At the age of 11, Jaime Vilela’s life changed. Living in Angola at the time with his family, he was hit by a stray bullet and because of the war, there were no medical facilities. He was given 24 hours to live. His father refused to accept this and flew Jaime to South Africa for medical treatment.
For the next year Jaime was a resident of the Johannesburg Children’s Hospital. From there he went to Hope Home School, today known as Hope School. “I knew I was a paraplegic and that my life had changed forever, but the school was both a shock and relief for me, as there were so many children there that were in a much worse situation than me.”
Four years after Jaime’s accident his life changed again. “I was 15 and in Standard 9 when my dad started to lose his sight so I dropped out of school to help him with his business. I would work in the day and study till two to three in the morning.” Jaime studied electronics, something that would stand him in good stead throughout his life, especially in his love of cars and speed. “Even when I was much younger I loved driving. I loved Formula 1. I was 17 when I bought my first car, a Golf. At 19 I got my first BMW, a 3 series. It was then that I started getting freaky about speed. I felt I had a talent to compete and drive with any able-bodied drivers.” At first he raced on a Friday and Saturday on the main roads of Hillbrow. It was then that he modified his first hand controls. “The hand controls then were not adequate for racing, but being an electronics engineer and mechanically minded it was easy for me to make the controls easy to use.” In 1994 Jaime began racing competitively at club events on track and drag. He won many races on tracks like Kyalami, Swartkops, Westbank, Tarlton and Midvaal.
“The other drivers were shocked and impressed. Remember I was using only my hands to brake, accelerate, change gears and steer. But I was very competitive. And the crowd loved it. They were so taken with me, they would encourage me to kick able bodied butt.” This was also the time he raced, as he calls it, potent cars. One of which was a Corvette he had modified and picked up in the US. While he was there he found out about the cannonball run. He came back to South Africa and promptly organised a cannonball run in this country. “It was a seven day race through the country.
Thirty cars participated and I came eighth.” These days Jaime races a Mercedes. But it’s not just any Mercedes. It’s one of only 100 produced worldwide. He owns number ten, Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen, the McLaren Mercedes FI driver, owns number four. But he is also into something smaller, but still fast: Go karts. “It is a good sport for paraplegics as it tests both your mental and physical ability, and it is not dangerous. I am trying to begin a go kart racing club for paraplegics this year or next year. I have approached Motor sport South Africa (MSA) and they are happy to grant Club Competition Licences in this regard. All you need to do is pass a medical and be able to crawl out of a car.”
Jaime races his go kart with modified hand controls he found on the internet and imported from Italy. He says they are easy to drive with and have made him very competitive. In addition, he has adapted his trailer with an electronic winch so that he does not need assistance. “It is often paraplegics’ biggest concern. I mean how do you offload your go kart and then get yourself into it? I have solved all these concerns for myself and am able to help and assist others.”
Here his fierce independence comes through. “I took the attitude years ago I would not just accept what doctors told me. I have never used a catheter. Instead I trained myself to know when I need to urinate. A goose bump can be a signal that you need to urinate.” “The belief that my mind is stronger than my body is something I have carried through out my life.” Something else he has is his tendency to complain. “When I go to a restaurant or movies and there are not facilities or adequate facilities for disabled people I complain, not just for me but for all disabled people. I do not accept it the way it is. There is always a better way. We just need to put our minds to it.”