Road Atlanta driver carries on with prosthesis

Liam Dwyer, who will drive a Mazda MX-5 in Friday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Series which is part of the Petit Le Mans weekend activities at Road Atlanta in Braselton, is a modern-day Red Byron.

For those not versed in NASCAR history, Byron was the champion of NASCAR’s Modified Division in 1948 and a year later became the first champion of the series now known as Sprint Cup.

Byron, who drove for the Atlanta-based team fielded by car owner Raymond Parks with the cars prepared by legendary mechanic Red Vogt, raced despite serious injuries suffered during World War II.

He was a flight mechanic about a B-24 Liberator, and on his 58th mission, his left leg was shattered by shrapnel. He nearly died from his injuries and spent more than two years in a hospital. He didn’t let his injuries deter him from returning to his racing career, although he had to have his leg brace bolted to the clutch pedal so he could change gears.

Dwyer’s story is remarkably similar. In May 2011, while on patrol in Afghanistan, he stepped on an explosive device, which severed his left leg just above the knee. He had many other injuries as well and was at the point of death.

But like Byron, he recovered and found a new challenge in the field of motorsports. Dwyer, who takes great pride in being a professional driver in the employ of one of the major auto manufacturers, has a walking prosthesis and one for racing. In the car, he uses a device much like the one used by Byron to work the clutch. Only Dwyer’s is engineered to be released by pulling a lever that removes the connecting pin from a Heim joint attached to the clutch pedal.

That allows him to exit the car in a hurry, and by himself, something that Byron could not do.

“Most of the time my teammate lifts me out,” Dwyer said, adding that he can get out of the car by himself in a reasonable time in a dire emergency. “I’ve done it in 13 seconds.”

Also like Byron, Dwyer finds himself racing for a championship, along with his Freedom Autosport co-driver Andrew Carbonell. Entering Friday’s race Dwyer’s team is one point behind the leaders, Mazda teammates Chad McCumbee, who once raced in NASCAR for Petty Enterprises, and Stevan McAleer.

Dwyer said his goals for Road Atlanta are pretty basic. “We’re going for a trophy and some champagne,” he said. “That’s the plan.”

Like most of the drivers who will compete in Saturday’s 1,000-mile or 10-hour Petit Le Mans, Dwyer relishes racing on Road Atlanta’s old-school course. He said the track, like many of the other historic road courses in America, is very fast and has an element of danger.

“The built the track on the land that was already there, without a lot of alteration,” he said, explaining that the layout means there are potential hazards not far from the race course. “It’s fast, and if you hit something, it’s at a high rate of speed.

“That makes it more interesting.”

As for Byron, he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Chicago at the age of 44. He was there meeting with officials from Anheuser-Busch to talk about joining a sports-car team.