Brian Donato, Kenny Yamamoto with Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Brian Donato, Kenny Yamamoto with Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. Click image to enlarge

Article by Steven Bochenek, photos courtesy Mitsubishi Canada

“In the car I feel free and ‘normal’. Nobody knows I’m in a wheelchair.” Haunting words from paraplegic Brian Donato, who will compete in the Targa Newfoundland Rally this September. A Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is being fitted with hand controls for brake and throttle.

Targa Newfoundland? It’s a taxing competition to choose: a five-day, 2,000-km feat of endurance, broken down into panic-inducing bite-sized stages, where drivers never face the same curve twice. These drivers all love it — there’s a special magic to this rally — although they know that everything can change in a split second.

That’s a lesson not lost on Donato. His life instantly changed permanently when a tree suddenly fell on him in his backyard four years ago, shattering his spine.

How does someone who can’t walk prepare for such a journey? Consider racing’s mental aspect: each year, drivers wipe out, sometimes seriously. I was at Targa Newfoundland in 2010 when auto writer Kevin ‘Crash’ Corrigan re-earned his nickname and Jim Kenzie crossed the finish line carrying just his Mini’s steering wheel. Fortunately for both, only their pride was hurt.

Then there’s the physical training. To succeed, racers must become athletes — even ones without functioning legs. Training for this monumental task is fascinating to hear about.

“I obviously cannot afford to hurt whatever I have left.”

Strength training: What does Donato do to train the limited physicality he can use to race with? “I’ve been lifting weights and wheeling up hills since the snow finally melted. I work out every day for about an hour.”

He has no movement below his T9 vertebra, which means almost no abdominal muscles contributing to the constant steering challenges. Consequently seatbelts are his “best friend. I have to rely on mostly my shoulders and arms. That said, I try to work out on what little core muscles I have. I work on endurance training more than strength training in my workouts as we will be in the car for the better part of 10 hours a day.”

Stretching: Strength and endurance training are vitally important but any athlete’s muscles need to be their optimal length for proper function. Trouble is, sitting bunched up behind the wheel for hours is stressful on the body. It shortens and weakens the psoas, quadriceps, hamstrings and abdominals.

So it comes as some surprise when Donato reports “I hate stretching” yet in the same sentence he admits it’s his “biggest issue. I will probably need to stretch 30 minutes to an hour per day” during the event.

What he says next speaks volumes about how seriously Donato takes this goal.

“During the time between stages I will have to get out of the car and lay on the ground to stretch and relax my back. I do this now at Mosport or any of the tracks we get a chance to train on.” He’ll be lying on his back on the ground while others bop about, grab coffees, go to the bathroom, whatever the able-bodied do. Small wonder he’s “been visiting a chiropractor for the past 2 months.”

Brian Donato
Brian Donato behind the wheel. Click image to enlarge

Donato is not the first disabled adventurer to train and race.

Three years ago, American Marine Liam Dwyer won the IMSA Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge in Connecticut. He had one leg. The year before that, at Targa Newfoundland, two veteran Canadian soldiers won their class in their first-ever competition, placing seventh overall. They were also awarded a Targa Plate for completing each stage within the stringent timelines. (This was the same year Corrigan crashed and Kenzie technically finished by striding across the finish line.) Between them, the two soldiers had just one leg.

So what physical training did they do to prepare? “Actually, no training, per se” retired Master Corporal Jody Mitic openly admits. “We’re military guys so we were already pretty fit.”

Which, it turns out, is actually VERY fit!

The year before Mitic completed a half-marathon. “And I’d do regular weight training.” So it’s not like he was taking anything for granted. But being soldiers they’d simply “jumped right in.” They practiced driving as much as they could at Calabogie track near Ottawa.

And not that it was easy, he’s quick to assure. “At Targa, we both had moments when we wished we’d had more sleep.” But for the most part, they winged it and relied on their usual level physical fitness. So what was their secret for success?

Mental conditioning is crucial.

“Nothing beats training,” says Mitic. “Being military trained, the habits we developed die hard. We know how to remain calm under pressure. The other drivers noticed. Guys who’d done Targa ten times said ‘your combat training must be helping because you’re doing well.’”

So what mental preparation is Donato doing? He’s been an adventurer his whole life, having taught skiing all over the world. He’s always loved speeding boats and cars. Who knows, but his accident could have happened many times before.

So he does come, like the soldiers, with a predisposition for concentration in extreme situations. As for picturing success, “I’ve also started to use visualization and I believe this is very useful.”

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