27 June 2017
David's Story: The double amputee racing driver on the frontline of the grid.
David Birrell is aiming to become the first double amputee to compete at Le Mans, the 24 hour endurance race.
“I was on patrol when my interpreter stood on an IED. He lost his life. I was in front of him and all I remember is a flash, but no sound. Everything was dark, I was twisting around in the air. I didn’t have a clue what was happening. One minute I was walking, the next I had lost control and was lying on my belly."
"Bullets were zipping over my head. I grabbed my helmet and stood up, but my left leg just folded under me. Another soldier got my body armour off. I gave myself a morphine shot and got a tourniquet on to slow the bleeding. Eventually, a medic got over to me and we started extracting. There were bullets ricocheting off the stretcher! “
"In the helicopter, everything looked like a kaleidoscope, and I remember being in Camp Bastion and wanting a cigarette. Then I woke up with my left leg having been amputated and my right leg still a total mess. That was very hard to deal with mentally, it was a very tough time.”
Life after Injury.
Motorsport has proved to be David’s saviour. After rehab he began karting, beating able-bodied drivers straight away.
“It was my ex-wife who suggested I should give it a go, as I needed something to do. She was looking after me – she was my rock, she saved my life. I was buying fast cars with my compensation from the injuries, but she realised I’d be better off doing real racing."
“At first, I was using hand controls, but that didn’t feel right. It wasn’t me, it felt weird. So I decided to give competing a go using my prosthetic legs. I like pushing my boundaries, and I started doing well."
"I entered a Ginetta competition called want2race with 300 able-bodied people, and finished in the top 10. So Ginetta paid for my licence, and I did a race at Knockhill in 2013. I was away! Then I heard through some friends at Britcar that Woodard were looking for a driver and I applied for that. Now I’m reaching for the stars!"
“Racing has turned my life around. I was wheelchair-bound for a long time."
"Hopefully one day I can write a book about it all"
Team owner Peter Woodard didn’t think David would make the grade when he initially heard he was an amputee.
“When David was suggested to me as someone who could try out for the team I wasn’t expecting much, I must admit,” he says. “Control and feel for a car usually come through your feet – and David hasn’t got any! But then we saw him drive, and he did very well right away. He’s been very impressive, and he’s in this team on merit.”
David credits his sporting and military backgrounds for his slick driving skills. “I used to be a boxer and I have that military mentality, plus a strong core and good balance. That all helps with driving. You have to stay fit so you don’t get tired in a race. I try to forget about my amputations!
“Physically, I’m using my thighs to change gear, accelerate and brake. I’ve not got the flex of the ankle, but I’m just using different muscles. I don’t think that not having legs makes any difference: driving is about the line, and adding and taking away power from the engine – that finesse. There’s no reason why I can’t progress. I’d love to be a world champion one day.”
Peter Woodard, Team Owner
Tell us a bit about Woodard Racing?
As a family we’ve been involved in racing for 20 years. We go to Le Mans every year, and two years ago, fed up with watching others race and moaning that we could do it better, we decided to put our money where our mouth was and give it a go! We’ve started with a Mini in Britcar and we’re going to modify it heavily for next season. It’s a huge learning process.
How did David become part of the team?
The Britcar organisers told us: ‘We’ve got this guy, would you like to give him a go in the car... he hasn’t got any legs’. I had to pause because I’d not considered having a disabled driver, and had no concept of what might be involved. My first reaction was negative because I didn’t want to put hand controls in the car. But then you met David... Yes, he’s a great guy and he really threw himself into being part of the team. He gets on great with everyone and he drove well straight away. I thought: ‘Blimey’. We’ve built a great relationship and he’s changed my attitude towards people with disability.
Can other Blesma Members get involved?
Yes, we’ve already spoken to Blesma about that. Lots of the Association’s Members have skills that we can use – we’re always looking for good mechanics, technicians and electricians. Our message would be; if you’re interested, please get in touch!
Next year, they are aiming to improve their car significantly and take part in the National 24-Hour Series – six 12- and 24-hour races overseas – as well as Britcar. David will be funded by Blesma.
“I’m doing this, and have turned my life around, mainly for my family, for my three kids."
"I didn’t want to show them that I could be defeated. Crap happens to you, but you can continue with your life. I wanted to prove to them that you can achieve anything you put your mind to.” GT racing, prototypes, the European Le Mans Series and then the big one, the Le Mans 24 Hour, are his targets. Each step will be harder and more expensive to achieve than the last, and will represent a significant challenge for David and the team. But don’t tell him it can’t be done!"
“Imagine being a soldier who has gone from being badly injured and thinking his life had ended to having the chance to be a world champion. There wouldn’t be anything better than that, would there? I think about racing every day. It gives me my motivation. I live for it, I obsess about it. It’s exciting, and motorsport has given me so much support. Hopefully, one day, I can write a book about it all.” David’s already written the first few chapters of a very interesting life!
For more on David, his racing and his story, visit www.woodardracing.co.uk