On The Move: Marine Who Lost Leg In Afghanistan, Burning To Go Fast At Lime Rock

Republished from the Hartford Courant 

By Shawn Courchesne
Special To The Hartford Courant

Liam Dwyer will compete this weekend with the Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge at Lime Rock Park (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

Liam Dwyer will compete this weekend with the Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge at Lime Rock Park (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

As far back as he can remember, Liam Dwyer can recall visiting Lime Rock Park.

And for years, Memorial Day weekend meant camping out from Wednesday to Monday so that Dwyer could take in the sights, sounds and experiences that a packed weekend of racing on the 1.5-mile road course offered.

He was watching others, sure, but he had other thoughts.

“I really dreamed of being one of the guys that people came there to watch,” said Dwyer, a Waterbury native who calls Litchfield home.

Now, a nightmarish ordeal that had the Marine staff sergeant on the brink of death has led him back to Lime Rock — as a driver.

Dwyer, 32, will compete in the IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge ST class race Saturday as part of the weekend festivities.

Dwyer, who lost his left leg from above the knee after stepping on a bomb in May 2011 in Afghanistan, will compete in his second event this season for the Freedom Autosport team.

“The fact that on Memorial Day weekend I’m going to be one of the guys that people are coming to watch, I feel like I’m in a dream,” Dwyer said. “Being my home track, my hometown is just down the road. There’s going to be a lot of outside pressure on me with my friends and family there. I need to keep my head on my shoulders. I have a good team around me. It’s very easy for me to get distracted. But I have a good team around me and I know they’ll keep me on track.”

Liam Dywer on track in action (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

Liam Dywer on track in action (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

In 2006 while on active duty in Irag, Dwyer was a turret gunner on a Marine Humvee that was hit by an improvised explosive device. The left side of his body was hit by shrapnel. About a year later, recovered from injuries, Dwyer returned to civilian life.

“And then in 2009 the bug hit me again that I wanted to join up, and one of the officers from my unit called me and said he was putting a team together and he wanted me to be on his team,” Dwyer said. “I got back into the Marine Corps, and four months later I was in Afghanistan. Five months after being there, I stepped on the bomb that took my leg and severely injured the rest of my body.”

Dwyer is still in the Marines, going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

In November 2011, while attending an event at Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Va., Dwyer met with representatives from High Performance Heroes, a group established to help wounded veterans experience competitive motor sports through vintage road racing events.

Liam Dywer prepares to get in his car during a recent event. (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

Liam Dywer prepares to get in his car during a recent event. (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

“It was something that I definitely wanted to do, definitely a challenge,” Dwyer said. “At that point I wasn’t even at the point where I could think about driving, let alone racing. We were originally thinking hand controls [to operate a race car]. But I was able to progress quite quickly in rehab. The guys that gave me the vintage opportunity … I had my first race with them in June 2012. I had made dramatic improvements in my therapy that I didn’t need hand controls. I could actually use my foot.

“I had a very successful first season with them. They had been in existence about three years at that point and, in 2012, I gave them their first victory at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.”

In 2013, Dwyer moved up to regular amateur road racing competition with the National Auto Sport Association, which sanctions sports car racing events.

Dwyer met with officials from the Freedom Autosport team last year at Daytona International Speedway. Team owner Derek Whitis created Freedom Autosport as a tribute to the U.S. armed services and to help support the Semper Fi fund, which assists injured Marines.

“We chose that name as a small thank you to the one half of 1 percent of our population that puts on a uniform every day to protect all the rest of us,” Whitis said. “Once we found out that Liam was a driver, it sounded like it would be a good idea to try to get him into a car testing. Seeing that he was honestly faster with one leg than most of us are with two, it worked out perfectly.

“It was pretty amazing to see. Any time you see somebody who is relatively quick in a race car compared to professionals who make their living doing it, it’s impressive. When you factor into that that this is a Marine who had parts of his body blown off — some that were then reattached and some that weren’t — and he’s faster than the majority of people out there on one leg than they are with two, it’s impressive. The military side of it is extra. It’s a bonus when you have someone of Liam’s talents. But you add into that his natural and earned abilities, and it’s just a home run.”

With Freedom Autosport, Dwyer competes in select events with co-driver Tom Long.

Liam Dwyer (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

Liam Dwyer (Photo: MazdaSpeed)

“The goal was to modify the car as minimally as possible, while making it as safe as possible,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer is racing with a special prosthesis created with a heim joint attached to a shaft on the clutch peddle. It allows him to pull a cotter pin mechanism to detach the leg for driver changes and allow Long to replace him in the car.

Dwyer made his debut with the team May 3 at Mazda Raceway in Monterey, Calif.

“I did pretty well,” Dwyer said. “I learned the track and I was really just trying to be smooth and mind my P’s and Q’s and do what I was supposed to be doing. I did well in practice and did well in qualifying. I got down to within a few tenths [of a second] to what my co-driver Tom Long was doing. Obviously, the pace was there.

“I wish the race ended under better circumstances. I went to get on the brakes into turn 2 and my foot went numb and it slipped right off the brake pedal. I ended trying to kitty-corner the turn so I wouldn’t hit anybody, but I had nowhere to go and hit a Mitchum Motorsports BMW, taking us both out of the race. I felt really bad about that. I still feel bad now.

“But everybody around me, the Mitchum guys, the team Freedom guys, all the other drivers, they told me to keep my head up, that [stuff] happens out there.”

Dwyer has driven at Lime Rock, but Saturday will mark his first time in competition there.

“I was actually injured on May 22, 2011,” Dwyer said. “That day that you get injured, a lot of us pretty much died and came back to life that day. It’s a day of resurrection and we call that day our Alive Day.

“So Memorial Day, that’s basically my Alive Day, and that has a lot of significance to me. I’ve always dreamed of being one of the racers there that people come to watch, and now it has that much more meaning. It’s really amazing.”

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