Ethos

Warrior at the Wheel

Horrific injuries sustained as a Marine didn’t prevent Liam Dwyer from becoming a professional racer

The first time Liam Dwyer lost his left leg, he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol with fellow Marines in Afghanistan. Four years later, he lost the leg again—while at the wheel of a race car.

“I was at Circuit of the Americas [in Austin, Texas] in 2015,” retired Staff Sgt. Dwyer, now 36, says. “And it’s so hot I’m almost seeing spots. I’m sweating like crazy, losing weight. So about 25 minutes into my driving stint, suddenly my leg falls off. Literally. My prosthesis just fell right off at the suction cup. But, hey, I think we still ran 14th place.”

We’re at the Lime Rock Park circuit in leafy Connecticut on a warm July afternoon, sitting in the team motor home of Freedom Autosport, for which Dwyer just completed a qualifying session as part of the professional IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series. Dwyer and his experienced teammate Andrew Carbonell, 28, a former karting champion, have put their Mazda MX-5 sixth on the ST-class grid for tomorrow’s two-hour race. And now Dwyer is going through the laborious, visibly uncomfortable process of removing his prosthetic leg so the stump of his real leg can recover from the punishment of 30-plus minutes operating a clutch pedal that, moments ago, was clipped to a heim joint at the bottom of his artificial limb. “This whole ritual right here, this is a daily occurrence,” Dwyer says. “Daily! I live in Florida, and any time I want to go out, anywhere—to CVS, the hobby shop, out to a restaurant with friends—this is what I gotta go through. When the prosthesis’ socket liner slips, my leg starts ‘pistoning’—the skin is being pulled up and down, and my leg becomes engorged with blood. If that happens and the skin breaks, that’s an immediate infection and can mean further amputation. No racing. Probably not even walking. That’s why I’m having the big surgery. Then I won’t have to worry about the socket anymore. My artificial leg will just lock right on.”

Dwyer articulates these grim realities without a gram of self-pity. In fact, he’s absolutely guileless about his injuries. Right now he’s sitting next to me, stripped down to his tighty whities, inviting me to examine up close the ruin that is his body post-IED. Both of his arms are scarred and misshapen. His right leg, while still “there,” is a battered husk of rifts and lacerations. Dwyer pulls the suction cup off his left leg, revealing the ragged shank of thigh that remains. Then with his free hand he reaches for a bucket and, holding the suction cup above it, slowly turns the cup upside down. What seems like a quart of sweat pours out. I’m speechless. But Dwyer is grinning, rolling his eyes. “Isn’t that a wonderful sight?”

When driving, the racing leg attaches via heim joint directly to the clutch pedal. In an emergency, Dwyer can instantly disconnect it via a quick-release.

Liam Dwyer joined the Marine Corps twice. His first stint took him to Iraq, where in January 2007 he was lucky to survive an IED explosion just yards away from the Humvee he’d only recently upgraded with armor plating. “I was turret gunner,” Dwyer says. “Got peppered with shrapnel, knocked unconscious. Stayed in Iraq, bed resting ’cause my brain got really rattled. Two weeks later I was back out doing missions.”

His tour complete and his body intact, Dwyer retired from the Marines, returned to his hometown of Southbury, Connecticut, and “started a daily life.” Home-school at night. A 40- to 50-hour a week job. And on weekends … car racing. “I was doing autocross stuff,” Dwyer says. “At first I had a Mitsubishi Evo 8. Then I got my Nissan Z. I ran that stock—just added a sway bar and better brake pads. It was stupid fast. I’d outrun Z06s, M3s.”

Liam Dwyer shows his Mazda to the Marine who saved his life, Staff Sgt. Aaron Denning.

Then fate played an unexpected hand. “So I’m at work one day in July 2010,” he recalls, “and this major I deployed with in Iraq rings me and says, ‘Hey, Liam! We’ve got a team going to Afghanistan. I want you on it.’ At the time I had long hair, a goatee.” It had been one of Dwyer’s boyhood dreams to be a Marine. The offer to return proved too tempting to resist.

“Some waivers got me back in the Corps,” he says. “Two weeks later I start training. By December 3 I’m in Afghanistan. And then … ” Dwyer pauses a moment to collect his thoughts. “My first patrol was December 28. I make friends with our squad leader, Cpl. Tevan Nguyen. Then five hours later, I watched him get blown up by an IED and die right in front of me.” Dwyer pulls up his shirt. Nguyen’s name is tattooed on the left side of his chest.

Dwyer had a premonition about his own fate. “When I got to Afghanistan, the joke was, I just knew I was gonna get blown up,” he says. “Just knew it. So I said to my corpsman, ‘When I get blown up, the only leg I can lose is my left leg. Because I can still operate a clutch pedal with a prosthesis.’”

Fast-forward five months to May 22, 2011. “We’re doing this big operation,” Dwyer says. “Five or six days. We know we’re gonna get in the shit. Super early in the morning, we went to our first compound. And one of the things I see is a chai set, sterling silver, and the teapot is still warm. But there’s no one around. The Taliban was just here, and they’re watching us.

“We go into the last room, then on the way out everyone in front of me steps over this log. Finally I get up to it, and … boom! I remember waking up a few seconds after the blast. Dust falling. Marines laid out nearby. Bones are sticking out of me, tissues holding my arm on. I’m going to die. I reach for my tourniquets. And pass out.”

Liam Dwyer and Andrew Carbonell (left) became fast friends. “We’ve made every pun about the leg,” Dwyer laughs. Says Carbonell: “Liam always races first. It’s a lot easier to yank him out than to wrench him in!”

Staff Sgt. Aaron Denning, now serving in the Marine reserves and a police officer in Burbank, California, was the first to reach Dwyer.

“Inside that room was like a horror movie,” Denning remembers. “Blood all over the walls. A few guys partially disemboweled. The corpsman is working on them because Liam looks hopeless. There’s blood pouring out of both femoral arteries in his legs and the arteries in his arms. I apply tourniquets to all four limbs, but I’m probably working on a dead man. Then suddenly Liam wakes up. I couldn’t believe it. Now, we’re trained that one of the most important things is to prevent shock. Shock can kill you before the medevac even arrives. So I start talking to Liam, trying to distract him. We talk football. He likes the New York Giants. Then Liam says to me, ‘I’ll be going home now. And when I get there, I’m gonna start racing cars.’ He’s lying there with his leg blown off—though I didn’t tell him that at the time—and he’s talking about racing cars!”

After an excruciating 20 minutes waiting for a helicopter to arrive, Denning and a few other Marines scrambled through enemy fire to get Dwyer on it. “When we picked Liam up,” Denning says, “he let out a scream that … well, I never want to hear a scream like that again. Ever.”

During race events, Liam Dwyer switches between two “left legs” his walking prosthesis (with shoe) and a racing version.

The prognosis was dire. Sometime during the flight, in fact, Dwyer’s heart stopped. But the medics brought him back. (Everyone else injured in the blast also survived.) When he finally regained consciousness, he was in intensive care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “I was in ICU for two weeks,” Dwyer says. “Tubes everywhere. Then the surgeries started, one almost every other day. I stopped counting at 50. Eventually, I got to this mental state, like, I’m never getting out of here.”

Finally came some much-needed, though brief, R&R. And from that moment on Dwyer’s life changed forever. Again.

“In 2012 my buddy took me to a car race at Daytona,” Dwyer says. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I love cars. I wanna get back in cars.’”

Purely by chance, Dwyer met Derek Whitis, owner of Freedom Autosport, a race team devoted to the military (at each race, a few veterans are invited to assist in the garage and the pits) and backed by Mazda. “Liam told me, ‘I used to do some autocrossing, and I’d love to race one of your cars someday,’” Whitis remembers. “Now, you hear that all the time. But Liam meant it.”

A crew member carries Dwyer to pit wall during a driver change. The team can do a swap in 17 seconds.

Hours later, at that evening’s end-of-season banquet, another bolt of lightning: Dwyer ended up seated next to Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan. “I’d heard about Liam’s story,” Doonan says, “so I asked him, ‘You’ve been through a lot. What are your dreams in life?’ And Liam just looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I want to be a race car driver.’”

Doonan didn’t scoff at Dwyer’s ambitions. “At the time Freedom still had some Spec Miatas,” he says. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we put this guy into one of those and see what he’s all about?’ Sure enough, Liam ran a club race at Sebring, and by the final laps he was leading. He ended up finishing second, but he proved he’s got talent in a race car—and the mindset to win.”

A chance trip with a friend to a 2012 race at Daytona fueled Liam Dwyer’s drive to recovery. Three years later, he was speeding across the high banks himself.

With Dwyer making remarkable progress in his rehabilitation program, Doonan phoned him prior to the 2014 season and asked, “How ’bout we put you in a two-race deal for next season in an ST car? Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and your home track at Lime Rock. You’ll join our experienced hot shoe and Spec Miata champ Tom Long.” Suffice it to say, Dwyer’s reaction could only be measured by the Richter scale.

Yet Dwyer’s dream deal started off like a nightmare. At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in the first turn of his first race, his MX-5 suffered pad knockback in the brakes, and he barreled through the turn and straight into a competitor’s BMW, destroying both cars. “He came back to the pits in tears,” Doonan remembers. “But I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not quitting.’”

Despite his despair, Dwyer managed to scrounge up some black humor. “They made me go to the medical tent,” he says, “and as I walk in, I’ve got my arms around a couple corner workers—they’re carrying me in ’cause I don’t have my prosthesis on, and they know that. But the nurses inside don’t. So I start yelling, ‘My leg! Oh my God, I lost my leg!’ Well, the IMSA guys almost dropped me they were laughing so hard. The nurses … not so much.”

A brand ambassador for Mazda, Dwyer draws throngs of enthusiastic fans at every race event.

If race one was rock bottom, Dwyer’s second race, at his home track of Lime Rock, played out as if penned by a Hollywood screenwriter. Starting dead last, Dwyer moved up in position over 22 laps before swapping with co-driver Long. Mere laps from the checkered flag, Long swooped into first place to take the win. It was Memorial Day weekend. Almost three years to the day since Dwyer had lost his leg in Afghanistan. The story made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Week and the national news. The Marine who’d nearly been blown to pieces was now a winning professional race car driver.

The following season at Laguna Seca, Dwyer served up more fairy-tale fare: He and buddy Carbonell claimed victory not just at the circuit where Dwyer’s bid had ended in tears only a year earlier but also in front of Dwyer’s mother and Staff Sgt. Denning, the man who saved his life. “Liam’s mom and Sgt. Denning had never met before,” Doonan recalls. “Needless to say, even before the checkered flag came down, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

After racing full seasons alongside Carbonell in 2016 and 2017, Dwyer’s future is now on hold. As this story goes to press, he’ll be undergoing the second phase of a radical procedure known as an “osseointegration.” In essence, instead of using that nasty and unreliable suction cup to affix his prosthetic leg to his left thigh, Dwyer is having a titanium rod inserted deep into his left femur and out through his skin. Once the so-called “abutment” has fused with the surrounding bone (about three months), from then on Dwyer will simply be able to lock his prosthesis directly onto the protruding rod. The goal: effortless attachment and removal of his artificial limb. And no more midrace runaway legs.

The osseointegration surgery is pioneering—and risky. But Dwyer insisted on having it. “After I did a few procedures on Liam, I got a call from his case manager,” says his surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Forsberg, an orthopedic oncologist at Johns Hopkins University and, as a commander in the Navy, an M.D. at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “She was furious. She said, ‘Sgt. Dwyer wants to race automobiles! This is inherently dangerous! You need to tell him he needs to recognize his limitations!’ Well, I must’ve been in a mood, because I replied, ‘Sgt. Dwyer is an adult, he’s a Marine, and he understands that racing cars is dangerous. And from my perspective there’s no reason he can’t do this.’”

Teammate Andrew Carbonell, Mazda’s John Doonan, and mom Laurie were on hand for Liam Dwyer’s 2015 win.

Literally at her son’s side for month after agonizing month, Dwyer’s mother, Laurie, remains remarkably sanguine after their mutual ride through hell and back. “After Liam got that call from John Doonan in 2014, he phoned me and said, ‘Mom, what’s my other dream?’ And I said, ‘To race?’ Well, when he told me about the deal with Mazda, the two of us got so choked up.” Laurie pauses to look across the garage as her son zips into his Nomex suit for another lapping session. “I’m such a firm believer in everything happening for a reason. And really, when you think about it, Liam probably never would’ve become a professional race car driver without being injured. Both of us really do believe racing saved his life.”

As for Dwyer himself, naturally he’s itching for the day when he can get back into a race car. Yet amid his painful recovery from near death and the newfound joys of fulfilling one of his enduring dreams, Dwyer’s core—Semper Fi—has never wavered. “Racing is awesome, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But being a Marine is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. If I could, I’d give all this up in a heartbeat to go back over there.”

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