Paraplegic rally driver Nikhil Sachania on racing after life-changing accident

By Celestine KaroneyBBC Sport Africa, Nairobi
Nikhil Sachania (left) with his navigator Deep Patel
Wheelchair user Nikhil Sachania (left) competes as a rally driver alongside navigator Deep Patel (right)

"I hit a ditch and it flung me off the quad bike. The way I landed compressed my spine," recalls Nikhil Sachania. "That's where it shattered."

Kenya's first paraplegic rally driver never thought about quitting motorsport despite a crash causing his life-changing injury.

Instead, Sachania will be on the starting ramp when this year's Safari Rallyexternal-link is flagged off in Nairobi on Thursday.

The event, considered one of the world's toughest, is the sixth leg in the World Rally Championship circuit and the only one held in Africa.

"It was never a case of 'This has happened because of motorsports, and I need to stop it'," the 33-year-old told BBC Sport Africa.

"It's made me think the other way, that I can still carry on.

"And I'm sure that motivates people to keep going as well. I hope they think the way I think - that if he can do this, I can do something. It doesn't have to be rallying."

Sachania's love for motorsport was nurtured at a young age, watching his father compete in rally championships.

"I used to go out and help him as a spanner boy, and just understand what rallying is about," he says.

'I couldn't feel my feet'

By the time he was a teenager Sachania had had a taste of motorsport events, but when he was 22 he suffered an accident while training on a quad bike which threatened his love of the sport.

"After I had the crash, I was conscious," Sachania recalls.

"I did realise something was wrong with my feet but with all the adrenaline pumping, I didn't feel it was bad.

"In my head, it was like 'Oh, my dad is going to kill me. He is gonna be mad'."

Sachania was taken to a hospital in Nairobi following the accident, but they did not have the necessary equipment to perform the operation he needed.

He was transferred to a hospital in India where doctors confirmed he would never walk again.

Nikhil Sachania being transferred to a hospital India
Sachania says some days during rehabilitation from his quad bike injury were overwhelming

"After I had my operation, I touched my feet and I couldn't feel them. It was like a pile of bricks hit me," Sachania narrates.

"Someone helped me get ready, someone helped me shower, someone helps you go to the washroom, and then someone pushes me all the way to do my therapy, try and learn how to get back into a normal life.

"It was crucial, especially those first few months, to understand that, yes, my life has changed but there is a way to live normally still."

For Sachania, staying positive was key through almost eight months of recovery, but there were days that were overwhelming.

"My down days would be; I don't want to talk to anyone, I don't want to go for rehabilitation, I just don't want to get up," he says.

"I just want to sit, I just want to sleep. It was tough those few days.

"But you have got to pick yourself back up. I had a lot of family and friends, so I was always around people who motivated me. I appreciate that I saw this light at the end of the tunnel."

Returning to rallying - with hand controls

Nikhil Sachania driving at the 2021 Safari Rally Kenya
Sachania and Patel finished 21st in Safari Rally Kenya last year

In 2014, three years after his accident, Sachania was back behind the wheel - this time in a rally car with modifications to suit his disability.

"It was one of the most thrilling things I've done," he recounts.

"When I first started off, it was a very simple hand control in my normal everyday car. And in my first rally car, I had just put in a simple push-pull control.

"I was driving with one hand on the wheel and one hand accelerating and braking. The first two days were a bit tricky but once I got the hang of it, it was second nature.

"In terms of manoeuvrability and reaction time, that comes with training and experience."

Sachania has since graduated to a car that only uses hand controls which he finds much easier to operate, with Deep Patel joining him in the cockpit as navigator.

"Sometimes I just sit and watch how he plays with the steering wheel. It's absolutely amazing," Patel, who teamed up with Sachania three years ago.

"He's a great inspiration to me. Other people can't believe somebody in a wheelchair like Nikhil is racing a car, it's absolutely mind-blowing."

Their driver-navigator relationship is unique because of Sachania's disability.

"For me, the number one priority is him, no matter what," Patel explains.

"In the last rally, we got smoke inside the car. I said park the car on my side so it leaves them enough room on his side if he has to jump out or if I have to carry him out.

"Those are the things that we think about constantly. If we get a puncture, it's me changing the tires. I take on the burden to do everything."

Taking the positives

Nikhil Sachania (left) and Deep Patel (right) are awarded prizes
Sachania and Patel, pictured receiving awards in 2019, have raced together for three years

This year the pair will be among 15 cars competing in the national category at this year's Safari Rally, having finished 21st last year.

Sachania hopes his continued participation in such competitions can inspire others, even though not everyone understands his motivation to drive rallies after his accident.

"I saw how people get inspired by seeing me, especially when I jump out of the car and people realise I'm in a wheelchair," he said.

"I get a lot of people asking me 'How do you drive?' and say it's amazing. And then you get the other side, where they're like: 'Are you crazy? Why are you doing this? You got your injury in motorsports'.

"I block all that out and try and take in all the positive I can."

Sachania has refused to allow his accident to define what he can and cannot do, and makes sure he enjoys a variety of experiences.

"I've done bungee jumping. I've gone shark diving. I'm a certified diver. I rally. I go to work. All in all, I haven't had a hiccup where there's something I can't do."

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