Racing toward a cure

| May 22, 2013

There doesn’t seem to be an obvious link between the desire to help sufferers from multiple sclerosis and a passion for racing cars. Dominique Chaleyer manages to combine the two as an ambassador for MS Research Australia, raising funds by racing a red vintage Alfa Romeo.

We all grow up with dreams, and mine has long been to help people affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) … and to race vintage cars with dad. I wondered if I could somehow intertwine these passions.

The hurdle to my first dream was to realise that I’ll never be a neurologist or scientist of any kind; in fact I flunked math and science at school. So any ambitions becoming a nurse or researcher were quickly quashed.

Secondly – I’m not Nuvolari or Schumacher. So, pursuing motorsport as a career was out of the question. Here is a girl with a degree in film production, a huge imagination and a mighty lead foot. So, ‘good luck with all of that’, I’m sure the man upstairs said.

When I was five years old, my mother, Lindy, was diagnosed with MS. Seeing my older siblings’ reactions, I instantly knew that while I could barely pronounce these words, unpleasant things were happening. Conversations covered medicines, wheelchairs and words like pain and blindness. I couldn’t really understand or fathom the changes that I had instantly started to dread.

Being a nurse, mum was well acquainted with the random cruelty of MS. And she bluntly told us that night that there was no cure. I felt little and powerless.

At the time of the diagnosis, we were due to move to Pakistan for Dad’s work. With a newly-diagnosed chronic and mysterious illness, the first questions were: What kind of hospitals are there? What about a support network?  But mum didn’t entertain doubts. She embraced it as an exciting challenge. In fact, I remember her making several trips to the hills in northern Pakistan to visit a medicine man.

She’d be gone for days – in the days without mobiles, GPS or emails. I remember she would come back with herbal pastes and creams that my sister and I would try secretly at night. We would giggle and think that it might make us extra strong. I’m sure my mum was praying for it to do the same.

After Pakistan we went to India and Saudi Arabia, amongst other countries in which we lived. Trying medicines of every description, from Western medicines such as Betaferon, chemotherapy, Fampyra, and many different walking aids and braces trialled and tested. There were huge disappointments, but also small miracles – shared excitedly with family and friends.

Fast forward to my being 20, and I started a job where I met my great friend Roula. We clicked and became the best of friends. One day she started talking about feelings of pins and needles in her hands and legs. I remember feeling a sharp stab of panic. Then other symptoms emerged. When Roula suffered her first attack and was hospitalised and diagnosed with MS, it felt as though my world had stopped. I still can’t even imagine how it must have felt for her. The news was devastating.  So my desire to help those whose lives had been punctured by this cruel illness grew deeper.

Meanwhile back on the track – my second dream – to race cars.

I wasted years of my life heeding limiting beliefs. I watched from the pits, not daring to venture onto the circuit. I held umbrellas and helmets, changed tyres and polished cars. I’d tell myself, it’s too hard for women to race – we tie hair ribbons, not laces on racing boots. It was my form of totally self-inflicted heartbreak. I had no idea just how brilliant I was at mastering the art of self-sabotage.

The turning point for me came when I realised that two of the women closest to me had not let an incurable condition keep them from pursuing their dreams. In fact they were powered by an unyielding inner drive. It was a new formula for living, a wake-up call, a bucket of iced water – seeing Mum and Roula battle their own limiting realities with such courage has inspired me. And they’re pretty sassy rebels – when Doctors say, you can’t do that, they tend to say ‘Oh really? Well, watch this.’

So, one day I woke up and said to myself: Get over it, get on with it and go for it! And so I started the journey. The many hours spent prepping the car, working on overdrive, saving up for sprint and club meets, for race craft training, surviving near-death experiences… For proving both to myself and to others, that in fact, I can do this.

I competed in my first race last September, as the first female to ever compete in the Veloce Racing Association’s East Coast Challenge. That weekend I proved to a few old-school male racers that – guess what boys – it doesn’t take balls to race a car.

So the idea to start the ‘race to find a cure’ was born out of respect and love for mum and Roula. And I rather love my red vintage Alfa Romeo! It now proudly sports Kiss Goodbye to MS decals as I’m the first person in Australia allowed to stick logos on an historic race car.

My purpose and passion now includes being an ambassador for MS Research Australia. I’m thrilled – when I slip behind the wheel, I race for Mum, Roula and the 2.5 million plus people around the world battling MS.