It was a cold and wet day in early March, a day I had been looking forward too for quite some time. Since losing my sight I had wanted to experience the thrill of driving one last time. Of course this was never likely to happen. So I learnt to deal with the fact that I would never drive again. But then one day I was introduced to Mike Newman. Mike is officially the fastest blind man in the world on four wheels. He holds the land speed record for driving a car reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour and also over 140 miles per hours in a truck.
I first met Mike at one of Insight Gloucestershire’s events held several years back in Pittville Park in Cheltenham. The event known as Bark in Pittville Park saw the charity hold an annual fundraising event featuring things such as dog agility shows, all sorts of activities for children, sponsored walks and there was even a flyover from the Red Arrows one year. No mean feat for Insight to put such an event on. Mike was invited to come along to promote his new organisation Speed of Sight. Turning up in the two of the nicest cars I had seen in person I had to go and have a look. If memory serves, he had a BMW and I think a Jaguar. It was some time ago so I could be wrong. After spending some time talking with Mike about his ideas for his new charity I knew one day I had to get involved.
Speed of Sight was Mike’s brainchild, its purpose is to give disabled people of all ages and abilities the chance to experience driving a motorised vehicle. For many this would of course be the first time they would have done so. For me, I had taken lessons in driving before losing my sight at the age of 19.
The concept is quite brilliant and after speaking to several of the people who took part on the day that I attended, you can tell the sheer overwhelming joy they had experienced. On our way into the pit lane from the car park, my friend Pete and I were approached by a fellow visually impaired chap who couldn’t contain his excitement with the fact he had just been able to drive a car around a race track. A feeling I imagine he never thought he would have experienced since losing his sight again and I feeling I have no doubt he will ever forget. I had all of this excitement to come.
It had been raining most of the day, we were in Wales, and I am told this is not unusual for the area. It was windy, but it was exciting. After a bit of a wait due to some unforeseen circumstances it was finally my turn. I was about to drive for the first time in over 12 years.
Climbing into the car my heart had already started to pump faster and faster, nerves had taken over slightly but this would soon turn into adrenaline. I was familiarised with the controls, my helmet was put on and I was strapped in too the seat which felt like I was on the floor. Very low down, I had never been near a race car before let alone sit in one. I was now about to drive one. With my instructor strapped in next to me we had a quick check of the speakers and microphones and we were set to go.
The cars are dual controlled, my instructor sat to my left took control of the car to put us into the start position and then it was over to me. He ensured me he had control of the brakes which did help to allay my fears, I didn’t fancy crashing off course and aiming for the side barriers or rolling one of Mike Newman’s prised possessions. So with my new driving friend having a foot on the brake pedal and with my right foot primed and ready on the accelerator, we were ready to go.
Starting slow to familiarise myself with the track and for my instructor to fully understand my sight levels we were off. A sharp right followed by a quick left quickly followed by a long sweeping right picking up speed and building excitement as we progress further round the track all the while with my instructor calling ‘‘left, right and ease off’’. All the commands to ensure I knew what I was doing with expert precision. Then firing down the home straight and reaching speeds of near 70 miles an hour. The 0-60 speed was something I had never experienced before. Of course when you are learning to drive on the roads in a Vauxhall Corsa, the instructors are not interested in reaching such speeds.
We did lap after lap, I lost count of how many we covered, and I was getting too excited with going faster and faster with each lap. Then before I knew it, my time was up and I had to go back to my normal non racing driver lifestyle. But for at least one day, I felt like the VI Schumacher.
With many thanks to Speed of Sight and all of their volunteers for putting these events on. An incredible organisation that really does provide less able people with an experience they will never forget. I urge any of you with sight loss to give it a go. The thrill is quite amazing.
For as long as I can remember I have loved sports, both watching and playing. After losing my sight playing sport became a little bit of an after thought, I mean I was blind, what sport could I possibly do. Having no idea that there is a whole world of sports adapted to suit disabled people. Now I use that term very lightly indeed. Disabled should not be a word used to described some of the incredible people. Talented beyond belief. Differently abled is more suitable. People with disabilities yes, but the ability to play sports at a higher level that I could even dream of when I was fully able bodied.
So, not that I had any aspiration to be anywhere near Paralympic level, I started trawling the internet on my tiny mobile phone which was pretty well useless. Tech at the time was no where near what it is now. My efforts to find some kind of sport I could play in resulted in me playing tiddlywinks at an old peoples home. Mrs Smith had the years on me and beat me every time. I am sure she was cheating some how. Don’t even get me started on Reg and Arthur. Those boys knew every tiddlywinks trick in the book.
I gave up looking for what I could join in the end and decided I had to take matters into my own hands. After a lot of hard work and getting the group which is now known as Outlook off the ground I, along with a few others founded the Gloucestershire Visually Impaired County Cricket Club. A sport I had never played before one late summers day some five years ago now. It seems like just yesterday.
Blind cricket you say? You must be mad!!! Well, the truth is, I probably am a bit mad but you have to be to start such a venture. Cricket after all is a game played with eleven players and at the time we had 6. Great squad numbers I know. At the time I was dubious, many conversations would take place between myself and the coach at the time about whether or not we could get it off the ground and make it work. It seemed unlikely to ever happen when we turn up a the ground for only 3 or 4 people to be there most without any knowledge of cricket at all. But hey, you have to start somewhere right?
Over the years we have grown and attracted players from far and wide. Even people from the mighty cricketing nation of Wales. It is advantageous to have Wales so close as they do not have a blind cricket team these day’s. We are close enough for people to jump on a train and come to join us so thank you Wales.
So the team now known as the Gloucestershire Growlers after one infamous afternoon in a wooden shack in Gloucester have developed into a good unit. We have our moments of brilliance where very few batsman can touch our bowling, we have our moments of epic fails where we can lose a game on the last ball as someone runs when it was wiser not too. But with all of the mishaps and all of the good cricket our motley crew produce, it is always fun. The bus journeys are full of laughter, the banter is always on point and you can always guarantee a good pint after the game (or before in some cases) not that we endorse it.
At the end of it all when I look back to all of the struggles and the hours spent to form the embers of what is now a club burning brighter and brighter every season, you have to say, it was all worth it. Friendships for life are formed, exercise is always good and my trophy shelf has some welcome additions which for a while I didn’t think would happen. After all there is no prize for winning tiddlywinks at an old persons home.
That’s it for now