Before you read on, take a few moments and consider the choices you’ve made today.
Now imagine you’re a paratrooper, you’re in hostile territory, the Taliban are preparing to attack. You’re in charge of a mortar platoon and your mission is to provide covering fire for a forward patrol. The safety of your comrades depends on your actions. Then your equipment fails.
In 2008, Sergeant Darren Fuller was on his second tour in Helmand Province. A family man, veteran of seven deployments to Northern Ireland and two to Iraq, here fighting for the freedom of a foreign nation in Kajaki’s heat and dust, and a mortar shell was jammed inside the firing tube of his weapon.
Paras don’t always have time to evaluate choices, they live on instinct. The regimental motto of ‘Ready for anything’ means exactly that. Without hesitation, Sgt Fuller acted to remove the blockage so that fire and cover could be maintained. He remained conscious as the shell exploded and tore through his arm. Bleeding heavily, his thoughts turned to concern for his partner and young son. Now he had to fight to stay alive.
Six years later..
The leafy grounds of Mallory Park are as far removed from the hard realities of Afghanistan as can be imagined, and a long way from the bustle of Colchester’s garrison town. The smells of propellant, graphite grease and gun oil have been exchanged for the flare of the welding torch and sweet stench of brake fluid.
Now retired from duty, his lower right arm replaced by a skilfully crafted prosthesis, Darren Fuller is one of an elite band of combat veterans who has been tasked with one of the toughest jobs in motorsport; preparing and supporting two cars in the 2015 British Touring Car Championship (BTCC).
The idea for the newly formed team came from Derek Palmer, a veteran of the BTCC’s Super Touring era, and more recently, the constructor of the FIA land-speed record challenger, ‘Flower of Scotland’.
Palmer, together with driver Richard Hawken, had been seeking ways to recognise and assist returning paratroopers whose injuries would force them into being medically discharged. Meeting with former-Para Captain, Colin Smith, CEO of the then Afghanistan Trust (now known as the official Parachute Regiment charity, ‘Support Our Paras’), a plan was formed that would see the creation of a race team that would not only raise much needed awareness and funds for the charity, but also directly employ injured ex-servicemen.
Completing the partnership is Japanese premium car maker Infiniti, a brand that is perhaps better known for its relationship with the Red Bull Formula One team.
Infiniti has truly got behind the project by not only supplying two Q50 saloon cars for transformation into BTCC racers, but also by providing the funding which allows to team to reach the first race of the season; a deed that has proven to be essential. As it was, entries for the BTCC were already ‘full’ (this is, after all, one of the most successful race series’ in the world). However, BTCC Series Director, Alan Gow had a pair of aces up his sleeve for just such an eventuality; two TOCA BTCC Licences that he’d set aside should a credible manufacturer-backed project come along. With the support of Infiniti and Gow, the call ‘standby for green-light’ was now ‘go!’
An uphill battle..
It’s been nearly two months since my first meeting with the Infiniti Support Our Paras race team. Back in January, we spoke at length about its aims and ambitions, of the support from Infiniti and the desire of the drivers to do justice to the cause and their crew. But the buzz of Autosport International and the glamour of Dunlop’s BTCC stand with the purposely displayed show car are long gone. This time, we’re in the place that really matters, the workshop where the elegant Q50s are to be readied for battle. Immediately, I sense the enormity of the task, because there, standing proud, is just one partly-built car.
“I know what you’re thinking” quips Palmer, “but we’ve only just received the second chassis, and it’s not a shell, it’s a whole car, so we’ve had to send it away for preparation.”
He’s right of course, only what I was thinking contained a few *%#^ as well, but then as I’m greeted by another former para, ex-Corporal John Price, I’m reminded that these are men who might not enjoy setbacks, but neither do they let them stand in their way.
Unlike Daz (Fuller) and the other Para members of the team, Price has the advantage of having trained as a mechanic before signing-up to the regiment. He offers me a brew but I’m already overfilled with motorway coffee so we get straight onto the topic of how he found himself working for a touring car team, and just as with his senior-ranking colleague, the real tragedy is that his injury was not caused as a result of action by the enemy but by a faulty piece of MOD equipment:
“I was making a jump”, Price tells me “and I had a container strapped to me. As we approach the ground, we release the container and the theory is that we land safely; only the release mechanism jammed, so I had to land with the container still attached. It crushed my knee. I’ve had six operations but as you can see, I’ve lost virtually all movement.”
Like Fuller, he found himself transferred to the Quartermaster’s company but then, still with time to serve, was given notice that he would eventually be medically discharged. The weeks spent at home waiting for the discharge papers to arrive were his darkest and although we don’t discuss this, it’s clear that had he not received the call from Fuller to join the race team, life could have been very different.
We talk more about the importance of raising awareness of the charity, and of the excitement in the ranks that a crew of injured ex-Paras is being trusted to do this job in front of a live audience of millions. And there’s absolutely no sign of doubt that he or the other lads are up to it.
Price explains: “We spend our lives working as a team; structures, roles, efficiency, interchange.. getting the job done, that’s what being a Para is all about. Of course there’ll be mistakes, but we learn to learn, and the support that we’re getting from the other teams, from the public, from Infiniti and from the Paras is just fueling the whole experience.”
This enthusiasm, the comradeship, the ethics are just infectious. We’re discussing the love of motor sport but then our conversation is interrupted by Les White, the man brought in to oversee the car-build and training programme. He notices my Hyperion jacket and we exchange pleasantries of times-past but it’s clear that there’s work to do and Price is required under the car and on to the rear suspension.
I turn to talk to Fuller, the ex-Colour Sergeant and obvious linchpin, but he too is busy, this time in the fabrication shop. And then it really strikes me just how far these guys have already come. You see, Fuller was always right-handed, until the lower part of his arm was blown off. And yet here he is, not only managing skilled work with his left, but relying on a prosthesis instead of the other.
I watch for a while as the Q50 racer steadily takes shape. There’s no doubt that most other teams are clearly ahead with their development programmes, many cars having already been extensively tested ahead of the impending Donington media day on March 24th. But then most other teams don’t have a squad of former-Paras to call on.
Before departing, I move upstairs to talk about money and dreams with Derek Palmer. His office is sort of shabby-chic.. without the ‘chic’. I have to take a deep breath. “Derek” I stutter, “I need to ask you something pretty difficult: How’s the team doing for cash?”
Palmer looks up from his laptop. “Why do you ask?” he quizzes.
“Because” I say, “.. because I’ve heard rumours that you’re struggling.”
I hate doing this. I have an amazing story to tell about a group of exceptional people embarking on an incredible mission, and now I know that a good part of the attention and a good part of the credibility is going to be taken-over by what we now discuss.
I’m reassured by the calm in Palmer’s voice. “What exactly have you heard?” I’m asked.
I explain that several sources have suggested the project is short of the necessary funding to complete the season. Indeed, I’ve been told that it’s expected they might not even make it beyond the first round.
“No”, comes the reply. “it’s important that you ask, and it’s important that I answer. I know what the rumour-mill is like in motorsport, and I know that there are others who’d like to be doing what we’re doing. So ‘no’, we’ve got the cash and the backing of Infiniti to not only get to the grid but to do the job once we’re there.”
“But everyone’s got to remember why we’re doing this. We’re here to raise awareness and we’re here to raise cash for the charity. This is a ‘not-for-profit’ team, so we have to strike hard bargains and we have to show that we don’t need to spend all the money at our disposal.”
“Could I use another million pounds? [the amount rumoured to have been provided by Infiniti] Of course I could! Show me a team that couldn’t! But that’s not what we’re about. We’re about spending what we have to be competitive and to achieve results, and we’re equally about making sure that all injured Paras and their families have the resources they need to rebuild shattered lives.”
I feel like crap. Perhaps I should have avoided the question, but then the reply seems not only clear, but also unequivocal.
It’s getting late now. I need to get back to London. Perhaps more importantly, Palmer needs to make sure his team have what they need to get those cars built. We shake hands but as I start down the stairs, I turn for one last question.
“Derek, what do you want out of this?” Again, there’s no hesitation in the reply.
“I want to tell a story.” For just a second, a momentary smile emerges.
“I want to tell a story that makes people proud. Proud of the Paras and proud of what they can achieve, even when faced with the challenge of disability. It’s not a story that can be told in one go though. First we’ve had to build the team. Now we have to build the car, and the Q50 is a great car, a beautiful car, and a really quick car. It stands out on the road but it’s our job to make it stand out on track. And then we have to compete.”
“We know the potential but we also know we have to build to that. We want to win, we know we can win, but to get there, we have to fight. And it’s a key part of the story that it won’t just be Paras in the pitlane; I want us to find and train an injured Para to eventually race the car too. The soldiers of the Parachute Regiment are an inspiration to me – that is why I’m here.”
As I say my farewells, I’m only too aware this is just the beginning. We’ll be following the team throughout the season and hope to bring you many more insights into this most human of stories behind the 2015 BTCC.
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Give Your Support
For further information on Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing, you can follow these links or visit their website.