Active duty Marine, racer brings message to NASCAR
July 01, 2014, Kristen Boghosian, NASCAR.com
When Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer was introduced during the driver's meeting last month at Dover International Speedway, those listening would have thought driver introductions had begun. Yet it was the drivers themselves doing the clapping in this rare role reversal. When the honorary pace car driver was introduced, hands were pressed together with more vigor, and the claps and cheers took longer to fade than any other honorary visitor for the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks. The drivers, crew chiefs and fans were clapping not just for a man, but what he stood for, one leg and one prosthesis under him.
Though NASCAR has long supported American veterans through programs like Troops to the Track, which helps bring soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulty adjusting post-combat life into the sport, Dwyer had a special connection with each of the drivers clapping for him.
An active duty Marine who is based out of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Dwyer lost a leg and suffered significant injuries in 2011 after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on a tour in Afghanistan. He wears a prosthetic leg to replace the one he lost while serving overseas.
"If people can start looking at things in more of a positive light, you'll get better things out of life."
-- Liam Dwyer
He's also a racer, with a victory in an IMSA race on May 24 at Lime Rock Park, near the New York border of Connecticut. As an ambassador of sorts for other soldiers at the track and a man who has forced himself to adjust to life after injury, the Marine hopes to be an example for other wounded veterans.
"My message here is really the same as it's been since I've gotten injured and back into racing," Dwyer said earlier that day, "is that people look at me and see I've been dealt a pretty crappy hand, being an amputee with the other injuries I have to my body. But no matter what we face in life, what challenges we face, no matter what adversity there is, is keeping your nose to the grindstone and staying positive."
That positive thinking -- even when those around him, including his rehabilitation nurse, tried to tell him his thinking was unreasonable -- helped him get back behind the wheel of a manual transmission.
Kurt Busch, who met Dwyer for the first time when visiting Walter Reed in September, called him "inspirational." The visit led to a go-kart competition between the two, which Busch won -- but if you ask Dwyer, only because it was at Busch's home track -- and the two will race again at one of Dwyer's home courses. There, he expects the outcome to be different.
If Busch's admiration is any indication, Dwyer's message of optimism has already spread throughout the NASCAR garage.
"We think we have it tough some days with sessions, maybe the heat during summer runs," Busch said after meeting Dwyer. "For him, he's going against those obstacles of not having all his limbs or muscles toned and driving with a big smile on his face."
That understanding that it could always be worse is what has kept Dwyer from allowing the severity of his injuries and walking on a prosthetic leg impact how he lives, and what he expects of his life.
Instead, Dwyer's injury became an opportunity for him to return to racing. His Freedom Autosport team has outfitted its Mazda MX-5with a clutch that can be attached to his prosthetic leg. His team has figured out the complicated driver change, with a team member helping Dwyer from the car so teammate Tom Long can get behind the wheel. The duo's win in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge -- held over Memorial Day weekend -- only solidified the veteran's purpose.
"… I'm fully aware of the fact that the only reason why I have the opportunities I have now to go racing and to speak with you guys today is because of my injuries," Dwyer candidly told reporters at Dover. "If people can start looking at things in more of a positive light, you'll get better things out of life, instead of living in darkness. And if that's the biggest thing I can send a message to people -- not only today but for the rest of my life -- to just try and strive and do things that you didn't think were possible, I'm a very good example of whatever hand that you're dealt, you can really make lemonade out of a batch of lemons."
Though Dwyer hopes to continue racing in the future, he first must work out the balance of active duty and his racing schedule. While he says his current duties allow him the ability to leave Walter Reed on weekends when he's racing, Dwyer's racing team and superiors are working on a way to free up more time for him to continue racing.
In the meantime, Dwyer will remain a familiar face among drivers in the NASCAR garage, bringing his plea for others to see life as positively as he does to the sport.
"This really is just a token of appreciation that I have to be able to come out here and race cars, this makes my life very simple," he said. "And if I can inspire others to go out and do things that they thought were difficult -- which is a lot of the conversations I have with my fellow wounded warriors at Walter Reed Naval Hospital -- that's really what I'm looking to do."