Ballaugh rider Chris Mitchell is on the verge of achieving his dream and, at the same time, making history on the Mountain Course at this year’s Manx Grand Prix.
Completing a race around the famous circuit is a massive achievement in itself – but Chris is doing it even though he only has the use of one arm.
He’s already shown he has what it takes to compete at Jurby race track and also on the Southern 100 Course, but this year he hopes to fulfill his long-held ambition to take part in the MGP.
While doing so, he aims to promote the work of Leonard Cheshire Disability, which supports people battling to overcome disability. The charity’s logo will be on the fairing of Chris’s machine as he heads around the famous circuit for practices and races during the MGP meeting from August 17-30.
‘We’re trying to inspire people to show they can overcome setbacks, just as I have,’ he said. ‘That is what Leonard Cheshire Disability is all about.
‘Leonard Cheshire Disability focuses on what abilities you might have and what you can do.’
Chris lost the use of his left arm in a motorbike accident in 2001, at Joey’s on the Mountain Road, when he sustained a traumatic brachial plexus injury – that affects nerve endings.
‘I was on a ride with a group of friends and ended up having an accident. The next thing I knew, I was being lifted in an ambulance and was in and out of consciousness.’
The route to recovery was long and at times painful, but Chris’s determination to firstly ride a motorbike again and then to race competitively has proved to be a massive help, as has the support of his family, including wife Trudy and daughter Eleanor, 14.
‘They saw how I was in the early days of my injury,’ he said. ‘There were some dark days.
‘It has helped a lot in my recovery, the fact I have been able to channel my focus into making this thing work. In that sense my family are extremely proud of what I’m doing.’
To race, Chris’s left arm is strapped to his chest and he makes greater use of body weight with steering, using his legs to grip the tank.
He is matter of fact about how he has adapted.
‘You just teach yourself to do it. I don’t even think about it. I won’t say it is easy, I just have to get myself twice as fit!’
But so effective has his method become that some onlookers – unaware that Chris only has use of one arm – have commented upon how relaxed he looks as he races!
The long road to the racing circuit saw Chris join the National Association for Bikers with a Disability.
He heard about a one armed racer who overcame injuries to get back on two wheels so, in 2004 he bought a 100cc scooter and had it adapted with the help of local motorcycle dealer Paul Dedman. The indicators were moved to the right and Chris got the hang of riding the machine, using it every day for work.
Then, in 2006, he bought a Yamaha R6 and found local engineer Peter Moran to help set it up. The following year Chris built up the confidence to head to Oulton Park for a track day – and from there he was hooked.
He joined the Andreas Racing Association, sat his classroom Auto-Cycle Union course, took an eye test and applied for a race licence. He needed to pass an on-track rider assessment, because of his injury, but acquired his ACU Road Race Novice Licence and took part in in his first race in June 2008 on a GSXR-600 K2 ex Tony Oates machine.
The following year he had a major setback when he was involved in a corner crash and suffered concussion and broken ribs, collarbone and scapular.
Undeterred, he spent that winter rebuilding the bike with some upgrades. However, in 2010 it became clear he needed a different machine to achieve the standard of results that would lead to him gaining the National Road Licence required to compete on the Mountain course.
An order went out to JHS Racing of Bristol for a Suptertwin (SV650) built to Chris’s specifications.
A successful year in 2011 saw Chris achieve third in the 650 championship at Jurby and, as a result, he gained his National licence to allow him to compete on road circuits..
But more qualifications were required, as Chris needed to gain a Mountain Course licence before he could take part in the MGP. So he made his roads debut on the Billown circuit in Castletown during the post-TT races on June 2012, finishing 9th – and best newcomer- in his class.
At that stage, Chris was all set to compete in the 2012 MGP. But it was not to be – a week of practice week gremlins meant he failed to achieve the minimum six completed laps to qualify for the race.
This year, he’s more confident of achieving his goal.
Already, Chris has taken part at the Billown circuit, racing in the Southern 100, competing in the 650cc event on the Wednesday and finishing the eight laps in 24th position. He had high hopes of a better finish for the next 650 race on the following day, having qualified in fifth position, but was forced to withdraw due to illness.
‘We came away knowing that the machine is running well and I got my first Southern 100 finish,’ he said.
And so to the Manx Grand Prix/Classic TT meeting this year. If he notches up the necessary laps in qualifying Chris will compete in the Newcomers B race on August 28 – with the number 66 – and as number 52 in the Supertwin race on August 30.
Chris, or Mitch as he is known to many, is a familiar face among the Isle of Man racing fraternity.
‘They treat me the same as everybody else. I’m not given a head start, it’s just the same for me.’
When he’s not getting ready to compete on the toughest road race circuit in the world, Chris even finds time for mountain biking, walking and running.
Leonard Cheshire Disability’s volunteer coordinator for Isle of Man services Dave Mason said Chris’s story epitomised the ethos behind what Leonard Cheshire Disability.
‘We are here to support people with a disability to live their lives their way,’ he said.
‘That is the bottom line. There is a lot of work we do as an organisation like helping disabled people into work or even to start businesses, for instance.
‘Leonard Cheshire Disability is here to support people with a disability to contribute to society and achieve their dreams.’