Mike Newman's expression didn't change as the AMG's speedometer registered 160 mph.
"Okay," he said.
"Okay," I confirmed. "Now a little left Mike...and straight." We passed the 300m board, signaling the approach of a 90-degree right. "Now ease her back. On the brakes, nice and progressive."The Merc's nose dipped and the driver asked, "How fast was that?"
"About 160 mph," I replied.
"You're mad," he exclaimed. "You've just done 160 mph in a car driven by a blind man."I talked him through two right-handers before we returned back to our makeshift paddock, where Ross the guide dog was waiting patiently for his master. For the casual observer, it must have looked like a scene from a spoof movie. Two blind people, one with a guide dog and another with a white stick, were waiting to drive a 354-bhp Mercedes C32 AMG on a test track packed with other traffic. No wonder the insurers were twitchy.
It was utter madness, but then my guests are used to lunatic assignments. The woman and two men assembled at the UK's Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground were the world's fastest blind motorists. Newman broke my own Guinness Blind Land Speed Record-- which I had set wearing a blindfold-- when he averaged 143 mph for two miles in a Jaguar XJR. That was in August, the same month in which Billy "the whizz" Baxter established a two-mile average of 164.9 mph while riding solo on a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-12R motorbike.
Caroline Casey, the third member of our triplets, lives in Dublin and is one of only two blind drivers ever to have taken part in a race. In 2002, Casey went head to head with blind athlete Miles Hilton Barber at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia. She finished second but could point to inferior equipment--Casey drove a Proton pace car; Hilton Barber piloted a Lotus Elise.
The motivational speaker is "legally blind," but she does have some sight. "I can see roughly to the end of the bonnet," she explained, "but beyond that everything is just a blur. It's like looking through a camera that's wildly out of focus." In low light conditions, she can see almost nothing at all.
The three share a positive philosophy and a determination to succeed, but they are disparate personalities. Newman has been blind since childhood. He is a quiet, understated man, but the bank manager's wit is quick and sarcastic. Casey is impossibly enthusiastic, ferociously intelligent and intent on challenging the parameters of the possible--she became only the third women to qualify as a Mahout (elephant keeper) after cramming two years' worth of training into just four months. She now runs the Aisling Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting the talents of disabled people in Ireland.
Baxter was blinded three years ago while on active service in Bosnia. He is an eccentric rogue, with a black sense of humor. "You're looking well," he exclaimed as we were introduced, and when Casey announced that she was blonde, he replied, "Of course you are, you can tell me anything you like." The would-be gamekeeper has reinvented himself as a motivational speaker. It is a role for which he must be ideally suited--this man would have fun at a meeting of depressives.
Casey claimed to have had "about an hour's" driving experience as she strapped herself into the Mercedes. I explained the basics of the gearbox, and we eased our way out on to the circuit. What happened next will live with me for some time. Whereas Baxter and Newman were brutal in their movements, Casey was smooth and measured. No doubt being able to see the steering wheel helped, but even that could not explain the brilliance of her performance.
After about three laps, our pace quickened, and Casey seemed to be anticipating my instructions. "I've built up a mental picture of the circuit," she explained, "and now I'm playing it back in my mind." At the end of the back straight, we topped 120 mph before we returned to the pits. "That was amazing, that was incredible," she exclaimed. "I thought I was going to make a complete Horlics out of it. I can't believe I went that fast.That's better than you imagine; it's an amazing feeling."
"That is one brave lady," declared Baxter, as the three engaged in a group hug.
Later in the day, Casey and I went out in a Nissan 350Z, which I had also brought along. Its short-throw gearbox and rabid responses make it an unlikely choice for a learner driver, but Casey took to it instantly. She thought she would "kangaroo up the road," but she just slipped the clutch and we glided effortlessly onto the circuit. I was completely in awe.
Baxter went out next in the Mercedes. Unlike Newman and Casey, who relied on yours truly, he had brought his own co-driver, Paul Gower. Nicknamed "Gaz," Gower used to box against Baxter when they were both in the British army. "We never actually knocked each other out," he explained, "but we did use to beat each other up a bit." Having retired from the army ("I was a bit too vociferous."), Gower now runs a motorcycle stunt school and was the driving force behind Baxter's record attempt.
I was intrigued by their technique. "Gaz is learning as much as I am," explained Baxter. "We have a series of simple commands: roll off [the accelerator]. Soft brake or hard brake; slight left or right; hard left or right. We're making minor adjustments all the time as Gaz describes each corner. Then we just bolt the car down the straight bits." The technique was clearly working as the AMG whistled by.All three were anxious to introduce a competitive element, and we decided on a Formula One-style flying lap. They would each have just one chance, in the AMG, to set a time. This prompted some good-humored banter about Baxter's choice of attire. He set his world record wearing a Basque, stockings and suspenders under his leathers. "I was so confident of not falling off," he told a puzzled audience, "because I knew that if I did, the rescue crew would be too busy laughing to save me."
Basque or no Basque, Baxter's performance was impressive. He lapped the two-mile circuit in 1:58.35, which was 17 sec. faster than Newman. It was first blood to the biker, but both men worried about the flying Irishwoman. By the time she took the wheel, it was late afternoon and the light was failing fast. "I genuinely can't see anything," she explained, "but at least that levels the playing field."With Baxter and Newman riding shotgun in the rear, Casey lapped in 1:53.97 at an average speed of 63.2 mph. It was the quickest time, but her run included a minor off through the S-bends. Baxter good-naturedly launched an appeal and suggested that she should "get a drive-through penalty." The clerk of the course (yours truly) was having none of it--it was 1-0 to Ireland.The competition was over, and talk turned to the future. Both Baxter and Newman are determined to raise their records beyond the magic 200-mph mark. Newman is searching for a suitable supercar, while Baxter is confident that he can modify the Kawasaki to top the double ton. "I've already been clocked at 186 mph, so it should be relatively straight forward," he explained. Both attempts will require a trip to Bonneville and plenty of sponsorship. Casey, meanwhile, is planning to learn to fly a light aircraft so that she can race her sister (who is also blind) from Ireland to England.All three are equally anxious to return to the race track. "Mate, wild horses couldn't stop me," said Baxter. "I was absolutely terrified this morning, but it's been like a dream. I've learned a lot about track craft and trust. It's also been great to finally meet Mike [Newman] and Caroline [Casey]. We share a common goal and a common interest; it's like we've known each other for years." There is a communal nod of agreement and another group hug.
We prepared to leave, but Baxter couldn't find his white stick. Eventually, it turned up in Newman's Jag. "Bloody hell," said Baxter, "I've been robbed blind by a blind man." There was yet more laughter. "What a great way to live," he concluded. "It beats basket weaving."