Heroes On and Off the Track

By Frank Gorse

Fair warning: this story has little to do with Porsches. Actually, it has nothing at all to do with Porsches. Instead, it involves some leaky old British race cars and some very remarkable people. People who stepped up when their country called for their service. People who lost limbs in bomb blasts in far-away places. People who won’t allow that not-so-little detail get in the way of life. And, the people proudly standing alongside them. These are the people of High Performance Heroes.

Meet Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer, USMC. I first encountered then-29-year-old Sgt. Dwyer at the Gold Cup Historics at Virginia International Raceway in the fall of 2011, when he rolled his wheelchair into my buddy’s garage and started looking over the Austin Healey Sprite race cars and talking gearhead stuff. Mere months before this, while deployed to Afghanistan, Sgt. Dwyer had stepped on a buried improvised explosive device that took off his left leg, mangled his right leg and right arm, and left him with a host of internal injuries. We learned that Sgt. Dwyer, between his multiple tours of duty and prior to his injuries, had become something of a track day and time trial hot shoe at Lime Rock, near his then-home in Connecticut. (Since 2011, Sgt. Dwyer has resided at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda.) His dream was to become a professional race driver.

Now, this buddy of mine with the Sprites, Dave Thomas -- originally from Virginia Beach—has a bit of a shopping problem. In that, he can’t pass up a needy old race car begging for good home on eBay. Earlier on the day we first met Sgt. Dwyer at VIR, I had razzed Dave about what the heck he was going to do with a recently purchased (and thoroughly used-up) third Sprite race car. His response was that he wanted to do something involving wounded veterans, but he couldn’t find a wounded vet… and in rolls Sgt. Dwyer, and a plan falls into place. Like it was meant to be.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012, and courtesy of a whole lot of work and money contributed by Dave and his family and friends (now organized as the non-profit High Performance Heroes team), Sgt. Dwyer has a freshly rebuilt race car ready for his first season of racing. By this point, following countless surgeries, Sgt. Dwyer has regained enough function in his right leg and arm so that he is able to operate the car with standard controls, albeit with a little creativity with the interface of his prosthetic left leg and the clutch pedal. Capitalizing on his robust track day experience, he sailed through his rookie school at Pittsburgh International Race Complex, had a successful race on the ultra-challenging road course circuit at the following weekend’s Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix (PVGP)—one of the east coast’s premier vintage events—followed by solid performances through the remainder of the season.

Launching off 2012’s promising start, Sgt. Dwyer and High Performance Heroes returned to claim the top step on the Group 2 podium in the 2013 PVGP. Branching out from vintage racing, Sgt. Dwyer began competing and claiming track records in NASA’s Spec 350Z class, took back-to-back “One Lap of America” class wins and, in 2014, secured a three-race deal in the professional Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Series. There, last month, Sgt. Dwyer and co-driver Tom Long captured the ST class win at Lime Rock. Recall that aspiration of becoming a professional race driver? Well, we’ve just learned Sgt. Dwyer will race the full 2015 Continental season with Freedom Autosport. A pretty amazing trajectory for an extraordinary young man, and one kicked off by the dedication and generosity of Dave Thomas and High Performance Heroes.

That generosity and dedication is now extending to another wounded Marine: Chesapeake’s Sgt. Patrick Brown. Sgt. Brown, 24, was wounded in Afghanistan, losing both legs to an IED while on a bomb clearing mission in 2010. More than 50 surgeries later, Sgt. Brown has progressed to the point where he can begin his transformation from car enthusiast to race driver. Another driver on the team called for yet another Sprite race car, now procured and refurbished and decked out in High Performance Heroes livery to match Sgt. Dwyer’s mount. As a double amputee, Sgt. Brown requires hand controls for throttle, brake, and clutch, all of which presents new engineering challenges to the team and new skills for Sgt. Brown to learn. Those challenges have been successfully met, and Sgt. Brown and his purpose-built car participated in the rookie school held in conjunction with the 2014 Jefferson 500 in May at Summit Point Raceway. While Sgt. Brown’s medical treatment plan may preclude his race participation for the remainder of this year, we expect him to be saddled up for the coming 2015 season.

The team has already raced this year at the aforementioned Jefferson 500 and just returned from the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational at Indianapolis. Upcoming, relatively close-by events include the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix on July 19-20, and the Gold Cup Historics at VIR on September 27-28, 2014.

Sergeants Brown and Dwyer have made tremendous sacrifices in the service of our country, and in recognition of those sacrifices High Performance Heroes seeks to support these two men and others like them in finding success in the transition to everyday life. “Racing isn’t an essential part of life,” says Thomas, “but it shows these guys that they can accomplish goals, that they can indeed do things they thought they couldn’t, and that there are people out there willing to help them.” If you’d like to be one of those helping, you can find more information at www.HPHeroes.org. You’ll find them on Facebook as well. Or, just look for the bright blue Sprites, #14 or #15, in the paddock at Pittsburgh or VIR.

 

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