It will be a first for the FIA World Rally Championship when newcomer Mark Pope (35) gets behind the wheel of his modified Hyundai Lantra for Telstra Rally Australia this September. Pope is believed to be the first paraplegic driver to ever compete in a round of the World Championship. Pope's groundbreaking move into motorsport follows on from a successful sporting career as a wheelchair basketball player. He reached the pinnacle of his sport when he represented Australia at the 1984 Paralympics and competed in a number of world championships.
If his debut in rallying is anything to go by, the lightning quick reflexes he had to develop for basketball have stood him in good stead. Pope chose the recent 'Respect Yourself' Forest Rally in Western Australia, for his maiden event and exceeded even his own expectations by placing second in class and 27th overall out of a field of 55 entries. His ultimate aim is to compete in this year's Telstra Rally Australia, the Australian round of the FIA World Rally Championship, and he will be entering a number of Western Australian events as preparation.
In Telstra Rally Australia Pope will be competing against the world's top rally drivers who think that hurtling along at 180 km per hour on a loose gravel road that has more hairpin bends than straits is a sane way to earn a living. The difference between winning and losing is often decided by seconds and Pope knows that no allowances will be made for him, but it is the opportunity of competing against able-bodied sportsmen that he relishes. Pope is not a complete novice to motorsport as he has competed in go-karts and motocross. Unfortunately, it was a motocross accident when he was 16-years-old that resulted in him becoming a paraplegic.
"I have always been looking for an opportunity to get back into motorsport and when this one came up, I went for it," said Pope.
Pope was given his opportunity by the Hyundai GIO Australia Wheelchair Sports team and Western Australian rally driver Dennis Dunlop.
"My wife and I first thought about having a disabled driver in the car when we were watching the disabled games that followed the Commonwealth Games," said Dunlop. "We saw the wheelchair marathons and the sprints and thought 'why aren't people with disabilities driving rally cars?'
"We then put the idea to Wheelchair Sports and they introduced us to Mark." Wheelchair Sports selected Pope from a number of applicants. As Hyundai and GIO Australia are the major sponsors, Wheelchair Sports' contribution is in an advisory role.
Dunlop and his wife Jaqui have entered four Telstra Rally Australias. In 1994, they achieved their best result to date, placing 17th in a Group N Lancer Evolution. By entering Telstra Rally Australia Pope hopes to raise the profile of people with disabilities in general. "I hope it will be an incentive to disabled people to give sport a go," said Pope. "I also hope it will sell disabled sport to the community and Telstra Rally Australia certainly has the media profile to do that."
On the Telstra Rally Australia front Pope says his first goal is to finish and then get as high in the standings as possible. Once the driver had been selected, the Hyundai GIO Australia Wheelchair Sports Team's next step was to develop existing hand control systems for people with disabilities to a level suitable for rallying.
"Up until now hand controls [for drivers with disabilities] had not been good enough," said Pope. "So we got the guys from Clough Engineering to come in and look at the system on my own car.
"They photographed everything then came backwith 12 designs from which, in consultation with Dennis, I picked one."
Clough Engineering came up with a radical new solution that has a second ring behind the steering wheel. To accelerate Pope pulls the ring towards him and to brake he pushes forward a lever that is bolted to the steering column. What is radical about this is that it is the first system that allows a paraplegic driver to brake and accelerate at the same time.
"It is already having an impact," said Pope. "Clough Engineering are making up another prototype to fit to my personal car and several of my friends have asked for systems to be fitted to their cars too. However, we are still developing it and by Telstra Rally Australia it could be quite different."
Pope is also getting work done on the automatic transmission. "It is a very robust transmission as it stood up to the real hammering we have given it lately, but it will have to be changed to suit rallying conditions as a normal automatic transmission won't allow the car to go into first gear at high revs."
One thing he won't be changing is his co-driver Steve Syson who won the 1994 WA Class A3 championship. "Steve is highly experienced and really talked me through the race," said Pope. "It was almost like pace noting, which is good preparation for Telstra Rally Australia. He really knows the roads."
Note to you Australian Viewers: Where is Mark Pope now?