Driving at the speed of sight
The Speed of Sight charity gives blind and disabled drivers a chance to get behind the wheel
It’s 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 Three Sisters Circuit near Wigan, this seems true. My view ahead is blacked out by an opaque visor, but I can feel every beat of the engine rocking the seat and fizzing through the steering wheel. Roaring on to the straight and into the first left-hander, G-forces push me against my harnesses, the rushing air ebbing and flowing over me.
All track days promise excitement, but the one we’re on is unique: as well as offering thrills, all today’s participants are blind, visually impaired or have a disability that precludes them from driving on public roads. Some enjoyed driving in the past and had to give up their licence, but for many today marks their first time behind the wheel.
The day is organised and run by the charity Speed of Sight, the brainchild of blind multiple world-record holder Mike Newman and co-founder John Galloway. Its aim is to help give disabled children and adults the chance to forget, for a little while, that they have a disability. They’re able to drive thanks to adapted cars with dual controls, and an army of dedicated instructors and volunteers.
‘Super Human Mike Newman’ is the world’s fastest blind man; he hit 200.9mph in a 1,000bhp Litchfield-tuned Nissan GT-R, a record that has stood since 2014. Despite being born with glaucoma, Mike says driving was something he knew he could do. “My disability robbed me of what I wanted to do really, so I figured out a way of experiencing, if only for a few minutes, what the exhilaration would be like.” Mike was inspired to set up Speed of Sight after repeatedly hearing drivers who had surrendered their licence tell him: “I wish I could drive again”.
Yet despite this altruism, Mike has a modesty that is almost at odds not just with his achievements, but also his bravery. His first record was achieved not in the relative safety of a car with a roll cage, but on two wheels at 89mph, breaking the motorcycle speed record for a blind rider in 2001. “They’re all scary and dangerous in their own way, and when I look back now I’m not sure why I chose a motorbike first. I believed I could do it, I just needed to figure out a way of doing it, and eventually we got it sussed and did it.”
This dogged approach helped Mike and John set up Speed of Sight in 2012, allowing them to give other petrolheads with disabilities 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 car that’s good fun,” Mike says.
What to expect at a Speed of Sight day
Speed of Sight normally runs 15 to 20 events a year between April and September at tracks such as Three Sisters Circuit, Wigan, and Auto Express favourite, Llandow Circuit near Cardiff, as well as at off-road courses across the UK.
Upon arrival, participants are greeted like the newest members of an extended family. Volunteers cheer and clap as cars pass the pit lane, and the air is filled with shouts
of “car moving” as vehicles pull on and off the track.
The charity has two bespoke buggies, Ross and Charlie (named after Mike’s guide dogs), which can be adapted for on or off-road duties simply by changing their wheels and tyres, and an MK Sportscars Caterham replica 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 anyone who isn’t able to use pedals, while an extra-tall roll cage means a hoist can help participants with mobility restrictions in and out.
Once inside, with the engine idling away above the rear axle, Mike leans in and talks in an incredibly calming manner – many Speed of Sight participants have never sat behind the wheel, let alone headed on track. Mike takes great care with his pep talk, tightening and checking belts as he does so, a task he’s undertaken with more than 2,000 people.
In the other seat is a volunteer, most of whom are driving instructors or racing drivers, appraising participants’ abilities and judging where to lend a hand. “It’s teamwork,” one instructor told us. “When you’re coming up to a bend, especially a fast one, and there’s a blind person driving, you’ve got to anticipate what they might do and be prepared.”
With a back-to-front balaclava obscuring my view, I hold on to the wheel and feel the controls in my hands. This soon becomes a game of anticipating my instructor’s next move, aiding their inputs rather than hindering them, as a mental map of the circuit grows in my mind.
Giving people hope
Alex Campbell held a licence before he was registered blind 25 years ago, and travelled from Scotland for Speed of Sight’s first track day of 2021. “Even the smell of petrol getting burnt is quite good, although in a few years time it will just be batteries won’t it?”, remarks the former motor mechanic. Alex told co-founder John that losing his licence meant a loss of independence, but driving ‘Simon’ made him want to get back into motorsport.
Children and teenagers are also welcome to attend, Mike told us. “What I never expected when we started the charity was how many kids we’d be working with; at least 50 per cent of our participants are young children or teenagers who’ll sadly never be able to drive when they grow up.” Teenagers such as Kidderminster-based Drew Hanslow, whose driving experience in 2015 left such an impression that he held 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 go on and compete in online eSports.
It’s not only younger people who come to Speed of Sight days. James Summers from Stockport repaired cars for 40 years, and is no longer able to drive on the road because of a visual impairment; we met him as he took to the track to celebrate his 80th birthday. Asked how he’d score the driving experience, he answered: “15 out of 10! It was out of this world, absolutely brilliant. After I lost my sight I had to get rid of my classic car, caravan, everything.” Speed of Sight regular Harvey Goodinson has a rare condition called segmental spinal dysgenesis, and these track days have boosted his confidence, according to mum Kim. Beyond driving, it’s the sense of community that Harvey and others appreciate. Many arrive for a 20-minute session, but end up staying for the day to chat, cheer on others and make friends.
Making it possible
Following a hiatus during the pandemic, the day we visited was akin to a family reunion for the Speed of Sight team and participants. Pieces of wedding cake were even carefully handed out by Ben Harper, a volunteer who’s helped out at every event in the last six years, and wanted to share his recent nuptial celebrations with the team. When I asked colleague Phil Collins what keeps him coming back, he told me: “It’s a good booster for everyone involved.”
Gina Campbell QSO knows a thing or two about racing. She’s the daughter of Donald Campbell and grand-daughter of Sir Malcolm, and is a Patron of Speed of Sight. “We take for granted everything that we have, we’re so lucky”, she tells us. “We only need that one thing in our makeup, and we haven’t got what other people have got. If somebody said tomorrow that you can’t drive again, what would it do to you?”
Sponsors keep the charity on track, quite literally in the case of dealership RRG Group, which overhauled the buggies at short notice. Both failed to run after sitting in hibernation, so the garage took them in to get them going. Sam Robinson, from wiper blade firm and headline sponsor Trico said: “I’m hoping we can help get more people doing it; it’s a hidden gem. Everyone who takes part absolutely loves it.”
Motorbike speed record
2001 89mph on an Aprilia RSV
Car land speed record
2003 144mph in a Jaguar XJR
Car land speed record
2005 176mph in a BMW M5
2011 Flying the most loop-the-loops
Car land speed record
2013 186mph in a Porsche 911 GT2
Water speed record
2013 93mph in a Silverline racing boat
Car land speed record
2014 200mph in a Nissan GT-R
Truck land speed record
2015 120mph in a MAN racing truck
Water speed record
2017 102 mph in a Silverline racing boat