A guest post by Colene Allen
“What you have achieved was a triumph of perseverance and teamwork, and you have shown the world what true valour looks like.” – The Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.
In motorsport, there are many of them. Winners of races, winners of championships, winners of purse money, and winners of trophies. We define a winner by where they place in a competition. We often refer to the second place finisher as the first loser. For most drivers, teams, and sponsors, winning is the benchmark of success in motorsport. Given all that, something happened during the 2013 edition of the Dakar Rally-Raid that completely redefines what a winner is. In fact, what happened completely redefined motorsport as many of us know and view it.
Motorsport by its nature is a combination of man and machine, teamwork, determination, perseverance, sheer grit, and courage. We often focus on the machine part of the equation and concern ourselves with the latest advancements in aerodynamics, engine technology, or computer controlled systems. We focus occasionally on an exceptional driver, an outstanding performance, or a glimmer of greatness. We rarely focus on what people put into the work they do in motorsport to achieve the results they do. We do not notice what they overcome to achieve the results they do, and given our definition of what a winner is, we would never consider finishing in last place to be a triumph.
Approximately two years ago, while attending a therapy session at a rehabilitation clinic for wounded soldiers in the United Kingdom, Captain Tony Harris turned to his mate, Corporal Tom Neathway and expressed a desire to start a race team to compete in and finish the 2013 Dakar Rally-Raid. Over the next two years, the two mates assembled a team of wounded soldiers from the American and British militaries, several veterans, and a number of experts from the motorsports arena. They put together deals with high profile sponsors, including the Royal Family of Windsor, and trained and practised to get ready to take on the Dakar Rally-Raid. Harris and Neathway named the team Race2Recovery and set out to prove that being a single, double, or triple amputee has no bearing on the ability to compete in motorsports.
That goal may not sound ambitious until you consider what the Dakar Rally-Raid is. It’s a 9,000 kilometre off-road rally across all kinds of terrain from 100 foot high sand dunes in the desert to 4,000 foot high mountain peaks in the Andes. It takes 15 days to run the entire rally, and try as hard has he might, in eight attempts to win the Dakar Rally Robby Gordon has never managed more than a stage victory. The Dakar Rally is the most extreme and dangerous motorsports event in the world. Only 2 out of every 5 starters will make it to the finish. To finish the Dakar Rally by itself is an accomplishment and to win the Dakar elevates a driver and team to legendary status. Stephane Peterhansel may have won the Dakar Rally a total of 11 times, but even that accomplishment does not define the true meaning of being a winner.
Race2Recovery had entered a total of five vehicles in the Dakar – a T4 Renault truck and four T1 QT Wildcats. The T4 Renault truck was the on-stage support vehicle, meant to render assistance in the event that one of the four T1 Wildcats broke down. They started the Rally on January 5, 2013 with the entered vehicles plus two LandRover Freelanders and two huge transporters carrying spares, tools, and other equipment required by the team. By the beginning of Stage 3 of the Rally, their first Wildcat had been disqualified for failing to go through enough way/checkpoints in order to obtain an official time. By Stage 4 of the Dakar, their second Wildcat was withdrawn after an on-stage mechanical problem that could not be repaired. Race2Recovery now had just their T4 Support truck and two Wildcats left in the Rally. On Stage 5, the unthinkable happened to the team and would force them to ask if they should continue the Dakar or withdraw and go home.
While on a transit between sections of Stage 5, the Race2Recovery T4 Support truck was involved in a head-on collision with two local vehicles. The resulting crash put three members of the team in the hospital in stable but serious condition, killed two locals, and injured four others. Race2Recovery was faced with a difficult decision – give up their goal and go home or continue on against the odds and try to finish what they started. With no support truck and only two Wildcats left in the Rally, the task was daunting. They were also down three crew members. Where many others might have given up, Race2Recovery decided to continue the Dakar, a decision that would prove to bring the bittersweet taste of both success and failure.
With their two remaining Wildcats, nicknamed “Ratcat” and “Joy”, Race2Recovery started Stage 6 of the Rally only to endure more hardship. Ratcat, driven by Ben Gott and co-driven by Staff Sargent Mark Zambon of the U.S. Marine Corps caught a sand dune on the wrong angle. Ratcat flipped violently several times and the crash sent both Gott and Zambon to the hospital with minor injuries. Both team members were later released from hospital, but the setback was a serious one. If the team continued, all of their hopes to complete the Dakar rested on “Joy”, driven by Major Matt O’Hare and co-driven by Corporal Philip “Barney” Gillespie. “Joy” was the last vehicle standing in a Dakar that had been mercilessly cruel to this team of rookies that had set such a lofty goal.
The story of the team’s misfortunes and determination to continue was spreading over the Internet and social media. The team gained many new fans and followers from around the world. They may have been sitting in last place, but Race2Recovery had become the story of the Dakar. They were mobbed at fuel stops, constantly asked for autographs, and followed all over the world via live timing and scoring from way point to way point on stage after stage of the Rally. As their worldwide social media cheering section grew, so did their ability to see the goal of completing the Dakar with their lone remaining Wildcat “Joy”.
On January 20, 2013, the Race2Recovery team came across the podium at the end of the Dakar with “Joy”. Fifteen days, four vehicles down, 5 crew members hospitalized, 2 failed transport vehicles, and multiple artificial limb failures later, Race2Recovery had achieved their goal. They had finished last in the Dakar, and by all definitions traditionally used in motorsport were losers. What they did was redefine two things for all of us – what winning really means and what is possible in motorsport.
Race2Recovery are winners. They succeeded in accomplishing something never done before. They completed the Dakar Rally-Raid and made history doing it. They are the first disabled motorsports team to ever complete the Dakar. They have shown the world that disability is no barrier to achievement in any discipline one chooses to pursue. They’ve also shown all of us that sometimes it’s not about where you place in the rankings, it’s about what you have to face down and work through to get to the finish line.
Colene Allen is a CASC-OR and SCCA (Detroit Region) veteran roadcourse Race Official. She is also the Canadian Motorsports Correspondent for In The Pits Racing Radio on the ESPN Radio Network. She has been involved in motorsport for thirty years.