Driving instructors

Driving at the speed of sight

It is often said that if one of your senses is impaired, others come to the fore; sitting in a car at the pit lane exit of the Three Sisters circuit near Wigan, that seems true. My view ahead of me is obscured by an opaque visor, but I can feel every beat of the engine rocking the seat and fizzling in the steering wheel. Roaring down the straight and into the first left-hander, the G-forces push me against my harnesses, the rushing air ebbing and flowing over me.

All track days promise excitement, but the one we follow is unique: in addition to offering thrills, all of today’s participants are blind, partially sighted or have a disability that prevents them from driving on the public highway. Some loved driving in the past and had to give up their license, but for many today is their first time behind the wheel.

The day is organized and run by the charity Speed ​​of Sight, the brainchild of multiple blind world record holder Mike Newman and co-founder John Galloway. Its aim is to help disabled children and adults forget, for a time, that they have a disability. They are able to drive thanks to adapted dual-drive cars and an army of dedicated instructors and volunteers.

“Super Human Mike Newman” is the world’s fastest blind man; he hit 200.9 mph in a Litchfield-tuned 1,000-hp Nissan GT-R, a record that has stood since 2014. Despite being born with glaucoma, Mike says driving was something he knew he could make. “My disability robbed me of what I really wanted to do, so I found a way to experience, if only for a few minutes, what euphoria would feel like.” Mike was inspired to set up Speed ​​of Sight after repeatedly hearing drivers who had surrendered their licenses say to him, “I wish I could drive again.”

Yet despite this selflessness, Mike has a modesty that is almost at odds with not only his accomplishments, but his bravery as well. His first record was achieved not in the relative safety of a car with a roll bar, but on two wheels at 89 mph, breaking the motorcycle speed record for a blind rider in 2001. “They’re all scary and dangerous in their own way, and looking back now, I don’t know why I chose a motorcycle in the first place, I believed I could do it, I just needed to find a way to do it, and eventually we understood it and did it.

This dogged approach helped Mike and John set up Speed ​​of Sight in 2012, allowing them to give other disabled tankers the thrill of speed. “Regardless of their challenges in life, we give them the opportunity to forget about their disability and enjoy the excitement of being on the track in a very fun car,” says Mike.

What to expect on a Speed ​​of Sight Day

Speed ​​of Sight normally runs 15-20 events a year between April and September at circuits such as the Three Sisters Circuit, Wigan and Auto Express favourite, Llandow Circuit near Cardiff, as well as all-around courses. land across the UK.

Upon arrival, participants are welcomed as new members of an extended family. Volunteers cheer and cheer as the cars pass the pit lane, and the air is filled with screams
of “car in motion” as vehicles enter and exit the track.

The charity has two bespoke buggies, Ross and Charlie (named after Mike’s guide dogs), which can be adapted for on-road or off-road duties simply by changing their wheels and tyres, and a replica MK Sportscars Caterham named Simon. The dual control buggies were built by Blitzworld and can be driven from either seat, while the co-driver can take over if necessary. There’s also a hand controller for the throttle and brakes for those who can’t use pedals, while an extra-tall roll cage means a hoist can help participants with reduced mobility inside and outside.

Once inside, with the engine idling over the rear axle, Mike leans over and talks in an incredibly soothing manner – many Speed ​​of Sight participants have never sat behind the wheel , let alone on the track. Mike takes great care with his pep talk, tightening and checking belts as he does it, a task he has undertaken with over 2,000 people.

In the other seat sits a volunteer, most of whom are driving instructors or racing drivers, assessing participants’ abilities and judging where to lend a hand. “It’s teamwork,” one instructor told us. “When you approach a corner, especially a fast one, and a blind man is driving, you have to anticipate what they might do and be ready.”

With a backwards balaclava obscuring my view, I cling to the steering wheel and feel the controls in my hands. It quickly becomes a game of anticipating my instructor’s next move, helping their inputs rather than hindering them, as a mental map of the circuit grows in my mind.

Give people hope

Alex Campbell held a license before being registered blind 25 years ago and traveled from Scotland for the first track day of Speed ​​​​of Sight in 2021. “Even the smell of burning petrol is good enough, although in a few years it will just be the batteries, right?” remarks the former car mechanic. Alex told co-founder John that losing his license meant losing independence, but driving “Simon” made him want to get back into motorsport.

Children and teenagers are also welcome, Mike told us. “What I didn’t expect when we started the association was the number of children we would work with; at least 50% of our participants are young children or teenagers who unfortunately will never be able to drive when they grow up. Teenagers like Kidderminster-based Drew Hanslow, whose driving experience in 2015 left such an impression that he hosted an event in April to raise money for Speed ​​of Sight. By driving around the Nürburgring on the PlayStation game Gran Turismo Sport for 27 hours, Drew aimed to raise enough money for 10 people to attend a day like the one that inspired him to keep going and take part in online esports. .

It’s not just young people who come to Speed ​​of Sight days. James Summers of Stockport repaired cars for 40 years and is no longer able to drive on the road due to visual impairment; we caught up with him on his way to the track to celebrate his 80th birthday. When asked how he rates driving experience, he replied, “15 out of 10! It was out of this world, absolutely brilliant. After losing my sight, I had to get rid of my classic car, my caravan, everything. Speed ​​of Sight regular Harvey Goodinson suffers from a rare condition called segmental vertebral dysgenesis, and those track days have boosted his confidence, according to mom Kim. Beyond the ride, it’s the sense of community that Harvey and the others enjoy. Many arrive for a 20 minute session, but end up staying all day to chat, encourage others and make friends.

To make possible

After a break during the pandemic, the day of our visit felt like a family reunion for the Speed ​​of Sight team and attendees. Pieces of wedding cake were even handed out carefully by Ben Harper, a volunteer who has helped at every event for the past six years and wanted to share his recent nuptial celebrations with the team. When I asked my colleague Phil Collins what kept him coming back, he said, “It’s a good reminder for everyone involved.”

Gina Campbell QSO knows a thing or two about running. She is the daughter of Donald Campbell and granddaughter of Sir Malcolm, and is a sponsor of Speed ​​of Sight. “We take everything we have for granted, we are so lucky,” she tells us. “We only need one thing in our roster, and we don’t have what the others have. If someone told you tomorrow that you can’t drive anymore, what do you think? would do ?

Sponsors keep the charity on track, literally in the case of dealership RRG Group, which overhauled buggies at short notice. Both failed to run after sitting in hibernation, so the garage took them to get them started. Sam Robinson, from wiper blade company and title sponsor Trico, said: “Hopefully we can help more people do this; it is a hidden gem. Everyone who attends loves it.

Mike’s records

Motorcycle speed record

2001 89 mph on an Aprilia RSV

Car land speed record

2003 144 mph in a Jaguar XJR

Car land speed record

2005 176 mph in a BMW M5

Air record

2011 Steal the most loops

Car land speed record

2013 at 300 km/h in a Porsche 911 GT2

Water speed record

2013 93 mph in a Silverline racing boat

Car land speed record

2014 200 mph in a Nissan GT-R

Truck land speed record

2015 120 mph in a MAN race truck

Water speed record

2017 102 mph in a Silverline racing boat