Sometimes in the world of sports in general and motor sports specifically you hear a story that is so inspiring that it must be shared. Such is the case with Matt Speakman. Matt is the first person with a major disability to race in Porsche racing series. The Australian race driver’s story shows just how far determination can take you.
In 1993 Matt was riding his motorcycle when he was hit by a drunk driver putting him in a wheelchair. To make this an even more devastating event that very day Matt had signed a deal to compete in the 1993 Australian 600 Super Sport Championship. As a paraplegic, Matt had to cope without being able to race as he used to, but Matt didn’t let this stop him from working on getting back into racing. Matt has been able to do just that as this coming season Matt will be racing in the Australian Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge.
I got a chance to interview Matt and you can read the interview below.
Q: How do you feel about being the first paraplegic to compete in a Porsche racing series?
A: I feel it is a real honor to be the first paraplegic in the world to race in a Porsche series and I am very grateful to Porsche Australia for the opportunity. It was tough trying to get other national series organizers in Australia to believe that a paraplegic could drive a race car let alone be competitive in a race car and early on I was finding it hard to get a drive.
Porsche Australia on the other hand were very receptive to the idea from the start and put me in touch with Andy McElrea from McElrea racing to design the hand controls. McElrea Racing is synonymous with Carrera Cup, GT3 Cup Challenge in Australia and also prepares cars for the Carrera Cup Asia and Andy was immediately enthusiastic about the challenge.
Andy McElrea of McElrea Racing comments “We are extremely excited to be a part of Matt’s Carrera Cup campaign. As a race team, we like to think outside the square while staying true to our ideals of training drivers to be the best they can be. In this case there are obviously a few additional challenges, but we can’t wait to get stuck in to it”
The hardest thing was actually obtaining a license from the Confederation of Australian Motorsport to compete in circuit racing as I am the first paraplegic in Australia to race. Then in 2011 when I did get the license it was frustrating trying to get a drive and I actually lost a year waiting for the other series organizers to get back to me. So to prove my point a took a 1975 Toyota Celica rally car and converted it into a circuit racer and in 2012 won the Queensland Improved Production Championship, this performance is what led to Porsche taking me seriously.
Q: What type of modifications did you have to make to your race car?
A: The throttle runs on a slide behind the steering wheel so that both hands are on the wheel while accelerating, the brake is a handle that pivots off the steering column and connects to the original brake peddle, clutch is called a Duck Bill and is electronically operated located at the end of the break lever and we are using an air shifter with an auto blipper operated by up and down buttons on the break lever.
Q: What is your favorite thing about racing?
A: For me its the time when you’re in complete synch with the car and find the rhythm of the track and it all starts to happen naturally. It’s kind of like therapy or meditation, although I cope very well with being paralyzed I find it the best way to escape your thoughts and the stigma of being in a wheelchair.
In general I find the busier you keep yourself the less time you have to think about the negative things that life throws at you, there are definitely a lot of negatives surrounding my accident and what I lost but I feel if I go fast enough I can keep it all behind me and you can’t get much faster than a 911rs.
Q: Were you ever tempted to give up on your goal of racing for a living?
A: As a motorcycle road racer in 1993 when I first ended up in a wheel chair it seemed obvious that racing was over for me, although deep down the desire still burned strong, while laying in hospital I found myself dreaming up different ways of trying to ride a race bike but the thing that I kept getting stuck on was how do you stop from falling over when you stop.
Upon leaving hospital after a 6 month stay I was intent on getting on with life and against doctors orders I returned to scuba diving and while diving I was introduced to sailing which led to an invitation to join a disabled crew that wanted to sail in the 1994 50th university running of the iconic Sydney To Hobart ocean race. We qualified the boat and finished 30th out of 400 of the best off shore racing yachts from around the world, it was this performance that made me believe that a return to motorsport would be possible.
I first applied for a license to race Superkarts but unfortunately at that time there was no prevision in Australia for a paraplegic to compete in circuit racing and citing safety reasons the Confederation of Australian Motorsport refused me a license, but did offer an alternative and granted me a rally license. Still keen to race I accepted the challenge and in 1998 started at state level in a 1975 1600cc Toyota Celica finishing third in class.
In 1999 I moved up to the national championship in an Evo 3 lancer and was running top ten stage times after the first few rounds, unfortunately although performance was high resources were low which put and i quickly found that it took more than talent to be successful.
Trying to be driver, sponsor, team manager, engineer and transport driver of a team made up of novices made for a very stressful experience that resulted in a very bad road accident while towing the car across a desert in the middle of Australia. I had driven 4500km (about 2800 miles) across the country in 3 days, raced for 3 days in a misfiring Evo then tried to rush the car back across the country the next day, to try and have the Evo ready for the next round and finally had a micro sleep and trashed the tow car the Evo and nearly myself.
As I was loaded into the ambulance i remember thinking maybe I should find something else to do and did step away from racing cars. Still wanting to compete I joined the Paralympic Alpine Ski team and spent a few years training and racing in Canada and Australia but quit the them when my farther got sick with cancer.
After dad passed away I was motivated to get back to motorsport and with the lessons I learned from rallying I decided to go back to grass roots racing and not move up until I was champion of each level along the way. 2009-10 I competed in dirt and street sprints and won my class 15 times in 15 starts and these performances were enough to convince the Confederation of Australian Motorsport to allow me to obtain the circuit racing license I had so longed for.
Q: How do you like driving a Porsche 911 Cup car?
A: The Cup Car is an amazing car to drive it has raw power and fantastic handling, having never driven on slick tires before I was a bit skeptical about the amount of feedback I would get from the tires. People had been telling me that there would be loads of grip and then none, compared to the the treaded tires I was used to that were easy to slide in a controlled manner, so I set of on the first test a bit tentative.
Within a few laps all I found that because of the excellent balance of the car I was getting really nice feedback from the tires and intact there is a nice window of slide where you can hold the car on the edge with an incredible amount of control. This felling of control gave me a huge amount of confidence under breaks and also coming off the corners, the one difference to the 1600cc car that I had been driving is the way you approach the mid corner lines. Where in the Celica I had to keep a very round line an keep the maximum amount of mi corner speed up the cup car has the power to launch out of corners so you break deeper get it turned quickly and fire out with the minimum amount of steering input to get the most from the fat rear slicks.
Q: What are your feelings about how this racing season will turn out?
A: Testing has been going very well so far and after only two short tests we are already laying down times that would see me running mid pack, I need to work some more on the stop turn and fire in the slow corners and once I get used to that technique I should be doing front runner times, the season doesn’t start until the 19th of April so we have plenty of time to work on it using the wide array of sensors on the car.
“Matt was outstanding and very impressive for someone who had never driven the car before” Andy McElrea said.
“What he showed me and my engineers back in pit lane on the computer data would in some cases take many able-bodied drivers sometimes weeks, months or even years to master” continued McElrea.
Q: What type of challenges do you think you will have in racing this season?
A: I don’t foresee any challenges different to any other rookie driver coming into a series. Learning tracks and getting the most out of the car at the different circuits, this will be made easier for me as McElrea racing has data for many drivers on all these tracks to compare against and also which lines work best on the various corners, so heading out on new tracks I will already know the quick lines which will take the guess work out of it.
Q: Has your being the first person with a major disability led to many opportunities outside of racing?
A: It has certainly helped raise my profile and opportunities are starting to come up with public speaking gigs that I hope will continue to increase and eventually become a significant part of my career. Being the first person in the world to race in a Porsche series has given me considerable national and international awareness and I’ve been so excited and grateful for the messages of support I’ve received from fellow drivers such as Renee Rast. I’ve also been invited to race in a Porsche endurance race in Europe called Team Mission Impossible which will include paraplegic drivers from all over the world racing in 2014.
Q: How do you hope your story will help others that face challenges to accomplish their goals?
A: I’m excited about the opportunities that other people with major disabilities have now that I have successfully secured a license from CAMS, it opens the door to them too. Hopefully it also inspires other people to not let go of their dreams and that is important for me to teach others. I hope that everyone that sees me race and achieve my goals will see that no matter how many challenges you face if you keep your eye on you long term goals and keep at it anything in life is possible.
Q: Beyond this season, what are your future racing goals?
A: I have fallen in love with Porsche and intend to race 911’s for my whole career. Next for me will be to move up from GT3 Cup Challenge next year into Carrera Cup and then my ultimate goal is race race Porsche Super Cup in Europe.
I would like to thank Matt for taking time out of his busy schedule for this interview and wish him good luck for this coming racing season. We will be following Matt’s progress and will be posting the highlights of the season on this blog. So, keep following us and we’ll keep you posted on how Matt is doing.
Let us know what you think of Matt’s story or share any other inspirational automotive stories in the comments below.