Race2Re­cov­ery: A toast to tri­umph

Race2Re­cov­ery is the first dis­abled team to fin­ish the world’s tough­est off-road race

Land Rover AFRICA Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­ton Pre­to­rius

The Land Rover-based Race2Re­cov­ery team, an out­fit con­sist­ing mainly of in­jured ser­vice­men, has be­come the first dis­abled rac­ing team to fin­ish the Dakar Rally, the world’s tough­est race. How­ever, the Dakar isn’t the Dakar with­out a few close shaves and a proper test of one’s men­tal and phys­i­cal tough­ness. Land Rover AFRICA speaks to the R2R team about con­quer­ing the unimag­in­able.

The sur­round­ings looked fright­fully fa­mil­iar to the only Land Rover Wild­cat-based team to com­plete the world’s most pun­ish­ing race. A cou­ple of years ago, war vet­er­ans Ma­jor Matt O’Hare (33) and Cor­po­ral Phillip Gille­spie (25) found them­selves in sim­i­lar con­di­tions as mem­bers of the Royal Bri­tish reg­i­ment do­ing their ser­vice in the Afghanistan desert.

Dur­ing a rou­tine foot patrol, Gille­spie, from Bal­ly­mena in North­ern Ire­land, stood on an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice (IED), tak­ing off his right leg be­low the knee and in­flict­ing mul­ti­ple frac­tures to his left leg.

O’Hare was slightly more for­tu­nate. But it was his friend and team leader of R2R, Cap­tain Tony Har­ris who was hard hit by an IED dur­ing a ve­hi­cle patrol in San­gin, Afghanistan, shat­ter­ing his heels and badly frac­tur­ing his left arm. This was af­ter O’Hare switched shifts with Har­ris that day.

Har­ris’s leg was re­moved 10 months later due to in­fec­tion and chronic pain. How­ever, the bonds strength­ened be­tween O’Hare and Har­ris, and both went on to be the in­spi­ra­tion and co-founders of the Race2Re­cov­ery pro­ject.

An­other co-founder is Tom Neath­way, a para­trooper who lost both legs and his left arm dur­ing an ex­plo­sion in war-torn Afghanistan. Al­though th­ese boys know a thing or two about dan­ger, Neath­way, O’Hare, Har­ris and Gille­spie re­cently found them­selves in a dif­fer­ent desert. This time, the en­emy en­com­passes over 15 days and 9 000 km of ar­du­ous moun­tain and desert ter­rain, swel­ter­ing heat and nearly 500 other com­peti­tors all de­ter­mined to fin­ish the race.

Land Rover sup­ported the team with two Dis­cov­ery Land Rovers and one Defender 130, dubbed the Wild­cats, which were per­fectly suited to the harsh desert dunes, arid tracks, high al­ti­tudes and rough ter­rain of South Amer­ica.

Known by their call signs, man­age­ment was in the Green Leader Dis­cov­ery; the me­chan­ics were split be­tween the sec­ond Dis­cov­ery called Slider and the Defender 130 af­fec­tion­ately known as Lazy Boy. In ad­di­tion to the four Wild­cats and fac­tory-pro­vided Land Rovers, there were two 8x8 sup­port trucks (one MAN, one DAF). As the cruel desert heat per­me­ated the ve­hi­cle, and both men looked over the vast ex­panses of sand that stretched out be­fore them, they knew that their time spent in Afghanistan was not the most dif­fi­cult thing they had ever done. With more than 20 com­peti­tors los­ing their lives since the first Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979, this was not a race for the faint of heart. Out of this year’s 472 en­trants, only 161 man­aged to com­plete the Dakar Rally.

It was the cul­mi­na­tion of a dra­matic 15 days for Race2Re­cov­ery, in which many of the orig­i­nal 28-strong team, as well as three of the race cars, were forced to drop out within a 48-hour pe­riod. One of the Wild­cats was dis­qual­i­fied for a tech­ni­cal­ity and two oth­ers crashed out.

It wasn’t just Race2Re­cov­ery’s race cars that suf­fered. On day five of the event, tragedy struck when one of the Wild­cat sup­port­ing team cars was in­volved in a head-on col­li­sion with a lo­cal taxi, in which two of the oc­cu­pants in the taxi died, and the three team mem­bers were air­lifted to hos­pi­tal.

Later in the rally, both of the team’s eightwheeler sup­port trucks en­coun­tered ma­jor re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems, and even the fi­nal Wild­cat suf­fered nu­mer­ous is­sues, not least of which was that it fre­quently over­heated in the desert sun, caus­ing O’Hare and Gille­spie to tackle many of the stages at night.

Driv­ing largely off-road for around 650 km a day with only a small pop-up tent to sleep in, the team also had to deal with the com­pli­ca­tions of their in­juries, which var­ied from miss­ing limbs and res­pi­ra­tory wounds, to psy­cho­log­i­cal and frag­men­ta­tion in­juries. There were chal­lenges along the way, and the ex­perts weren’t very op­ti­mistic about the team’s chances of com­plet­ing the race. But th­ese for­mer soldiers over­came all the ob­sta­cles. The fight­ing spirit showed O’Hare and Gille­spie in­spired the team. R2R be­came the first-ever dis­abled team to com­plete the danger­ous Dakar Rally, fin­ish­ing 91st out of 161 fin­ish­ers with a time of 107 hours, 57 min­utes and 27 sec­onds.

Their ef­forts paid off, though. Com­ment­ing on their suc­cess, Gille­spie said: “We have per­son­ally found out why they call the Dakar Rally the hard­est race in the world. It has pushed ev­ery sin­gle one of us to our lim­its and be­yond. To be able to stand here at the fin­ish line and say we achieved what we set out to achieve, to be­come the first ever dis­abil­ity team to com­plete the Dakar Rally, feels mag­i­cal. Our team motto is ‘be­yond in­jury – achiev­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary’ and we’ve done just that.”

Af­ter cross­ing the fin­ish line, the team were sent a per­sonal mes­sage of con­grat­u­la­tions from the Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge who, along with Prince Harry, set up the Royal Foun­da­tion’s En­deav­our Fund. In Novem­ber 2012 the fund pro­vided Race2Re­cov­ery with a £100 000 (R140 000) grant.

Race2Re­cov­ery has been rais­ing money for Ted­worth House Per­son­nel Re­cov­ery Cen­tre in Tid­worth, Wilt­shire, where many of the team spent time re­cu­per­at­ing from their in­juries. This was not merely about rais­ing money, how­ever. Race2Re­cov­ery’s goal was to pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers who are in­jured, dis­abled or fac­ing ad­ver­sity.

Where did the idea for Race2Re­cov­ery orig­i­nate from?

The race was in­spired by ral­ly­ing and cross-coun­try rac­ing back in 2010 and, in 2011, Tom Neath­way and Tony Har­ris made it a re­al­ity by re­cruit­ing other in­jured ser­vice­men and re­fo­cus­ing their goal on com­plet­ing the tough­est race in the world, the Dakar Rally. For Tony and Tom, it was about show­ing that they could achieve any­thing de­spite their in­juries. That ethos was taken on by the whole team and sup­ported by the pub­lic and their spon­sors.

Why choose Land Rover as the ve­hi­cle of pref­er­ence?

Land Rover has a long his­tory of re­li­a­bil­ity, en­durance and ster­ling per­for­mance in all ter­rains, so it was the per­fect sup­port car for the Land Rover Defender-based Wild­cats. The Wild­cat it­self was de­signed by Drew Bowler and is now man­u­fac­tured by Qt Ser­vices. Al­though it has been around for a while, it is still a rugged and ca­pa­ble bespoke rally raid racer.

What sig­nif­i­cant mod­i­fi­ca­tions were made to the ve­hi­cles to ac­com­mo­date the dis­abled?

The Dis­cov­erys were automatics, which made them sim­ple and easy to drive for the dis­abled sup­port crew mem­bers. The rugged and sim­ple de­sign to ac­cess the roof stor­age meant that any team mem­ber could ac­cess vi­tal stores and equip­ment re­gard­less of dis­abil­ity.

How tough is the Dakar Rally?

The Dakar is the tough­est race the team has com­pleted. This was due to a num­ber of fac­tors like the vary­ing ter­rain where you can’t just be an ex­pert in one area. You have to be ver­sa­tile and dili­gent, and re­mem­ber to al­ter your ve­hi­cle when mov­ing be­tween ter­rain types. The al­ti­tude goes from sea level to 4 900 m in 48 hours, so phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion and un­der­stand­ing the ef­fects are im­por­tant in main­tain­ing a suc­cess­ful chal­lenge. The dis­tance cov­ered is a mas­sive 8 500 km which means there must be a bal­ance be­tween me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy as well as re­straint and per­sonal fa­tigue – get­ting this bal­ance right takes time, ex­pe­ri­ence and a de­gree of luck.

How im­por­tant was the sup­port team to the driv­ers?

The race team would be noth­ing with­out the in­cred­i­ble sup­port of the me­chan­i­cal and lo­gis­ti­cal team mem­bers. They are the engine that pow­ers the mis­sion and the morale that the rac­ing team needed when things got tough. In short, the high­est ac­co­lade goes to them.

Hav­ing com­pleted the Dakar is a feat in it­self. What do you think this means to dis­abled peo­ple around the world?

We hope that our suc­cess will in­spire them to achieve their goals. We hope that they recog­nise where we asked for help and where we proved our de­ter­mi­na­tion and self-be­lief to suc­ceed de­spite ev­ery­thing that was thrown at us be­fore and dur­ing the race. Fi­nally, we hope that it en­cour­ages oth­ers to look at the in­clu­sion of motorsport for main­tain­ing an ac­tive life­style as one of the best ways of cop­ing with dis­abil­ity.

Tell us about the funds raised and the char­i­ties sup­ported by R2R?

The rac­ing team raised money for a pro­ject called Ted­worth House in the UK op­er­ated by Help for Heroes, a truly in­spi­ra­tional ser­vice char­ity along­side the MOD and the Royal Bri­tish Le­gion. This cen­tre pro­vides sup­port for in­jured ser­vice per­son­nel, vet­er­ans and fam­i­lies and is a place where the needs of the in­di­vid­ual and the fam­ily are put first. It is a phe­nom­e­nal place and has the vi­sion of sup­port­ing troops now and for the rest of their lives. Our US col­leagues are rais­ing aware­ness for a US char­ity called the Heroes Pro­ject which sup­ports in­spi­ra­tional climb­ing en­deav­ours and sup­ports com­mu­nity projects that help US vet­er­ans.

One of your sup­port ve­hi­cles was in­volved in a tragic road ac­ci­dent dur­ing the race. Did that af­fect the mood of the team?

The Peru­vian po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing so it is not ap­pro­pri­ate to comment on the de­tails of what hap­pened ex­cept to say that the team ex­presses its sin­cere con­do­lences to the fam­i­lies of those who were trag­i­cally killed and in­jured in the ac­ci­dent. We are in­cred­i­bly proud of the team’s re­sponse at the scene of the ac­ci­dent where the cool, calm de­liv­ery of first aid and con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion saved lives and en­sured that all ca­su­al­ties were treated ap­pro­pri­ately. We would also like to thank the race or­gan­is­ers, the ASO, and the lo­cal emer­gency ser­vices for their help and sup­port dur­ing the in­ci­dent.

Will there be a Race2Re­cov­ery team at the 2014 Dakar Rally?

Be­fore mak­ing a de­ci­sion about Dakar 2014, the team is cur­rently hold­ing dis­cus­sions with the spon­sors, sup­port­ers and other team mem­bers re­gard­ing the Race2Re­cov­ery legacy op­tions. It is also im­por­tant that the team fo­cuses on its fundrais­ing goals for char­ity and fa­cil­i­tat­ing pos­si­ble em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, work ex­pe­ri­ence and train­ing for the wider in­jured ser­vice per­son­nel com­mu­nity to en­sure that there are pos­i­tive long-term out­comes as­so­ci­ated with the Race2Re­cov­ery en­deav­our.

Dou­ble am­putee Tom Neath­way and co-founder of R2R shares a light-hearted mo­ment with one of the tech­ni­cians.

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