Courtesy Mazda Motorsports
Jeff Truesdell
October 02, 2015 12:00 AM

Liam Dwyer felt the pull of the raceway from an early age.

On speedway outings with his family growing up in Litchfield, Connecticut, “the speed of the cars, the sounds the cars made, the smells of the brakes and the gas – I just loved it,” he says. “I loved the rawness of guys putting their lives on the line. I wanted to be a part of this.”

He joined the military at 19, took a break before re-enlisting, and spent all the money he made on his amateur hobby: autocross, drag racing, time trials. “Nothing serious,” says Dwyer, now 34 and living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It was more for fun. The car I drove to and from work was the car I took to the track.

His dream had taken root. Then, while on patrol in Afghanistan on May 22, 2011, he stepped on an explosive that shattered his expectations along with his body: He awoke at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to learn his left leg had been amputated four inches above the knee.

With a prosthetic limb, “I knew I’d be able to walk again,” he says. “Hopefully run.”

Driving was another matter. He had to convince himself he could do it. Then he had to convince others. But just three years after that blast, he was standing on his prosthesis in the winner’s circle, celebrating a first-place finish with a co-driver in a professional race on the exact anniversary of his injury – what wounded warriors call their “Alive Day.”

Now, about to cap his rookie season as a full-time competitor for Mazda Motorsports on the same pro circuit, Dwyer and his co-driver, Andrew Carbonell, head into a race Friday in Braselton, Georgia, trailing just one point behind for the 10-race season’s team championship.

It’s a long way from his first pro race in May 2014, where Dwyer crashed and burned his team’s car, and reflects the distance he’s traveled since being told by a hospital therapist that he’d never drive a manual-transmission car again.

“I would pinch my left leg,” he jokes, “but it’s not there.”

Starting Over

To get this far, Dwyer at times had to face down his own fear and doubts.

“Obviously it hasn’t been easy,” he says. “When you have a devastating injury like this, there’s the thought of, ‘What am I still doing here? What am I going to do with my life now?’ I’ve had really, really good friends that have stuck by me and helped me get through some of the dark times.”

The May 2011 explosion – which also injured four other Marines – not only took Dwyer’s leg, but damaged his other limbs while driving shrapnel into his torso and abdomen. He’s gone through about 50 surgeries and four years of therapy that ended only last May, when Dwyer retired at the rank of Marine staff sergeant.

But along the way, other wheels were turning in his favor.

He was a spectator at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race in January 2012 when he met Derek Whitis, a driver and owner of Freedom Autosports, a Mazda Motorsports team created to pay tribute to U.S. service members. “I want to race,” Dwyer told him.

He recalls: “I’m in a wheelchair, I’m barely even walking, my right knee is fused and my right arm is still severely deformed. So the thought of professional racing wasn’t even in my mind as something I could do. It was still a dream. To me, at that time, it wasn’t attainable.”

But Dwyer had hope. Just three months earlier, not long after his first steps on his prosthetic, he determined to defy the therapist who told him his stick-shift driving days – which required his left leg to push the clutch – were over. With his mom as passenger, he climbed behind the wheel of her Subaru, positioned his prosthetic foot so that the arch instead of the ball rested on the clutch, and hit the gas. “My mom was nervous,” Dwyer says. “I wasn’t.”

“I was in a state of confusion and the unknown at the time,” he says. “When I went out and drove that weekend, that was the light I needed to see at the end of the tunnel. That turned the light switch on.”

He inched back into his hobby. When he later met Mazda Motorsports Director John Doonan, a healthier Dwyer repeated his dream – but this time, with racing experience to back it up.

Says Doonan: “I saw a burning desire.” He told his race team: “I don’t know how good this guy is, but let’s see if we can get him in a car and see how he does.”

In early 2014 Dwyer was invited for a test run – and a week later, Doonan called with an offer to put Dwyer in three races that season. “I’m glad I’m young,” says Dwyer, “because my heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to burst through my rib cage.”

Race to the Finish

Mazda designed a pin and strap that keep Dwyer’s left leg from sliding off the clutch pedal – a set-up that quickly detaches, allowing Dwyer to exit in the less than 15 seconds required for safety escapes, and during lightning-fast driver changes on the two-and-a-half hour races.

“There is nothing delicate about that driver change,” says Carbonell, Dwyer’s current co-driver. “Sometimes I even feel bad about how fast he’s ripped out of the car and thrown over the pit lane wall.”

And Dwyer? “Oh, he doesn’t care,” says Dwyer’s best friend and crew member Bob Pielli Jr., who helps with that mid-race move by reaching in to grab Dwyer under the shoulders and push him aside. “It’s all about the race.”

Dwyer questioned himself again only once – in his first race, when he bumped another car that caused his own to crash and burn. “It was an error on my part,” he says. “I was mortified by it. But the team stuck with me.”

Then, three weeks later, rebounding in only his second race and on the Memorial Day anniversary of the day he might have died, Dwyer started some 30 cars back, brought the car into the pit in seventh place, and watched as his then co-driver Tom Long steered the team to victory.

“I had tears in my eyes,” says Pielli.

Says Dwyer: “Obviously a huge win for me. I was definitely hugging people and stuff like that. But it’s very tough for me to sit here and say ‘I did this.’ I was just a member of the team.”

But the team plays off his strength and determination.

“This guy’s the real deal,” says Carbonell. “He’s not just along for the ride. He really wants to make this happen. That’s what stands out to me.”

“It’s incredibly inspirational,” he says. “To see somebody who’s gone through so much, not to sound too corny, but it’s kind of like a ray of light. There’s always a shine coming from him, and that rubs off on everybody.”

In nine races so far this year, Dwyer’s and Carbonell’s team has consistently finished in the Top 10. “He’s out-qualifying half the guys out there,” says Carbonnell. “You forget about the fact that he’s working with a prosthetic.”

Says Dwyer: “It’s great that I’m doing this, as fun as it is, but I really get to inspire others and give them the courage and the strength to go out and try things that they deem challenging or difficult to accomplish.”

Asked what gives him strength, he points to other service members still struggling with debilitating injuries, “guys who are overcoming more adversity than I could ever imagine,” he says. “Those are the ones that inspire me.”

“If there’s anything I want them to know, it’s that you’re only limited by what you limit yourself to,” he says. “I have so many things that I can do now at different levels of motorsports, and not just motorsports – in my life in general. I feel like I can take on anything.”

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