Injured Australian offroad racing champion Bruce Garland has managed to find the positives in his enforced hospital stay in the Chilean city of Iquique.

Garland and long-time navigator Harry Suzuki were forced to retire from the 2011 Dakar Rally yesterday after Garland fractured a vertebra when his Isuzu D-MAX ute bounced off a sand dune and landed heavily during a gruelling stage from the Atacama Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

“The hospital is wonderful. It’s more like a resort, really comfortable with a fantastic view of the coast, and lots of pretty nurses who have been giving me sponge baths – it’s not all bad!” says Garland with a touch of his typical enthusiasm.

But behind the jokes is reality: in his own words, he is very sore and very sad.

“We were going so well, and everything was running to plan. We were in the top 20 and ready to start moving up the field. The D-MAX was running like a charm and now this – when we so badly needed a good result.

“I knew I was in trouble as soon as we landed. I felt my spine crunch. I’ve landed hard plenty of times but never had this much pain. It was unbelievable. I just drove off the main track so we were out of the way of the crazy truck racers, and then I got out and lay down.

“The hit was so hard on my side that it broke an engine mount. We were lucky that a spectator who obviously knew a lot about cars came out of the crowd and helped Harry get the car sorted. I took a couple of Nurofen and then we took it slowly for the last 30km and I went straight to the medical centre.”

The Dakar organisation’s mobile medical unit did the initial investigation and found the fractured vertebra halfway down his spine. Not knowing if it was an old injury or a result of the landing, they sent him to the Iquique hospital where a scan established that it was new.

“Apparently it’s quite a big crack and very close to the spinal cord. If it had been a bigger hit or I’d had another knock, I could have ended up a paraplegic, so I do know how lucky I am. I’ve had to lie really still for the last 24 hours or so, which is a big challenge for someone like me, but you do as you are told in a situation like this.

“I nearly went stir-crazy counting all the lines on the ceiling, but I’ve now got a brace on which means I can move about a bit, which is wonderful. Now they are making me a special hard brace and I could be ready to come home next week.

“Once I get home, we’ll find out what we need to do but they’re saying it could be three or four months of being careful before it’s right again. I can’t wait to get home. Then I’ll just lick my wounds and see what happens next.”

While Suzuki and the team make their way back to Buenos Aires to prepare for the journey home, Garland knows a question mark is hanging over his racing future. However, he and the team already have plans underway for a customer car building program and a team management arrangement that would allow other would-be Dakar competitors to draw on Garland’s knowledge and experience – and the team’s reputation for building unbreakable race vehicles.

The Garland family would like to acknowledge the wonderful care and support they have received from the Dakar team and the hospital. The patient says it is tough being hurt and a long way from home, but that he cannot fault the way he, the team and his family have been treated.

He’s also extremely touched by the messages of support that have flooded in from fans and the motorsport fraternity around the world. If anyone would like to send him a get well message, please log on to the Facebook page:

Despite the injury, the Isuzu Motorsports team managed to finish the stage in 26th place, giving them 22nd position outright, only marginally down from 19th the previous day but still in line with their overall strategy. This year’s aim was a top 10 finish.

Garland and Suzuki’s best result was their first attempt in 2009: 11th outright, first ‘amateur’ (non-factory team), first diesel ute and first production chassis car. They were forced to withdraw at the end of Week One last year, after a freak incident in which a spare wheel dislodged and smashed the radiator – ironically on the very same stage that put an end to their 2011 campaign.
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