The Pioneer of Disabled Motorsport – David Butler MBE
Blown up at 11 - triple amputee - making it possible for disabled people to race
Written by his daughter Natalie who is herself a very experienced and successful racing driver having raced for over 20 years including a full season in the Formula Palmer Audi championship and securing the Formula Women Nations’ Cup for England.
While on a Sunday picnic with his parents in a beautiful National Trust area, my Dad, David, aged 11, spied a large rusty object on the top of a gate post. He picked it up and being too heavy he dropped it - the explosion was heard 7 miles away.
The rusty object was a mortar bomb left over from when Ivinghoe Beacon was a firing range during the Second World War. As destiny would have it, also picnicking that day were a doctor and his wife, a nurse, both of whom had served in the war, they recognised the sound of a bomb exploding and rushed to the young boy’s aid.
The next two years were spent in various hospitals and then off to Roehampton to have his new limbs manufactured. Dad’s right leg off above the knee was feet away, his left leg shredded by shrapnel below the knee and his left hand destroyed from the wrist.
During this period a fabulous Daily Express reporter, “Uncle Frank” Goldsworthy took great interest in Dad’s recovery and one day whisked him off to Silverstone in his wheelchair for the Daily Express Formula 1 Trophy race. He met Mike Hawthorn in the pits and watched Stirling Moss in a Cooper Jap and was lifted into a Formula 1 car.
Dad recalls the irresistible smell of Castrol R and a love affair to last a lifetime had begun – he desperately wanted to race from that day onward and was determined to do so!
Archie Scott Brown had also inspired him that day. Archie was born with severe disablement to his legs and right arm and was the first disabled driver to reach the pinnacle of the sport but he met with fierce opposition from the motor racing authorities because of his disabilities despite his sensational car control particularly in his beefy Lister Jaguar.
Ironically it was however his sad death in a racing accident at Spa in 1958 that gave the doubters ammunition for draconian rule changes that virtually excluded drivers with any disability from motor racing. This had a devastating impact on Dad’s motor racing ambitions for the next 30 years until he forced changes to those rules.
Dad was, and still is, the youngest person ever to appear as the subject of the TV show “This is Your Life” and after watching the show a generous businessman gave a donation that enabled him to race his Singer Gazelle.
Unfortunately, the rules had been changed and the RAC Motor Sport Association no longer permitted drivers with any disabilities to race. He could do other motorsport events where only one car at a time competed – sprints, hillclimbs and rallies - but NOT proper wheel to wheel racing.
Over the next quarter of a century he had his application for a race licence rejected fourteen times, even though he had successfully competed in over 400 speed events.
On one rare occasion, after he had made himself more of a nuisance than usual, the MSA reluctantly asked their official observer to sit alongside him at a small sprint circuit at Eelmore Plain near Farnborough to assess his driving ability. The Official’s name was S.C.H. "Sammy" Davis, one of the original "Bentley Boys" of Brooklands and won Le Mans in 1927 at the wheel of the 3-litre Bentley "Old Number Seven".
Sammy was fascinated by Dad’s bespoke driving hand which slotted into his artificial arm at the wrist with a deep cup on its palm and then fitted over a ball attached on the steering wheel. The car had also been modified by swapping the accelerator to be on the left hand side of the brake.
This is because he can fully control his left leg as he still has his knee so all his cars are modified this way. After "carefully" racing the Singer Gazelle around the little circuit at Eelmore Plain, Sammy reckoned that he was probably safer than most other drivers given his ability to “connect” to the steering wheel and wrote his assessment accordingly, but to no avail.
Another great friend and supporter was the late Gerry Marshall. After yet another disappointing licence refusal, Gerry, who had commented positively on Dad’s driving skills, was incensed at the decision. He was at the time racing in the TVR Tuscan Championship and gained the signature of every driver on the grid to invite Dad to join their Championship.
The MSA ignored the petition.
Having taken part in over 400 events, winning trophies and without any serious mishaps, he joined up with Tony Reynolds and together they revitalised the British Motorsport Association for the Disabled - www.BMSAD.co.uk - to orchestrate a campaign against the MSA which threatened action for discrimination under the Treaty of Rome.
They won and Dad was asked by the MSA to set up a centre to assess disabled drivers at the Silverstone circuit.
They had to agree the way of assessing the most important criteria for motorsport being that of safety, not just of the disabled driver but of other drivers and the safety of the marshals who would risk their lives trying to get a driver out of a car.
Accordingly, the criteria focused on the ability to exit the car within a set time and created a rigorous driving test for all applicants. Such tests were necessary in order that the MSA’s third party insurance providers would accept the disabled drivers were then “fully able” to race and were covered in the same way as able bodied drivers.
Naturally after all those frustrating years David became the first in the assessment queue and to receive his race licence – after exactly 30 years.
Chalking up many races across all the UK circuits, Dad swiftly qualified for an International Licence so he then challenged the FIA, and with similar rule changes implemented, his licence was signed off by the then President Max Mosley.
Dad always explains that motor racing in unique in the sporting world as it offers a level playing field to a disabled driver sitting on the grid.
Having obtained licences for over 30 soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan Dad also sees their inclusion as part of their rehabilitation and their ability to once again enjoy the camaraderie of being part of a team is a great joy to him.
Having created the framework for assessment, there are now over 300 disabled drivers competing worldwide including Lewis’s brother Nick Hamilton.
Racing can be a great leveller. I’ve never understood the fuss some men made about the ‘Doris’ when I raced as the only girl, I can only imagine the discrimination some have faced being the only disabled driver.
When there are two cars trying to get through Dingle Dell at Brands Hatch, or around the Old Hairpin at Donington, it should be irrelevant.
I’m so proud that Dad has been able to give that opportunity to so many and that is his legacy.
As his final race, Dad and I achieved a long sought after goal of racing together.
In October 2014, we did the Birkett 6-hour Team Relay on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit.
Dad did the first hour and handed over to me for the second hour – the team structure had to be perfectly timed to incorporate feeds for my four month-old baby Jack; not a strategy Christian Horner has ever been challenged by!
Although retired from racing, Dad continues to be involved in motorsport as he is a member of the MSA Medical Advisory Panel and carries out all UK assessments and still remains the Chairman of the BMSAD.
Non motorsport bits –
David was honoured by the Queen in the 2010 Honours List with an MBE for services to disability sport, it was a very proud day when mum, Suzanne and myself went to Buckingham Palace for the presentation.
Dad was also honoured in 2012 to be nominated to carry the Olympic Torch in his home town of Hemel Hempstead for his involvement with disability sport.
He was then asked if he would like to drive the Orrery in the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. This was a 12-ton diesel engine monster and he was to have a whirling dervish dancing with fire on the top as he was the eye of the Tempest storm.
He said it was one his most nerve racking event ever in front of the Queen and 80,000 spectators but an experience he will never forget.