It is three and a half years since Davie Birrell’s life was, literally, shattered in the minutest of split seconds.
As a Corporal in the Black Watch in Afghanistan, he was on Taliban patrol in Helmand when his interpreter, walking right next to him, stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). In that blurred fury of deafening noise, devastation and destructive power, the then 24-year-old from Methil’s legs were destroyed.
This weekend, though, the inspirational Scot will strap himself into his BMW Compact to make his full racing debut at Knockhill, just a few miles from where he was born.
As the early October drizzle slowly drenched the Fife circuit yesterday, Birrell got to grips with the car for the first time, under the watchful eye of double Celtic Speed Porsche Carrera Cup winner Rory Butcher.
It’s testament to exactly how far Birrell has come since that horrific day in Helmand, that Butcher smiled: “Davie did brilliantly.
“Honestly, having sat beside him at race speed, you would have absolutely no idea he was a double amputee. He’s a true inspiration for us all.”
Chatting to Birrell, a quietly-spoken Fifer, it’s clear he doesn’t see himself as anything different. Of course, he’s a double amputee, but it’s not something he dwells on — at least not in public — it’s just the way his life is now.
“Sure, everything changed for me on 10 April, 2010, but after that it was a case of concentrating on recovering and adapting to my new life,” he said matter-of factly.
“I don’t see myself as inspirational. My wife’s the inspirational one.”
Birrell met wife-to-be and Army nurse, Zoie, during his recovery and rehabilitation. Currently living in Devon, they have a daughter, Talula, and he admits his family has been the motivation for his recovery, and accelerating him towards his new racing career.
“If if didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he admitted. “I need the support. Zoie has been my inspiration and total rock.
“I’m really badly dyslexic as well, so every email that comes in, Zoie has to deal with it, read it out to me and then write the reply that I dictate.
“I’ve got three kids. Talula lives with us, the other two children are in Scotland. So Zoie has to do my admin, deal with a kid, and be a carer for me, all of which I think is much more inspirational than I’ll ever be.”
Unquestionably, that statement is questionable. Birrell is, whether he likes it or not, an inspiration.
Rewind to Helmand. Within seconds of the IED going off, his professionalism and control under fire automatically kicked in. “Once I got hit by the IED, I came under fire straightaway,” Birrell, understandably rather reluctantly, explained. “I applied morphine to myself right away, and administered first aid.
“Then the medic got over to me. Splintered my right leg up, which was the badly damaged one – I thought my left leg was going to be saved – my right leg was absolutely annihilated.
“From the initiation point, there exists what the Army calls the Golden Hour. That meant the target was to get back to Camp Bastion in between one and two hours. We managed to have the injury dealt with, and get back to our base within 25-30mins. Within another five minutes the helicopter was in, I was in the back of the chopper, and then it was off to the hospital. I was conscious throughout the whole experience, and remember everything.”
It’s clear that the days, weeks, months and years which have followed have been long, and without doubt, at times black.
Like the injured British soldiers who completed this year’s Dakar Rally in the Race2Recovery team, Birrell spent time at Headley Court in Surrey as part of his rehabilitation.
And one of the driving forces behind his battle to fitness was a desire to have the racing career he’d always dreamed about as a kid in Methil.
“I always wanted to race cars: it’s all I really ever wanted to do,” he smiled. “But, as everyone knows, motorsport’s expensive and we were never able to put together a race programme.”
As soon as he was fit enough following his injuries, Birrell entered the Want2Race competition to win the chance to drive in a Ginetta GT5 Challenge at Donington.
Such were his dazzling and impressive performances that, against 199 able-bodied rivals, he got to the final eight and only narrowly missed out on getting into the top-six shoot-out by one point.
Now he’s eyeing a full season in the Ginetta G50 championship next year, if he can attract the sponsors.
First though, his focus is on showing he has the raw driving and racing talent to mix it on-track with other racers.
And rather than drive a race car fitted with specially-adapted hand controls, Birrell is one of the first — if not the first — to drive a race car with two prosthetic legs fitted.
“I know, people keep asking me how I do it,” he laughed. “But to me it’s perfectly normal: it’s what I do.
“I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie [he’s just had to sell his 500bhp Audi S3]. I like living every day of my life as if it’s my last. You never know when you’re going to die, and obviously I’ve had a very close experience of that.
“Racing makes me feel like an able-bodied person, being able to race the way I race, the same as everybody else.
“I want to inspire my kids, and other kids, and that’s one of the things I want to do when I get out the Army.
“I want to work and help young kids with troubles and problems. I want to help them push past what’s happened to them and concentrate on making a better life for themselves.”
Oh, and if that hasn’t given you a big enough indication of the Birrell drive, consider this.
Asked whether he’d set himself any targets for Sunday’s three races, he answered immediately.
“Race one will be a learning experience, and I’ll concentrate on finishing,” he explained. “Race two I’ll lift the pace a bit Race three? I want to come first.”
Inspirational? I’d say so.