Racing Through Life
In March 2010, Master Corporal Jody Mitic (right, in photo) and Corporal Andrew Knisley (left) of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) participated in the opening ceremonies for the Para Olympic Games in Vancouver. Celebrating with a drink at a local bar later that evening they glanced at the television and caught a few minutes of coverage of the 2009 Targa Newfoundland, a five day, 2,200 kilometre high speed tarmac rally on the back roads of Newfoundland. They speculated that if they entered the event they might be able to raise some funds for the Soldier On Fund. They had both been helped by the fund during their recovery from combat wounds, very serious wounds, as Jody and Andrew only have one complete leg between the two of them and three good arms.
In 2007, Master Corporal Mitic was a sniper on patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on a mine which removed both of his legs below the knee. Less than two years later, he completed a half marathon. In 2009, while Corporal Knisley was on patrol, two artillery shells buried in a mud wall were detonated, taking off his entire right leg and severely damaging his right arm. Less than a year later, he completed a five kilometre walk for charity.
Someone advised the two soldiers that I had yet to grow up and was still racing formula cars, and that, in 2004, along with my co-driver Nigel Mortimer we entered our first rally and won our category at the Targa.
There are only three Targa (Italian for “plate”) events in the world: Tasmania, New Zealand and Newfoundland. There are two divisions, one for the technical time distance teams at modest speed and an Open division for the “faster you go the higher you place” teams. Naturally, race car drivers favour the latter, getting up to 200kph on the narrow and windy back roads of Newfoundland where a braking point mistake can (and has) deposit a car in the Atlantic.
Intrigued, Jody and Andrew paid me a visit, and based on their post-amputation accomplishments to date I had no doubt they could race in the open category or, at the very least, compete. Five minutes later I was managing the effort. Let’s face it: how do you say no to a couple of truly outstanding role models, even if they are RCR! We decided that it was too late in the year to be ready for the event in mid-September. There were a few things we needed and they would all take time to source or complete: a car prepared to the toughest safety standards demanded by the rules; rally computer; in-car communication system; race driver school; rally instruction; certified fire-proof driving suits; special wheels and tires for testing and race; transport to move the car; at least $40,000 for expenses; accommodation and meals in Newfoundland for at least 10 days; airline tickets for the team to and from Newfoundland; a thousand “hero cards” that all the teams needed to satisfy the autograph seekers at each stop along the rally route, and a myriad of other minor expenses along the way. We agreed that we should be ready in 18 months for the 2011 tenth anniversary of the event.
The next day I prepared a proposal for supporters to consider, and sent it to some of my racing contacts. When I came back to my computer an hour later I was shocked to see a week’s worth of messages cued up waiting for a response.
The Targa organization had waived the $5,000 entry fee and was arranging as much free accommodation for the drivers as possible. Doug Metham, Targa’s man on the mainland, had some ideas where we might source a car. The Motorsport Club of Ottawa (MCO), where I am a member, waived its fee for the two soldiers to attend the race driver school at the new track at Calabogie outside Ottawa. The owners of the Calabogie Race Track offered free track time for practice. Glen Clark, also an MCO member and a past outright winner of the Targa, volunteered to provide rally instruction and offered free participation at his rally schools in Ottawa and Newfoundland. And Country Racewear offered to make the expensive special driving suits and team jackets and shirts.
I called Jody and Andrew and said, “If I can arrange a car and expense money within the next month, do you want to forget 2011 and compete this year?” Jody’s response was, “Andrew, get your driving shoe [singular!] ready, we’re going racing!”
I needed help on the mechanical side if we were going to find and prepare the right car. That was easy. My friend and teammate at the 2004 Targa, and the owner and crew chief of the formula car team I race with, Nigel Mortimer volunteered to take on the coordination of preparing the car. Nigel is also the Chief Instructor at the MCO driving school where I also instruct, so we would be able to personally deliver the race driving instruction.
Initially, Doug Metham recommended we contact Toyota to counteract the bad press they had been receiving regarding multiple recalls. We knew they still had the race-prepared hybrid Toyota that participated in the Targa a few years back. I figured “hybrid” soldiers in a hybrid car would garner a lot of publicity. Toyota was keen for a couple of weeks and then backed out, allegedly because of their concern that isolating the onboard batteries in the event of an accident would be more challenging for multiple amputees. They obviously didn’t know Jody and Andrew.
Toyota’s turning us down was the best luck we had during the entire six month project, for it pointed us in the direction of Honda Canada (thanks again to Doug Mepham!). I called Richard Jacobs (retired U.S. Army), the senior public relations officer at Honda and briefed him on what we were trying to do. Within hours, Honda Canada was fully committed – authorized by the President himself, Mr. Masahiro Takedagawa.
Now that we had the car, we needed money for expenses, and I did not want to spend a cent of tax-receiptable support as any such donations should go to the Soldier On Fund. I sit on a number of mining boards within the Forbes & Manhattan group led by Stan Bahrti. Stan has an annual golf tournament in Muskoka for the many Bay Street investors who finance his operations. In July, after the tournament dinner, I gave a short presentation on Jody, Andrew, and their plan to compete in this year’s Targa, and less than three minutes later I had every dollar I needed to do the project without cutting corners.
Over the next two months the Acura TL SH-AWD was race-prepared in Toronto, including a modified roll cage with easier access. As expected, Jody and Andrew excelled at the race car driving school, did a couple of practice rallies, were fitted for driving suits and helmets, and managed to keep their day jobs.
A press conference was held at the Canadian War Museum in August to officially introduce the team. Both soldiers demonstrated their ease with the media, which augured well for all the publicity they were about to get! Early on, CTV’s Tom Clark, my friend and reporting mentor on a number of trips to Somalia, Bosnia, Belgrade and Kosovo, promised W5 would cover the story from day one. Inside Track, Canada’s premier motorsport magazine offered constant support and gave the project lots of print.
Honda Canada provided us with two crew members, Rob Zarcone and Eric Vlasic, who knew the Acura inside out and were great support to Nigel. Due to the beating the car would be subjected to at the Targa, a number of modifications to brakes and cooling were made before the car was sent off to Newfoundland.
On 8 September we all flew to St John’s in time for a reception for Jody and Andrew hosted by the Lieutenant Governor, John Crosbie. The room was filled with Afghan veterans from The Rock. As everyone wanted a piece of our two drivers, I had to exert my “mommy” role, making sure they got a good night’s sleep, as once the competition started they would get very little.
The 5-day, 2,250 kilometre competition started on 13 September. Each day, there were eight special stages varying in length from 5 to 40 kilometres. Each stage had a very quick minimum time that had to be achieved, and if you made that time on all 40 stages you won a Targa plate – less than half the 60 teams would do so. The other time that had to be met was in many stages impossible to achieve, but the team who was quickest in each stage received the fewest penalty points and at the end of the week the team with the fewest penalty points was declared the winner.
Some days the weather was appalling (a hint of what was to happen a week later when the area of the competition was severely damaged by Hurricane Igor), and Jody and Andrew had 40 chances to make one driving error that would mean no Targa plate. Some teams were back for their sixth time without once winning a plate. Our team was in a strong second place on the third day and were putting pressure on the leading factory entry in their category, when its engine grenaded just in front of them. A piece of the piston embedded in the Acura’s Michelin tire but it only caused a slow leak and the car made it to the finish line – now in first place!
Late on the fifth day at the St John’s harbour wharf, the results were announced. Master Corporal Jody Mitic and Corporal Andrew Knisley had not only won their Targa plate but also won their category (Modern-large displacement). Motorsport history was made, and the Soldier On Fund was the beneficiary. One of the messages on my answering machine when I got home was a $50,000 anonymous donation. A great start towards our $150,000 target.
It was a true honour accompanying these two outstanding role models as they ticked off another box on their “Bucket list.” I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what comes next, although Jody did mention the Isle of Man motorcycle race, which just happens to be the most dangerous motorsport event in the world. Go figure.
A current member of the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute, Major-General (ret) Lewis MacKenzie had a long career in the Canadian Forces and is credited with establishing and commanding Sector Sarajevo as part of the United Nations Protection Force UNPROFOR in Yugoslavia in 1992. He is a lifelong automobile racing enthusiast, and a skilled race car driver, winning the Diamond Class Ontario championship for Formula Fords in 2007.
This account was previously published in the CDA’s newsletter, On Track.
© FrontLine Defence 2011