How disabled drivers are changing motor racing

BY Simon Button

14th Jun 2022 Motoring

How disabled drivers are changing motor racing

Meet Team BRIT, the car racing team overcoming life-threatening accidents and health conditions to compete in the most prestigious championships in the world

Setting his sights on the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance sports car race in 2024, Team BRIT founder and CEO Dave Player explains: “If you’re a mountain climber, you want to climb Everest eventually and if you’re an endurance racer, you dream of competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s a legendary, historic event that every racing driver sets their sights on.”

If the team gets to compete in what is widely judged to be the world’s most gruelling endurance race, they'll also enter the history books as the first all-disabled squad to do so.

It’s something they have to work up to, with all the drivers needing the requisite experience and suitable cars, hence the two-year time frame.

Other disabled drivers have taken part, but only through a wild card, non-competitive scheme.

“We don’t want that,” Dave, 54, insists. “We want to compete on a level playing field, as a statement that even as disabled racing drivers we belong on a world stage. We want to earn our place, not have it given to us.”

From charity to championships

A wheelchair user since he dove into a lake and broke his neck at 23, Dave set up the charity KartForce in 2010 as a way for injured veterans to use karting for rehabilitation and recovery. 

He went on to found Team BRIT in 2015—creating a set of hand controls that could be installed in racing cars to enable drivers with disabilities to compete side by side with able-bodied contestants.

Based at Dunsfold Park (also home of the Top Gear test track near Cranleigh) it is a competitive, sponsorship-supported racing team.

Ranging in age from early-twenties to mid-forties, drivers from the ten-strong squad have already competed in such endurance challenges as the Fun Cup and the BMW 116 Trophy in the UK, the Spa Francorchamps in Belgium and on Le Sarthe Circuit at Le Mans at the Aston Martin Le Mans Festival.

Two of the team’s fastest drivers, Bobby Trundley and Aaron Morgan, are this year competing in the British GT Championship.

“It’s a massive milestone," says Bobby. "Not only for me but also for the whole team, competing in what is the pinnacle of GT racing in the UK. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

A new kind of rehab

Team BRIT drivers Aaron Morgan and Bobbly Trundley pose by racing carCar racing restores a sense of control for drivers living with visible and hidden disabilities, according to Aaron Morgan (left) and Bobby Trundley (right)

Bobby, 22, from Wokingham, was diagnosed with autism when he was four and took up go-karting six years later. 

“As soon as I put the helmet on I felt safe in my own little world ," he recalls. "And when I got behind the wheel of the kart and started driving out on the track, I felt in control for the first time in my life.”

He went on to compete in various events before joining Team BRIT four years ago. He finds racing is a release.

“It’s changed my life," he says. "Mentally, it’s like relaxation and also I love the thrill. When I’m behind the wheel, most of my issues with autism don’t turn against me. In fact I consider it to be a super power of mine.”

For example, he’s able to make quick decisions if there’s oil on the tarmac. “I can make minor calculations and get the max out of the car, whereas other drivers might take longer to adapt to the conditions," he explains.

"My autism has its hindrances; I can be very socially awkward in person and my anxiety levels are very high. But when I’m behind the wheel it has its perks.”

"When I’m behind the wheel, most of my issues with autism don’t turn against me"

Aaron Morgan, 31, from Basingstoke, is a paraplegic after breaking his back in a motocross accident when he was 15 years old. He spent nearly four weeks in a coma, followed by a long spell in a spinal injuries unit

“It was devastating and also quite confusing," Aaron recalls. "My mum took a photo diary during my hospital stay and there are pictures where I’m clearly awake and clearly there, but I don’t remember them at all.”

His father told him that after the accident he stopped breathing for nine minutes. “And that put it all into focus. I was now paralysed but I’d come so close to dying."

He continues: "From that moment on I very quickly set myself goals in terms of returning to college and reintegrating myself back into ‘normal’ life. I could have sat around moping and feeling sorry for myself but ultimately that’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Instead, Aaron returned to his studies and went on to achieve a 2:1 in sports science at Brunel University. Now working in IT, he has deftly channelled his need for speed into Team BRIT.

“The hand control technology means that I’m able to carry out all the functions that I need to do as well as any able-bodied driver," he says.

"With the team there’s a constant hunger for improvement, whether that be car set-up or tweaks to improve the line or speed, and it’s incredibly motivating in terms of your own improvement.”

Motor racing for mental health

Team BRIT disabled drivers Andy Tucker and Bobby TrundleyCredit: Darren Cook. Motor racing has helped Andy Tucket (left) to come off his anti-depressants after a debilitating motorbike accident

Through KartForce, Dave Player asked Nottingham University to do a clinical study into the benefits of racing for drivers with physical injuries. He was surprised to learn about the upsides for those with PTSD and mental health issues.

“When you have issues like depression or anxiety, you spend all day thinking about them. But if you have something to look forward like a race it’s exciting and it gives you a new focus," he explains.

"Your mind is occupied with positive thoughts rather than negative ones, then when the race comes it’s a massive adrenaline rush and that buzz lasts for days afterwards. [GT racing] reignites a fire in people.”

Andy Tucker was 24 when he was left with a range of injuries—including scoliosis and spondylitis in his spine, limited movement in his right shoulder and a twisted right ankle—after a motorbike accident.

He also now suffers from PTSD, depression and anxiety, so he was intrigued when he discovered the Nottingham University study online.

"Motorsport is my medication. There’s no feeling out there like it"

Having done karting in his younger years, he enrolled in the Team BRIT racing academy and was later offered a place through its rookie development programme. He sees it as a life-changer.

“It’s pure therapy for my mental health,” says the 34-year-old from Llandevaud. “It’s got me back into the world of motorsport and it’s also given me the opportunity to show others that whatever you’ve been through you can still push on, live as normal a life as possible and have some amazing fun along the way.”

Andy has also been able to come off mental health medication. “I was on some 34 pills a day and I used to rattle when I walked,” he laughs.

“Now motorsport is my medication. There’s no feeling out there like it— the pure adrenaline rush you get from it and the camaraderie in the pit, because nobody in the pit looks at us as disabled. We’re treated equally.”

Competing on a level racing track

Team BRIT disabled driver Anji Silva-VadgamaCredit: Chris Overend. Driving is one sport that removes barriers between disabled and able-bodied competitors, according to Anji Silva-Vadgama 

Anji Silva-Vadgama, 32, took up racing last year after seeing a television documentary about Team BRIT.

She got in touch with Dave, who invited her along to a track day and was impressed with her skills as a first-time racer. He asked her to join the rookie development programme.

She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018. “And it was a shock to the system but it was great to know what was causing the numbness in my body and why I was so tired," she says.

"I’m still learning what I can or can’t do. My life now is either with a walking stick or, especially on colder or wetter days, a wheelchair.”

"We may be disabled but when we’re in the car you can’t even tell"

Anji, who lives in Kettering and works in business development for a software company, adds: “I like to stay positive. Don’t get me wrong; I do have negative days. But I’ve always been a glass-half full kind of person.”

Racing and cars are in her blood. Her grandfather was a rally driving champion in Kenya and her father is a mechanic.

“So I’ve always been around cars, but don’t ask me what’s under the hood,” she laughs. “When I found out I had MS I stopped driving for a while because my confidence had gone, but Team BRIT has helped me build that confidence back up again.”

Currently Team BRIT’s only woman driver, she has practised in simulators and on tracks at Silverstone and Donington.

“It’s amazing to show that we may be disabled but when we’re in the car you can’t even tell,” Anji says of going up against able-bodied racers. “It’s really exciting to have that level playing field.” 

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