On Friday, Mission Possible will become the first disabled team to compete in a 24-hour endurance race, writes Gary Meenaghan.
Team to prove in Dubai 24 Hours that endurance driving with disability is Mission Possible
It was 1993 in Sydney, New South Wales, and Matt Speakman, a 26-year-old motorcycle racing enthusiast, had just signed a sponsorship deal to compete in the Australian 600 Super Sport Championship, his latest step towards international competition.
He collected the previous year’s winning bike and stored it in a friend’s garage before he headed to work at his local nightclub, content in the knowledge his dream was closer to being realised.
When work finished, Speakman and a female friend headed home on his road bike and were hit by a drunk driver. The woman died, Speakman received serious spinal injuries that made him a paraplegic.
Speakman, now in his late 40s, told his story this week while preparing for the Dubai 24 Hours, where he will compete as part of Team Mission Possible alongside three similarly handicapped men.
On Friday, Mission Possible will become the first disabled team to compete in a 24-hour endurance race.
“I remember being in the hospital and all I was told was what I couldn’t do anymore and I thought ‘I’m not listening to that, I want to go back to motorsport’,” Speakman said.
“It took me a long time – many years – to get a circuit-racing licence in Australia. I was very proud, though, to do my first championship at state level and win my class my first year out.
“That led to a deal with Porsche and then to this race with these guys overseas. The dream is coming true.”
“These guys” are Austria’s Gustav Engljahringer, Marc Dilger of Germany and Dutchman Mike Smit.
Along with Speakman, each of the four teammates hold down regular jobs in their native countries and have been at the forefront of disabled motorsport at home.
They are not only racing for the first time together this weekend, some are also meeting for the first time. Speakman met Engljahringer and Dilger for the first time on Tuesday and was to meet Smit yesterday.
He got his first look at the car – an automatic transmission BMW M235i – on Tuesday and noted the hand control system was different from what he is familiar with.
He was confident, though, that last night’s testing and today’s qualifying would be enough for him to get up to speed.
Dilger, a German who raced motorcycles, broke his neck in 1992 in a car accident that happened when a tyre blew out.
Seven years later he returned to the racetrack with Porsche and became the first disabled driver to hold a German racing licence.
After a chance meeting with Engljahringer and Rainer Kuschall at Hockenheim last year, he realised he was not the only handicapped driver who longed to complete a 24-hour race.
“We all did motorsport before and all had accidents and were sat in wheelchairs needing to completely restart in motorsport again,” said Dilger, who until this week, had corresponded with Speakman only on Facebook.
“We always dreamt of doing this and after years of doing motorsport alone, we found each other and thought ‘OK, now is the time to create a team’.”
Engljahringer raced in his country’s motorbike championship until 1994 when he broke his neck in a car accident.
Alongside Kuschall, who has not travelled to Dubai, the Austrian is half of a Mission Possible team principal pairing.
Last May, a slightly different version of the quartet competed in the Zandvoort 12 Hours in the Netherlands achieving their goal of finishing the race and finished 27th in a field of 51.
This weekend’s 24-hour challenge remains the ultimate goal.
“We have all been told in our separate countries that you can’t possibly do it,” Speakman said.
“So this weekend is not only to show other people in wheelchairs that anything is possible, but also to show anybody in the world that no matter how hard things seem, if you put your mind to it anything can be achieved in life.”
While the objective remains the same – to finish – these are not men renowned for being short on ambition.
“Our dream is to be on the podium in our class,” Dilger said. “There are only six BMWs, so to finish top three would be incredible.”
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