikes began at the age of seven, but a serious crash at 15 would lead to a life-changing diagnosis.
“The GP was looking into my retinas for signs of concussion,” Ben explains. “He noticed some pigment in the eyes.”
A series of tests would reveal a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which over the next 15 years would cause Ben to slowly and agonisingly lose his sight – and his way.
“I lost my job, I sold my bikes because I didn’t have money, my relationship failed,” Ben recalls. “I went into drugs and alcohol and basically became a really angry young man. My frustration led to anger and my anger led to violence.”
Then at age 37, Ben woke one morning to the awful realisation he’d lost what little eyesight he had left. “A couple of hours later, I had a sense of relief and probably a sense of peace for the first time since my diagnosis,” Ben reveals. “I’m lucky that I’ve got my faculties, I can walk and run and talk and I can still just about do everything, including riding motorbikes – very, very fast.”
In order to make his dream a reality, Ben knew he’d need a mentor and technical advisor. He wrote a letter to Kevin Magee, nicknamed Magoo – a legend of Australian motorsport, and the winner of the 1988 Spanish 500 motorcycle Grand Prix. Kevin’s own mother volunteered much of her life to the helping the blind, and had passed away just days before Ben wrote to him asking for help.
Magoo agreed to work with Ben, and for the past eighteen months the two have been trying to overcome the many technical challenges involved with having a blind man ride a very fast motorbike. Magoo rides behind Ben, giving directions on an analog radio.
“There is no time to make an error,” Ben explains. “There’s no time to think about it. That’s why I have to trust Magoo. If he gives me a command, I have to react instantaneously.”
Despite the risks involved, Karin is immensely supportive of the plan. “When Ben told me about what he was thinking about doing, I thought, wow, I’d really like to be a part of this, just even being part of the excitement of what he was about to do.”
All of their hard work leads towards their final destination – Lake Gairdner in outback South Australia. It’s an immense salt lake 160 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide. People from all over the world travel there for an annual event called Speed Week to attempt a level of acceleration that is almost too much and too dangerous for most people to comprehend.
In such an unforgiving environment, Ben needs his team and his equipment to be working seamlessly. He has three days of practice runs before his big shot at breaking the world record.
With Ben riding blind, hearing the instructions from Magoo – riding right behind him – is crucial. Their first test run flags some problems, including technical issues with the radio. Even the smallest problem could mean the difference between success and failure – or worse still, the difference between life and death.
Three days later, Ben and Magoo approach the start line. Their final speed will be calculated from an average of the two-way run to the finish line and back – and for their first leg, the duo manage to reach speeds of more than 270km/h.
At the finish line, the pain on Magoo’s face is obvious. The salt is hampering his visibility – and if he can’t see, both he and Ben are in serious danger.
“I was absolutely shit-scared,” Magoo reveals. “Couldn’t see. Couldn’t see the markers. Couldn’t get them lined up.”
On top of Magoo’s concerns, they’re riding into a headwind on the return leg, meaning they will have to go even faster in order to break the record.
Karin is tensely waiting at the finish line. When the result comes through, it’s a huge relief. Ben’s average speed clocks in at 269km/h.
Magoo breaks the good news to Ben. “You just broke the world record!”
Ben and the team are ecstatic. Four years of hard work have paid off, and despite all of the effort, Ben is still shocked. “I can’t believe it. Honestly I can’t believe it. I just didn’t think it’d happen.”
Karin couldn’t be prouder of Ben. “This is years in the making for Ben, years of hard work.”
Ben’s work is not over, however. He has a surprise planned for Karin – for the first time in 13 years, she takes a ride with Ben on his bike. He’s set up a table with champagne off in the desert – a perfect spot to ask her for her hand in marriage.
Surprised but ecstatic, Karin says yes.
“If I didn’t get the record, at least I’ll get the girl,” Ben jokingly tells her. “That was the plan. But actually the plan was to get both. So I’m a very happy man.”
Reporter: Alex Cullen
Producer: Paul Waterhouse