A year on from a motorsport activity that’s been his life potentially being the death of him, Palmerston North’s Dennis Martin is characteristically cheery.
The nationally-renowned team owner and mentor will head to Manfeild this upcoming weekend in a positive frame of mind, thinking less about a close call he had 12 months ago than about the excitement of the star of the future search he orchestrates at his home circuit.
Valued at $20,000 and now in its 18th year, the SpeedSport Scholarship that Martin was heavily instrumental in creating provides entry into the primary single seater circuit racing class, Formula First.
The competition is highly vaunted, not least because it has a fantastic record in kick-starting the careers of many of New Zealand’s best drivers.
Past racers who started out with Martin’s Sabre team then went onto much greater things include some very famous names.
Shane van Gisbergen, Nick Cassidy, Richie Stanaway, Mitch Evans, Simon Evans, Brendon Hartley and more all came through his team in the early stages of their careers.
This year 10 young hopefuls will be striving to shine in the showdown elimination on the Manfeild back circuit.
A former multiple champion of the entry level single seater category, Martin says the 1.5 kilometre tarmac ribbon is the best driver training circuit in the country because it simply cuts no slack.
“There is nothing there that can help them. It is a demanding piece of flat, constantly curving track; it’s hard to get it right and, when anyone gets it wrong, we can see it all. There is nowhere to hide when mistakes are made.”
Martin is glad he’s still here to see it after a brush with death.
A week after last year’s scholarship run he was hospitalised with pneumonia.
He spent 55 days in Palmerston North Hospital, all but 10 in the intensive care unit, where he was mainly in critical condition, including being in a coma for two weeks.
The virus has an indiscriminate nature, but Martin knows now he was probably susceptible.
He was fighting a head cold with antibiotics and had a heavy workload, in addition to running a busy race team schedule the Palmerston North backpackers’ hostel he and his wife, Cherie, was also buzzing. Also, on scholarship weekend, he’d spent a day weathering rain showers and a bitterly cold wind.
“I was feeling pretty run down … I remember getting into the truck (at the end of the scholarship) and I was totally drained.”
The illness struck brutally. He awoke from a night’s sleep drenched in cold sweat and his heart racing. An ambulance was called.
“I can’t tell you what happened next. All I know is that I woke up in a hospital bed thinking I’d just nodded off and when Cherie told me I’d been in a coma for two weeks my immediate thought was ‘I cannot afford to spend two weeks away from the workshop.’”
He knows now how lucky he’d been. Says Cherie: “While he was in the coma his kidneys started to fail. He had tubes everywhere and he was so close to passing away in some stages. It was a pretty scary time.”
They also thought he might have had a stroke because he lost all strength and movement. In fact, it was his body fighting back, drawing protein from his muscles to fight the infection.
“You don’t need your arms and legs to survive, so it took all the protein from those muscles first. I couldn’t even lift my arm off the bed.”
A year on, he celebrates the amazing support from Cherie – “she singlehandedly kept everything going” – and friends who ensured Sabre cars were on the grid for their Manfeild winter series outings.
He also reflects how fortuitous it was that the scholarship was reorganised several years ago to be operated by a trust, meaning it would have kept going regardless of his eventual circumstance.
And even though medical advice is that he could not have prepared for the virus then and might also fall susceptible again – “though they say I might have built up a certain resistance” – he’ll heed his wife and keep rugged up extra well this weekend.
Manfeild chief executive Julie Keane says the scholarship is testimony to Martin’s amazing enthusiasm.
“Dennis is a true Manfeild legend who has done much for motorsport and, of course, we were desperately worried during his period of illness and so very relieved that he is now fully recovered.
“We are delighted to be part of a scholarship story that further shows our circuit as a breeding ground for future champions.”
Martin sees many years remaining for a programme whose success was recognised when he was meted a Distinguished Service Award by national governing body, Motorsport NZ, and also has high hopes for Formula First, another odds-beater.
Formula First draws from the original, long-departed Volkswagen Beetle and has already clocked an astounding 49 years, yet there’s no substitute for cars that, being low-powered, teach that race craft is equally important to outright speed, Sabre Motorsport’s boss contends.