Real-life Stories: Double amputee racer David Birrell
For as long as he can remember, David Birrell wanted to join the Army. Then he was blown up and discovered he had a driving ambition...
I am pretty nervous – this is a bit like how I used to feel before going into battle,” says David Birrell. The 30-year-old former Black Watch Infantryman is in a pit garage at the legendary Brands Hatch racetrack, and it’s a hive of activity. Three mechanics make frantic last-minute tweaks to his turbocharged Mini before the engine roars into life and the room fills with a heady aroma of petrol and oil (as well as the bacon and sausages being fried by the race team’s support staff).
Racing as Rehab
Outside, on the circuit, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Ginettas thunder past in treacherously wet conditions. David is out next. “When I used to go out on patrol, my senses would sharpen, and the same thing happens here,” he says. “I’m suddenly much more aware of everything. Things are amplified and magnified. You can feel so much around you out there on the track. And, as with being in a firefight, you need to concentrate for a long period of time. “This is endurance racing, so you need unbelievable focus for an hour or two at a time. You’re being pushed to your limits, and it’s dangerous. I enjoy it so much. In the Army there are things you can’t control. You can be blown up, like I was. In a car, things can break and put you in danger. But I’ve always said that the closer to death you are, the more alive you feel.”
Racing as Rehab David has come a long way in the last few years to be at Brands Hatch on a rainy November afternoon. As a member of the Woodard Racing Team, he’s competing in Britcar, an eight-race endurance series that takes place on famous circuits like Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Donington Park. That would be impressive enough, but just six years ago, he was recovering from a devastating bomb blast in Afghanistan that would eventually cost him both legs. “I was on patrol when my interpreter stood on an IED,” David recalls. “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.
Life after Injury
“Initially, my left leg looked as though it didn’t have a scratch on it, but my right leg looked badly injured. Then, as I lay there, I came under attack. I was stranded on the other side of a river from the rest of my unit, and was being shot at. 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.”
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.
It's a Marathon not a Sprint
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. Surgeons tried to save my right leg with a skin graft, but that failed, and my leg was eventually amputated a year after the initial injury. Then, being discharged from the Army was a big blow. I’d wanted to join up since I was 10, and I did so much in the Infantry. I enjoyed the buzz of contact, and I liked the fact I was protecting my country, my loved ones. So after I left, things were really defeating me. Motorsport has allowed me to set goals – and achieve them – again."
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!
"Hopefully one day I can write a book about it all"
“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.” The 2016 season has been a steep learning curve for David and Woodard Racing. 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. And after racing around Brands Hatch at this event to conclude his debut season, David explains some of the technicalities he is getting to grips with as the team moves ahead with its mission. “Endurance racing is very different from sprint racing,” he says. “You’ve got lots of things to think about. You can’t go out and give it 100 per cent every lap, you have to conserve your fuel and tyres. Consistency is the key.
Members in Motorsport
There’s a lot of traffic to deal with on track but you want to stay within two seconds of your best lap time every lap.” So does David have an ultimate goal in mind? “No British amputee has ever raced overseas, so that’s my first aim. Part of the job will be to get acclimatised to the heat differences, but I’ve done that in the Army – it doesn’t get much hotter than carrying 60 kilos through the desert wearing body armour whilst being shot at. So I should be able to cope!” he says.
“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!
From Army to Armcro: Watch David's story
For more on David, his racing and his story, visit www.davidbirrellracing.co.uk
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