In mid-2011, Marine Staff Sgt. Liam D was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was recovering from a May 22 IED blast in Afghanistan that claimed his left leg, and among the many thoughts that raced through his mind was this one:
“I will drive again—and I will win.”
Three years later—almost to the day—Liam did indeed win, placing first at the 2014 IMSA Continental Sports Car Challenge on May 23-24, 2014, at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.
“I’ve always been involved with cars,” said Liam, who began time trial racing in 1999, the year he graduated high school. “I didn't get into actual racing until 2012, after I was injured. Racing gives me a rush that really can't be explained. I love the feeling of pushing myself to the limit and having to fight for position. Nothing in racing comes easy; every day is a new challenge.”
Liam knows plenty about challenges, having faced many during his years of service. He enlisted in October 2000 and was stationed in Japan in 2001. In 2006 he deployed to Iraq, where he served as a Humvee turret gunner. He was injured in 2007, taking shrapnel to his left side, and returned to the States and civilian life … but not for long: He re-enlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
“We were searching a compound for signs of the Taliban,” he says, recalling the day he stepped on the IED. “We were leaving the compound when I stepped on it. I was originally thought to be dead, then it was thought I would live but without any of my limbs. The treatment I received from my fellow Marines and corpsmen not only saved my life but saved three of my limbs.
“I've had around 50 surgeries to get where I'm at,” he continued. “I lost my left leg above the knee, and I had two right knee replacements and a reconstruction. My right arm has a plate and a rod with 23 screws in it and has had about 10 surgeries.”
The idea of driving a race car again seemed absurd. “I was told by a therapist at Walter Reed that I wouldn't be able to drive a stick-shift again,” Liam told NASCAR.com, but he wasn’t about to be deterred—and in 2012, he met some people at Freedom Autosport.
Freedom Autosport is a proud supporter of the Semper Fi Fund, which helped Liam by enabling his family to be by his side during his recovery. The Semper Fi Fund logo on the car does more than show that support: It hints at some of the special modifications made in the driver’s seat.
“The guys at Freedom and Long Road Racing did a great job of building a custom leg for me to use,” Liam said. “I operate a normal clutch and manual transmission. The challenge was making it safe and also easy to detach. In the racing I do, we have to make a driver change—which means I need to get out of the car quickly. The leg they designed works great; it’s mechanical knee with a heim joint for a foot that attaches to the clutch.”
Liam’s first professional race was the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge on May 3, 2014, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, California.
“Mazda Raceway was quite the experience,” he says. “The crowds, the fans—to be around the other Freedom drivers was awesome. They accepted me right away and made me feel welcome. There obviously was a lot of attention put on me, but the team did a really good job of helping me stay focused. Unfortunately, I crashed the car just a few minutes into the race. We made up for it at Lime Rock, though. The only adjustment we made was a slightly larger brake pedal to make heel-toe downshifts easier for me.”
The adjustment clearly worked—and with a first-place finish at Lime Rock under his seatbelt, Liam is looking ahead to driving in the Oak Tree Grand Prix / TUDOR United SportsCar Championship at Virginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia on August 22 and 23.
This is a story about perseverance and never giving up. Even after getting injured and being told I would never drive stick again, I never stopped trying and pushing myself. I hope others can look at challenges they've faced and have the courage to conquer those challenges.”
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