Much like sport in general, racing can be an escape from the harsh realities of life. As Ukraine continues to defend itself from Russian invasion, Spain’s Real Federación Española de Automovilismo extended an invite to any wounded Ukrainian soldier interested in running the Rally TT Cuenca in October as a co-driver as part of the ParaBaja Step by Step programme.
In an interview with Rally.UA, veteran navigator Vitaliy Yevtyekhov voiced his ardent support for the proposal, saying he is “delighted with the Spaniards who offered such rehabilitation through motorsport for Ukrainian soldiers who, although seriously wounded, are ready to be in the ranks under any conditions.
“Of course, the boys need not only medical and physical rehabilitation but also psychological relief. We would like to believe that this project will not be a one-time gesture but will receive further development, not only in Spain but also in other countries. Perhaps in time, a similar ParaBaja event will become part of Ukrainian motorsport competitions. I hope that following this invitation, one of our frontline soldiers will be able to race in Spain this year. It is very important to take the first step in order to have a direction for further development.”
Yevtyekhov has been a rally and cross-country co-driver since 2000. He served as the navigator to Russia’s Vladimir Vasilyev at the Dakar Rally in 2013, 2014, and 2020 with a best overall finish of tenth in 2014. The duo also competed in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas, winning the 2020 season opener at the Baja Russia Northern Forest before Vasilyev went on to win the championship. In 2016, Yevtyekhov called the shots for Kanat Shagirov en route to the Africa Eco Race victory.
Now in its tenth year of operation but first in which it appears at multiple Spanish Cross-Country Rally Championship (CERTT) races, ParaBaja Step by Step provides racing opportunities for people with reduced mobility. Participants are placed in a separate, non-competitive ParaBaja category where those who complete the race are celebrated regardless of finish. The Automobile Federation of Ukraine graciously accepted RFEDA’s offer as the “presence of a Ukrainian soldier at the CERTT Championship will undoubtedly inspire others who face similar challenges.”
The most recent Dakar Rally in January had two paraplegic drivers in the field with Isidre Esteve competing in the top-flight T1 category while Albert Llovera raced a truck. Both drivers sustained severe spinal cord injuries in accidents, with Esteve’s coming after crashing on a bike in 2007 while Llovera broke several of his vertebrae at the 1985 European Ski Cup. Esteve and Llovera also take part in CERTT competition.
At Yevtyekhov’s Dakar début in 2013, one of the teams present was Race2Recovery, a British-led outfit of British and American soldiers who suffered serious injuries—some serious enough to require amputation—while serving in Afghanistan. The team brought four Bowler Wildcats, with one piloted by Major Matt O’Hare and Corporal Philip Gillespie successfully completing the race; Gillespie, who lost his right leg to an IED blast during a routine foot patrol, became the first amputee to finish the Dakar. Race2Recovery repeated the feat the following year with Corporal Daniel Whittingham, a bomb disposal unit member who underwent a below-the-knee amputation after driving over an IED in 2009, racing a truck alongside Mark Cullum and Chris Ratter.
“Drivers, navigators, mechanics had one or even two prostheses, but all of them in the company of other athletes never felt like people with limited physical capabilities,” Yevtyekhov recalled, adding that he has long followed the Paralympic Games and holds deep admiration for such athletes. “And the willpower of those guys would be envied by many. Of the three crews, only one reached the finish line at the very end, but at the finish, that crew was greeted as if they had won the Dakar.”
If the Rally TT Cuenca goes well, Yevtyekhov envisions a Ukrainian counterpart to Race2Recovery that could race at Dakar in the future. Until then, he hopes to provide as much help as he can for whomever is selected to take part.
“I think by October, you can take a decent theoretical course and add a little simple practice to it,” he stated. “The task is not an easy one, but if there is a person who will go to Spain, I am ready to help him, share my experience, and explain all the details. Part of the training can be done on public roads in a normal civilian car, following traffic rules, to give him skills in reading a roadbook. I am sure that not only I, but also many people from Ukrainian motorsport, will gladly help in whatever way we can.
“Obviously, you won’t be able to fully train a navigator in a month or a month and a half. But first of all, it is important for us to give basic knowledge about navigation, which will allow our troops to take part in the competition. The main thing is that he can start in Spain, try to finish, and gain as much experience as possible. Navigation is experience that can only be gained on the track. I have been competing in races for twenty years, but after each start, I always gain new experience, knowledge, understanding of some nuances. At the beginning of my career, I watched experienced masters all the time and learned a lot from them. Now, I am ready to learn from the youth; a new generation brings with it new ideas and approaches to business that often deserve attention. This is motorsport: you can’t stand still here, you must always learn and gain new experience.”
The Rally TT Cuenca will take place on 20/21 October.