Half of Liam Dwyer’s clutch leg is gone. His entire right knee has been replaced. A steel plate, a rod, and 23 screws hold his right forearm together. He endured more than 50 surgeries over four and a half years and still requires 10 or more hours of physical therapy every week.
Dwyer is a United States Marine. A Taliban IED hit him on May 22, 2011.
Whenever possible, Dwyer is strapping into a race car, attaching his prosthetic clutch leg, and blazing out on track to compete for position with drivers who have four complete appendages. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I would do it again knowing this would happen.”
Dwyer is a professional race car driver. He has trophies to prove it.
How the Foot Works
His current clutch leg attaches securely, and includes a quick-release for fast exits. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.
When Dwyer had first returned to racing, he simply attached his regular prosthetic foot to the clutch pedal with Velcro. However, a bumpy section at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix shook his foot loose, forcing him to pull off course.
A corner worker walked over to the Sprite and Dwyer had to explain that no, really, he was OK; his leg had just come off. “He looked at me like I was crazy, but I was able to reattach my foot and wrestle the car back on track.”
It was clear then that he’d need a more specialized solution, and he made it happen. His new clutch leg isn’t like a prosthetic leg at all. It’s a straight aluminum post with a heim joint in place of the foot. The joint slips over a shaft attached to the clutch pedal and a cotter pin holds it in place—no more Velcro.
He says operating the clutch isn’t a problem at all now that he’s developed the skill, but one question remains: Is it safe?
Dwyer can bail out of a flaming car as fast as anyone. Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed/Al Merion Padron.
Driver changes are required in the Continental Tire series; with the new prosthethis, Dwyer can trade places with Carbonell in 30 seconds. They’re working to get even faster. Dwyer also has an easy bailout procedure in case there’s a fire or other emergency that requires exiting the car. “I have a quick-release to release my body from the joint,” he says. “I just pull a separate pin, detach myself at the knee and throw myself out of the car.”
Once and Always a Racer
Dwyer has loved cars, he says, “since before I could breathe.” He’s determined to one day have a third-generation Mazda RX-7 similar to the one he used to own. He began time trial racing in 1999 and autocross in 2004, earning wins and setting records regularly. Then that bomb hit him. A physical therapist said he’d never drive stickshift again. His own dad stopped talking to him when he insisted on pursuing a racing career.
Dwyer returned to racing in a Sprite and this Z-car. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer
But nothing would get in Dwyer’s way. Less than a year after the blast, he was vintage racing an Austin-Healey Sprite and also competing in NASA’s Spec 350Z series. He pursued a partnership with OG Racing for safety gear and found a sympathetic ear in Bill Love, the company’s founder.
Love is a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient. During the infamous assault into the Plei Trap Valley in March 1969, Love received two AK-47 bullets: one in the chest, one in the hand. When Love was hit, he had to wait a full 24 hours before it was safe for a helicopter to transport him out, to eventually be treated at the old Walter Reed medical facility in Washington, D.C.
This experience has inspired Love to choose veterans to represent OG Racing whenever possible. The company currently has one other veteran on staff: Salesman Johnny Cichowski served in Iraq as a mechanic and built goodwill with local children by tossing them goodies like Sylvester Stallone pudding.
“It’s my way of putting out a hand and helping somebody up from that situation,” Love says. “Having been there and gone through the whole thing, I realized the military and the public aren’t gonna do a whole lot for ya.”
Love was compelled by Dwyer’s story, which is similar to his own but from a more recent military operation. Love was impressed by Dwyer’s tenacity and didn’t hesitate to get involved. OG Racing initially gave Dwyer a Sparco M-5 racing suit, Sparco Slalom SL-3 racing shoes, Sparco Tide Nomex gloves, Sparco WTX-7 Air helmet, and a HANS Sport II; OG Racing’s support continues today.
Finding Success One Lap at a Time
Dwyer and OG Racing employee Brian Hair competed in One Lap of America together. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.
Brian Hair, one of OG Racing’s sales specialists, helped Dwyer get fitted with his new safety gear on his first visit to their shop. Dwyer later found out that Hair had competed several times in One Lap of America.
Dwyer had always wanted to compete in One Lap, so it was natural that they join forces. The two have raced a 2013 Ford Mustang Boss 302 in the grueling event for the last two years, finishing first in class and seventh overall in 2014.
That was about the same time that people were starting to notice that a veteran with a prosthetic leg was winning races. Freedom Autosport invited Dwyer to test at Sebring in front of team manager Tom Long and representatives from Mazda. The team’s name reflects their dedication to charities that help injured veterans; Dwyer’s story combined with his exemplary lap times earned him a spot on the team, racing a Mazda MX-5 in the IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge for the 2014 season.
His successful season, marked by a win at Lime Rock and many other strong finishes, brought him back to Freedom Autosport for 2015. This Friday, Dwyer will drive that MX-5 in the Continental Tire Series race during the Sebring 12 Hour weekend. He’s co-driving this season with Andrew Carbonell.
Continuing to Serve
Though Dwyer is retiring from the Corps in May, he continues to help other veterans find purpose through Racing4Vets. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.
During all these pursuits, Sergeant Dwyer has remained an active-duty Marine. He’s scheduled to retire from the Corps on May 30, but will continue racing. He also helps other injured veterans get involved in racing via Racing4Vets. Dwyer believes that working toward a common goal with a supportive group of people really helps injured vets to deal with what’s happened to them and to begin feeling accomplished and useful again.
“Everyone has different injuries,” Dwyer says. “Some people will look at a veteran and say, ‘You don’t look injured,’ but they might have traumatic brain injury or suffer from PTSD. This program gets people back in a team setting with an ultimate goal in mind; a lot of these guys, including myself, are truly grateful for that.”
Look for Dwyer and Carbonell driving the Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 in the Continental Tire series at Sebring International Raceway. The green flag waves for the 2.5-hour Microsoft Visual Studio 150 at 1:05 p.m. Eastern on Friday, March 20. Watch the race live at IMSA.com, or catch the broadcast April 5 at 9 a.m. on Fox Sports 1.