Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed/Al Merion Padron.

Half of Liam Dwyer’s clutch leg is gone. His right knee has been replaced. A steel plate, a rod, and 23 screws hold his right forearm together. He endured more than 50 surgeries over four and a half years.
Dwyer is a retired United States Marine. A Taliban IED hit him on May 22, 2011.
Whenever possible, Dwyer is strapping into a Mazda MX-5 Miata race car, attaching his prosthetic clutch leg, and blazing out on track to compete for position with drivers who have four complete appendages. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I would do it again knowing this would happen.”
Dwyer is a professional race car driver. He has trophies to prove it. His team is in first place in the IMSA Continental Tire Series ST class. Next week, he races at Circuit of the Americas. A number of other veterans have helped him get there, and he’s paying it forward, too.

Once and Always a Racer

350Z-race-car-LDwyer returned to racing in a Sprite and this 350Z. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer

Dwyer has loved cars, he says, “since before I could breathe,” but he didn’t begin time trial racing until 1999 and autocross in 2004, earning wins and setting records.
Then that bomb hit him during a tour in Afghanistan. A physical therapist said he’d never drive stickshift again. His own dad stopped talking to him when he insisted on pursuing a racing career. They still don’t talk.
He kept at it anyway. Less than a year after the blast, he was racing an Austin-Healey Sprite in a vintage series and also competing in NASA’s Spec 350Z series. He pursued a partnership with OG Racing for safety gear and found a sympathetic ear in Bill Love,  a Vietnam veteran and the company’s founder.

AN5Q1749Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed / Al Merion Padron

Love is a Purple Heart recipient. During the infamous assault into the Plei Trap Valley in March 1969, Love received two AK-47 bullets: one in the chest, one in the hand. When Love was hit, he had to wait a full 24 hours before it was safe for a helicopter to transport him out, to eventually be treated at the old Walter Reed medical facility in Washington, D.C.
Because of his service, Love hires veterans to OG Racing whenever possible. The company currently has one other veteran on staff: Salesman Johnny Cichowski served in Iraq as a mechanic. Cichowski helped build goodwill with local children by tossing them gifts like Sylvester Stallone pudding, or any other extra food or toys he had.
(Full disclosure: Cichowski’s also a good friend of mine and helped connect me with Liam for this story. He built a crazy-fast LS-swapped Miata race car and is one of few people who could drive my LeMons Escort faster than me.)
Hiring veterans, Love says, “is my way of putting out a hand and helping somebody up from that situation. Having been there and gone through the whole thing, I realized the military and the public aren’t gonna do a whole lot for ya.”
OG Racing outfitted Dwyer with a Sparco racing suit, shoes, gloves, and helmet, and a HANS Sport II; OG Racing’s support continues today.

How the Clutch Works

 His current clutch leg attaches securely, and includes a quick-release for fast exits. Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed/Al Merion Padron.

When Dwyer first returned to racing, he simply attached his regular prosthetic foot to the clutch pedal with Velcro. A mid-race mishap at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix made him pull off course after a bumpy section of the track shook his foot loose of the Velcro and it got stuck under the brake pedal.

A corner worker walked over to the Sprite and Dwyer had to explain that no, really, he was OK; his leg had come off. “He looked at me like I was crazy, but I was able to reattach my foot and wrestle the car back on track.”

_SM_6060Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed/Al Merion Padron

It was clear then that he’d need a specialized solution. His new clutch leg is a straight aluminum post with a heim joint in place of the foot. The joint slips over a shaft attached to the clutch pedal and a cotter pin holds it in place—no more Velcro.
Dwyer says operating the clutch isn’t a problem at all now that he’s developed the skill, and he has bailout procedure in case an emergency requires exiting the car quickly. “I have a quick-release to release my body from the joint,” he says. “I just pull a separate pin, detach myself at the knee and throw myself out of the car.”

Dwyer can bail out of a burning car as fast as anyone. Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed/Al Merion Padron.

Finding Success One Lap at a Time

Brian Hair, another salesman from OG Racing, helped Dwyer get fitted with safety gear on his first visit to their shop. Dwyer later found out that Hair had competed several times in One Lap of America.

Dwyer and OG Racing employee Brian Hair competed in One Lap of America together. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.Dwyer and OG Racing employee Brian Hair competed in One Lap of America together. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.

Dwyer itched to compete in One Lap. They joined forces. The pair raced a 2013 Ford Mustang Boss 302 in the grueling event in 2013 and 2014, finishing first in class and seventh overall in 2014.
That was about the same time people were starting to notice a veteran with a prosthetic leg winning races. Freedom Autosport invited Dwyer to test at Sebring in front of team manager Tom Long and representatives from Mazda.

The team pulled a win at Laguna Seca this year. Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed / Al Merion Padron

Freedom Autosport’s name reflects their dedication to charities that help injured veterans; Dwyer’s story combined with his exemplary lap times earned him a spot on the team, racing a Mazda MX-5 in the IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge for the 2014 season.
A successful first season, marked by a win at Lime Rock and other strong finishes, brought him back to Freedom Autosport for 2015. He’s co-driving the MX-5 this year with Andrew Carbonell.

AN5Q8451Dwyer, left, and teammate Andrew Carbonell. Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed / Al Merion Padron

The team stands in first place in Street Tuner coming in to the next race at Circuit of the Americas. Liam is fifth in the driver championship, Carbonell is first. “I had to miss VIR due to a medical issue. If I didn’t miss that race, I’d be leading the points,” Dwyer says.

Continuing to Serve

Though Dwyer is retired from the Marines in May, he continues to help other veterans find purpose through Racing4Vets. Photo courtesy Liam Dwyer.

During these pursuits, Sergeant Dwyer remained an active-duty Marine. He retired from the Corps on May 30 of this year.
He also helps other injured veterans get involved in racing viaRacing4Vets. Dwyer believes that working toward a common goal with a supportive group of people helps injured vets to deal with what’s happened to them, and to begin feeling accomplished and useful again.
“Everyone has different injuries,” Dwyer says. “Some people will look at a veteran and say, ‘You don’t look injured,’ but they might have traumatic brain injury or suffer from PTSD. This program gets people back in a team setting with an ultimate goal in mind; a lot of these guys, including myself, are truly grateful for that.”

Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed / Al Merion Padron

Look for Dwyer driving the Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 in the IMSA Continental Tire Series. The next race is Sept. 18 at Circuit of the Americas. He also instructed athletes for this year’s Triumph Games.
You can follow Liam on Twitter: @liamdwyerracing

AN5Q0503Photo courtesy Mazdaspeed / Al Merion Padron