Donning the Red Beret
We live in a strange world, where roadside commemorative ‘altars’ display post-RTA domestic grief and the flat screens in the corners of our living-rooms highlight death-by-war in a disingenuous manner. The outpourings of grief are not dissimilar, especially for relatives and survivors, although fighting ‘for one’s country’, as opposed to fighting for grip, prior to tragedy, are pegged at somewhat different levels.
The Vietnam war was probably the last ‘real’ conflict made public, as everything since has been consigned to televisual ‘artistry’, which places a switch-off remoteness within the control of the viewer. The Falklands, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Holy Land have all been covered clinically and sometimes too colourfully. Yet, accessibility seldom provides answers and never accountability.
However, we have heroes, many of whom remain unnamed, regardless of the maiming they receive in the pursuit of their aims, or the aims of their country. Take the Parachute Regiment (the airborne infantry of the British Army, or ‘Paras’, as they are known), those brave men and women, who wear their signature red, or maroon, berets with such immense pride. Infiniti, the luxury arm of Nissan (just as Lexus is to Toyota), has joined forces with The Paras in the first year of a three year development programme in the British Touring Car Championship.
The deal is essentially simple. It provides a recuperative opportunity for injured soldiers to participate in frontline motorsports at a high profile level, regardless of their disability. The programme operates under the banner of ‘Support Our Paras Racing’ (parasracing.com), a charitable operation that provides for the wounded and their families for many years. Not dissimilar to the Help for Heroes programme that has raised many hundreds of thousands of pounds in recent times, all profits from the racing team and whatever funds are collected trackside will be pooled and managed accordingly.
Scotsman Derek Palmer (Snr) has been tasked with directing the team. A former racing driver, who moved into international, winning race car preparation, his view on the project is vital. “I am unashamed in calling the lads ‘my Paras’”, he told me during the customary pit-lane melee that takes place with each round of the UK’s top-flight motor racing championship. Ever-smiling and perpetually affable, Derek is the right man for the task, not least because of his frequent podium finishes and justified trophies earned over the decades.
“These guys perform tightly regimented miracles,” he explained, “many of them electing to ignore their personal misfortunes in a steely determination to put the Infiniti Q50 racing saloons not just onto the grid but also into a potential race-winning situation. They built the racing cars. Take Darren Fuller, a colour sergeant and right arm amputee. He runs things in the garage, with precision and judicious thought processes.
“Then we have Tom Neathway, a corporal and triple amputee, who is scarcely a harder working member of an already well-drilled team, or another corporal, Mike Lewis, who suffered severe blast injuries from an Afghani IED. Privates Sam Horsfall, John Brookman and Mark Lloyd, as well as former Captain Colin Smith, add to the team’s strength in support of our two drivers, my son, Derek Junior, and Richard Hawken, who are both victors in other racing championships but now committed to BTCC, Infiniti and the Paras’ programme.”
Needless to say, trying to avoid unfortunate clichés is almost impossible but the Paras do work like a well-oiled machine, which is ideal for an extremely disciplined arena, where being in the right mental frame is as important as the physicality required. The ultimate intention is to train a Para all the way from novice to actually driving competitively the BTCC racing Infiniti Q50. It helps if the actual machine works well and the team was only able to enter one Q50 model at the opening round of the series, at Brands Hatch, while the second one, for Richard Hawken, was readied for Donington.
However, new car gremlins occurred, which put paid to a more concerted campaign for the 28 year old, while Richard‘s example finished 20th overall. The Q50 is a good looking car as standard, with its additional, body-widening lightweight panels, lowered stance and a Swindon Racing Engine beneath the bonnet, it puts on a competitive display, even at this early stage of developments. As Infiniti starts to produce its future models in the UK, it is worth noting that it is also a British effort. Naturally, there is a lot more to come and Derek Senior knows it, which adds to the sense of confidence within the team.
The fact that Infiniti staff (from its Swiss European headquarters) are also keeping a supportive watching brief is intrinsic to the future of the programme, as they contemplate making spectator improvements for the back of the race garage and improving the public relations approach, not just for racing fans but also for customers encouraged to engage with the team. Infiniti might not be a massive brand in the UK as yet but, with the BTCC effort, the charitable link to the Paras and a slow-but-sure marketing strategy, a mark will be made, while the occasional race win would simply add some credibility to a most worthy and inspirational cause.