It seemed unlikely, but there he was.
The rearview mirror reflected the slightly vibrating image of Adam Poppenhouse's eagerness; the glint in his eyes, the small smile on his face. The Mitsubishi Evo MR shuddered as he flicked a switch to engage the paddle shifters. The engine revved and the car leaped forward. The 23-year-old Army veteran was right where he wanted to be: behind the wheel of a fast car.
"When I first bought it, it was really fast and then I got used to it, so I needed to make it go faster," Poppenhouse said.
Fast cars are his passion, one the mechanics at Atlantic Motor Sports share and indulge. The mechanics have upgraded everything around the motor. They've put a big turbo on it, bigger camshafts, new cooling aspects for the transmission, and even tuned the onboard computers to make this vehicle racetrack-ready.
A stock Evo can push 163 mph; Poppenhouse's car is faster. In fact, when asked how fast he can go, he responded, "Crazy fast! I honestly don't even know."
Since he has unquestioning faith in the skills of the Atlantic Motor Sports mechanics, Poppenhouse makes the 322-mile drive from Stow, Ohio to Gaithersburg, Md., regularly so they can work on his car. While an average driver needs more than six hours to cover that distance, Poppenhouse does it in less than five.
Poppenhouse was serving as a gunner and vehicle commander with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq, when he found the car of his dreams. "I'd just got the latest Motor Trend in the mail from my wife and I was reading it and they did a story about this car and right then and there, I read the article and just told myself, if I made it back, I was going to buy myself one."
Pointing to the sleek front end, Atlantic Motor Sports shop foreman Cory Peterson described some of the tweaks they've made to the car. "Adam had the headlights tinted just to give it a little more...I believe he calls it the storm trooper look." Ducking under the hood of the car, Peterson tapped a key component. "We also upgraded the boost controller on it. We changed the stock boost solenoid to an after market electronic boost solenoid."
"Adam was waiting for the MR version of this car to come out, which has the paddle shifters in it," Peterson said, "and that allowed him to not have to deal with the clutch pedal."
A traditional clutch pedal wouldn't work for Poppenhouse; he lost both his legs in Iraq.
"We were leaving the area to go back to the FOB (forward operating base) to refit and refuel, and the insurgents they had some IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and an ambush waiting. So, they hit us on the way out."
Poppenhouse was medically evacuated from Iraq to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and then brought to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He lost his right leg below the knee in the blast. Doctors tried to save his left leg, but eventually, he elected to have it amputated above the knee.
"My right leg, I lost it above the knee, so I have quite a long prosthetic, and I take that one off," he explained as he detached the prosthetic limb. "I have a quick-release called a Ferrier coupler. I just take it off with a key and I drive with my left foot with my left prosthetic."
"The transmission, it acts just like a manual," Poppenhouse said as he gestured toward his legs. "In my situation, I can't use a clutch, so it has paddle shifters on the steering wheel that I can shift gears with. When I want to drive aggressively I can still get the car to do what I want it to do without having to use the clutch."
Peterson said it took him a couple of months before he realized Poppenhouse didn't have legs-he'd worn pants to most of their meetings. "When I realized Adam's situation, I just assumed the car had hand controls. One day I went to pull it in and I made a comment about it, and he said, 'No, it's a standard car-there's nothing done to it whatsoever.'" With a chuckle, Peterson added, "I also give Adam kudos. He doesn't put handicap tags on the car."
Poppenhouse medically retired from the Army as a sergeant in July 2009. With Peterson's help, Poppenhouse continues to soup up his car to accommodate both his love for speed and his injuries. "I have a problem when I can't feel my feet obviously," Poppenhouse explains. "So, in the boost controller that we put in, it has a throttle position reader that goes off the throttle position sensor in the car. It'll show me exactly, on a bar graph, how much, in a percentage, how much throttle I'm actually giving it."
One of the mechanics drove the vehicle up onto the shop's dyno, to show off the improvements they've made. The engine purred as he accelerated-the noise so deafening, you need earplugs. The exhaust pumped out black smoke, the air filled with the smell of fumes. Then suddenly, the engine backfired with a loud "pop." A small burst of flames erupted from the tail pipe, engulfed in more black smoke. Poppenhouse and the mechanics grinned like boys with a new toy.
"On our dyno we've proven, at the wheel this car makes just shy of 400 horsepower," Peterson explained. "So, pedal to the metal, 100 percent throttle, looking at that little gauge, he's moving-he's doing some damage."
Poppenhouse said life after the Army has been a little crazy after heading back to Stow, Ohio. These days when he wakes up, it's with a new mission: racing the Sports Car Club of America circuit. Another driver he met through Atlantic Motor Sports, who is currently racing an Evo, put Poppenhouse on that track.
"I went to a track day with him and Cory (Peterson), and we worked on the car in the pits as it was racing and I just kind of fell in love with it. Been kind of steering toward that direction ever since."
Poppenhouse wants to hit the racetrack next summer; that means completing a driving course, getting a racing license, and spending a lot of wheel time on a track to qualify as a competitor. While this soft-spoken young veteran takes quick glimpses in the rear view mirror from time to time, he's focused on the road ahead.
"Maybe eventually, if I can't do the race car thing, I'll go back to school or something, but I'm pretty happy with where I am right now."
Poppenhouse said there are times when he still wishes he wore the uniform. "I miss it every day. I miss the guys. I miss the brotherhood. I miss the purpose.
"I loved the Army, I really did and I can't do there what I want to do anymore. So, I just kind of made a promise to myself, you know, from this point on I'm going to do something I enjoy and it has to be cars. That's just what I have to do. It's my calling."
Jini Ryan is the director of Soldiers Radio and Television, in Arlington, Va. Her video piece on Adam Poppenhouse can be seen at http://www.army.mil/media/amp/'bctid=60263885001.