On January 5, Marine Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon and Corporal Timothy Jay Read of the United States Marine Corps will begin a mission very different from the ones they carried out in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This mission starts in Lima, Peru, where the two veterans will attempt to tackle the Dakar Rally, an off-road race that crosses more than 5,000 miles of the harshest terrain in South America.
The Dakar is the world's toughest rally, and for these two Marines it will be even tougher. Both Zambon and Read lost a leg in combat and are part of Race2Recovery, the first disabled team ever to enter the Dakar.
Each of the team's quartet of Wildcat rally cars is crewed by at least one disabled serviceman. Zambon will co-drive for British Dakar veteran Ben Gott, while Read will serve as a mechanic on another team of 28.
Making of a Mission
The Race2Recovery team was founded 18 months ago by Brits Tony Harris and Tom Neathway. In April 2009, Harris was the victim of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, which led to the amputation of his left foot. During a stay at a military rehabilitation center in the U.K., Harris met Neathway and together they hatched a plan to tackle the Dakar Rally.
"It was all about giving ourselves a goal and getting back that adrenaline rush we'd been missing," says Neathway, "and showing other injured service personnel that anything is possible." A member of a parachute regiment, Neathway lost two legs and an arm when he stepped on a booby trap in Afghanistan in 2008. "My feet had just turned into what they call 'pink mist,'" he explains. "They just disappeared."
Just weeks before the start of the Dakar, Neathway was co-driving in a U.K. rally when his Ford Fiesta barrel rolled at 90 mph. He fractured what's left of his leg in two places but has recovered in time to take his seat in a Wildcat. He may use his teeth to help buckle his safety belts, but that won't stop him from taking on some of the world's biggest dunes.
Adding the Americans
The Race2Recovery team took on more of an international flavor when Zambon and Read joined last year. Based in San Diego, Zambon served as a bomb technician in both Iraq and Afghanistan, disposing of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). He had already been blown up four times when he was involved in a fifth explosion on January 11, 2011.
"I stepped on it and it detonated under my feet," he explains. "It removed both my legs and I did a forward somersault onto the ground. I can remember asking whether I still had legs and being told they were gone." Still only 28, the staff sergeant's powers of recovery have been extraordinary. He climbed Kilimanjaro (the highest summit in Africa) as part of his rehabilitation and is now taking on the Dakar.
Corporal Read was born in Logan, Utah, before a nomadic childhood took him through Colorado, Australia, California and Mississippi. In 2007, after graduating from high school, he joined the Marine Corps because, "They are the most badass branch there is." Three years later he was shot in the left leg while serving in Marjah, Afghanistan. He returned to duty within two months but in October 2010 was injured in an IED explosion on a routine patrol.
"All I remember from the initial blast was my ears automatically ringing, feeling debris hit my face and closing my eyes. When I opened them I saw that my hands were shattered and although I still had both boots on, I was in immense, indescribable pain." He had lost his left leg below the knee and his rehabilitation process took him from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to Germany, then on to Maryland, Florida, and finally to San Diego, where he's now based.
It was a long, hard road. "I remember Veterans Day in 2011," he says. "I uncovered my car after being in the hospital for a year. It's a 2003 Mustang Mach I. When I was injured, one of my main concerns was whether I'd be able to drive my baby again. I put my prosthetic leg on the clutch and she cranked up. It was then that I realized life wasn't over."
In the Dakar Rally, Read's duties as a mechanic will see him work through the night to prepare for the next stage. Sleep will be snatched on the fly, in basic tents that make no allowances for disability. The sandy conditions will also be no friend to a man with a prosthetic limb. "If I step on it wrong, I will fall over," he says. "But you get right back up."
Serious Machines for Serious Terrain
The Race2Recovery team will be driving Wildcats, purpose-built off-road racers that are based loosely on the Land Rover Defender. They employ a steel space frame chassis and a composite body, while the naturally aspirated 4.0-liter V8 is based on a Land Rover engine. In Wildcat trim it develops 283 horsepower and 292 pound-feet of torque and is mated to a Quaife sequential gearbox that allows clutchless gearchanges, a setup that will relieve some of the pressure on Harris' prosthetic left limb. The Donerre twin-piston 60mm remote dampers are specific to the world of off-road rallying and are complemented by Suplex springs. The clutches and brakes are by Alcon, with four-pot front and two-pot rear calipers.
The Wildcat has been designed to hit 120 mph, can wade up to 24-inch deep water and climb 45-degree slopes. All these stats will be tested during the 5,000 miles of the Dakar.
Joining the cars are a T4 Renault Kerax racing truck, two heavy-duty supply trucks and a host of LR4s and Defenders provided by sponsor Land Rover. Although the Kerax is competing in the rally in its own right, its primary role is to assist the cars should they break down on one of the special stages.
A Rough Road Ahead
This year's Dakar Rally is one of the toughest in years. To reach the finish, the cars must travel a total of 5,328 miles. Of these, 2,582 miles comprise timed special stages with the remainder being so called "link stage" miles that the team must complete to travel between the nightly bivouac and the special stages.
After an initial 8-mile prologue to start, the rally turns hard-core, taking in some of South America's toughest and tallest sand dunes. Over the next two weeks, the team will cross the Andes twice, racing at up to 15,500 feet, where altitude sickness will threaten man and machine. Not until the teams reach San Miguel de Tucamán in Argentina on January 12 will they enjoy a rest day. For the mechanics, this is a chance to work on the vehicles before the longest stage of the rally, a 529-mile stretch from Tucamán to Córdoba that includes a 368-mile special stage.
The challenge facing the Race2Recovery team cannot be overstated. Even the most experienced, able-bodied teams have only a 40 percent chance of making it to the finish. The R2R team is clearly familiar with hostile terrain, but even its military training isn't enough to prepare it for racing 10 hours a day in a noisy, hot and uncomfortable rally car.
"Probably their biggest challenge is their lack of experience," says Moi Torralladona, a Land Rover Experience instructor and Dakar veteran who helped run a pre-rally training camp in Morocco. "For a team of rookies, the Dakar is going to be tough."
Like No Other Mission
The extraordinary challenge of the Dakar is why the Race2Recovery team was established less than two years ago. Their aim is to prove to others that serious injury is no bar to extraordinary achievement. "In many ways the mental injuries are the hardest to deal with," says Read. "People can see and understand the physical injuries, but no one who's been that close to a bomb hasn't been affected mentally. The rehabilitation process can be lonely and selfish and for me, the biggest thrill of Race2Recovery is to be part of a team again. I feel like a man again."
The project is raising money to assist other injured servicemen and has even received support from the British royal family. The Endeavour Fund, set up by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, gave a significant donation to the team's cause. With royal support, worldwide media attention and a TV documentary following their every move, the team has some pressure to perform.
Just making it to the start line has been an achievement, but the new target is the finish line in Santiago de Chile. "Doing the Dakar Rally is about proving that what happened that day in Afghanistan isn't going to define my life," says Tony Harris. For Harris, Zambon, Read and the rest of the team, the month of January will be an epic, life-defining adventure, and having come this far, don't bet against them becoming the first disabled team ever to complete the Dakar Rally.
For more information on the team, visit the Race2Recovery Web site.