Race2Recovery: A toast to triumph
Race2Recovery is the first disabled team to finish the world’s toughest off-road race
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.