The study of ethics is a tireless pursuit, felt across all walks of life. And this pursuit plays out time and again in sports, particularly the world of motorsports. To shed light on this industry, it was a pleasure to chat with Blair Henry of The Blair Project, an organisation that’s focused on bringing sustainability and change to motorsports.
Tell me about your personal story and where the inspiration for The Blair Project came from.
From a young age, I’ve had a keen passion for motorsport, particularly Formula One. Some of my earliest memories are of watching it with my family and idolising people like Michael Schumacher. What I’d heard from my family was how Ferrari were going through a troubled time and they brought Schumacher onto the team and they had all that success in the early 2000s.
I’d listen to these stories of how he’d bring a team of engineers around him and he’d take an interest in what they were doing. This inspired me to get into karting and I wanted to emulate what Schumacher did in Formula One. So, when I was eight I decided to pursue a career in karting.
When I first got started I was at a track called Daytona Manchester and I karted until I was 16. The issue I faced throughout that time is that motorsport is an expensive hobby and career to follow. And I had to raise sponsorship to do just a single season, which was roughly £30,000 for the year.
When it got to the point where I wanted to go further with my career and join the low levels of formula racing, that was £200,000 for one season. And it got to a point where my family couldn’t afford to fork out that much money.
So, that experience inspired the creation of The Blair Project start with my brother Nile in 2014. He had an interest in travelling the world with the mission to make motorsports more diverse, accessible and inclusive. It was to give people of any background, race and gender the opportunity to either become a driver or a high level engineer in places like Formula One or Siemens.
The first couple of years for the business were hard and we both worked several jobs. After two years, we were fortunate with one of our earliest programmes called the Proto GP Kart Challenge. That involved using a 3D printer to print the body of a go-kart and we were working with schools in Greater Manchester.
The aim of the challenge was to help marganilised young people who were struggling with exams and to give them hands-on skills. And we wanted to encourage them that no matter how silly or wacky the idea sounded, they could bring it to life. We had a lot of success with that project.
Another success story was that on our first ever approach to GP test day, we were visited by Prince Harry. We got that opportunity by being partnered with an organisation called Sported, which does different kinds of sport charity events for disadvantaged young people. Prince Harry visited one of our projects in Wigan and he was a really down to earth guy.
That meeting gave us a lot of national and international exposure, to the point where universities as far as America were wanting to do business with us.
That’s fantastic. It’d great if you could unpack some of the challenges that The Blair Project tackles in motorsports as you’ve mentioned in the past that there are certain difficulties with elitism and sustainability.
So in terms of the elitism side of motorsport, we’ve had a lot of barriers from the Motorsport UK world. Our main message has always been creating a pathway for people of all races and genders to take part.
When we first came in, we were laughed at and the response was there was no way you can make motorsport affordable. My mum was helping me and Nile at the time and one of the responses she received was that people will just have to accept they can’t do motorsport if they don’t have the money.
We’ve never taken no for an answer and have kept persevering. That attitude has brought us to where we are now with our Proto EV STEM challenge. Climate and environment is one thing we’re passionate about. This challenge was the evolution of our Proto GP Challenge where we switched to an electric route.
For context on how it works, we go into schools and youth clubs in Manchester and London and teach how to convert a used petrol go-kart into a fully electric e-kart. The kids get to test and race to see which is the fatest and the most energy efficient.
Also, there’s a team building element where the participants see their strengths and weakness as individuals. We also teach them about how to sell themselves in different situations. So, they could go up to business owners or engineer companies and have the skills to land an interview and potentially a job.
That’s a great cause to champion and really speaks to the core values you have in The Blair Project. On the subject of sustainability, what’s your opinion of greenwashing in motorsports?
I do think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the industry. It’s got to a point where you have to question how serious are some companies about trying to hit net zero targets. We hear the talk about being sustainable over and over, but at the end of the day actions speak louder than words.
There’s a long way to go but where we’re trying to move it forward is to open more eyes with our electric car challenges. We’re contracted to deliver EV training skills, so the more people we teach, the more they can share that message and impact others.
I do feel that issue definitely needs to be taken one step at a time and looked at through multiple angles and industries.
Another topic that means a lot to me is mental health and creating better wellbeing practices. What’s your opinion on how mental health is handled in motorsports and do you think it could be done better?
With F1, you’ll always hear about how drivers will be talking to psychologists before and after races. They are under a lot of media scrutiny, so I can understand why they’d need someone like that to talk to because it is a high pressure industry.
There’s pressure with the money involved. Pressure with raising sponsorship and the financial costs. I don’t think people look at mental health as often as they should in motorsport because it’s easy to overlook the pressure that these people are under.
You have to remember these people are human and they make mistakes like everyone. And when they get called out for having a bad performance, it’s going to impact their mental health. There’s been instances where drivers have been attacked because of how they’ve performed.
So, finding more ways to priortise the wellbeing of everyone involved in motorsports is crucial for the industry to move forward.
You mentioned that Michael Schumacher is one of your idols. Are there any other figures you’re inspired by?
Louis Hamilton for sure. He’s a fantastic inspiration of a black driver who managed to break into the F1 world.
I’m very inspired by the fact that he wasn’t from a rich background. His career started with Ron Dennis from McClaren taking an interest in paying for his career. Louis’ stance on issues like sustainability, racial equality and providing more opportunities for black people in the sport are also commendable.
Another personal hero of mine is Muhammad Ali. I was reading a book about him recently and something the said resonated with me. It was that back in the 1960s there wasn’t any role models for black children growing up that era. Ali wanted to change that by creating a larger than life persona and being like a black superhero.
All the scrunity and trials he went through in his career and how he uplifted the community was so powerful. There was a reason why his phrase ‘I am the greatest’ has stood the test of time. If you say that over and over, even at times when you don’t believe it yourself, then do it anyway. Because words have power.
I 100% agree with you. Having those kind of simple mantras to keep reminding yourself of why you’ve chosen a certain path is vital.
Speaking of uplifting communities, you and Nile have a podcast called See Me Be Me. You talk to a lot of diverse people on the show and it’d be good to hear how you plan to grow that in the future.
The basis of the show is talking to diverse trailblazers in industries like science, motorsport and technology. We talk about how they got started, what barriers they had to overcome and where they’re heading.
The reason we called the show See Me Be Me is because when went into schools to teach young people it seemed to resonate with them that they were seeing people of a similar age and background showing them career opportunities. So, the idea with the podcast is encouraging people to think ‘well, if this person from a similar walk of life is excelling in this industry, why can’t I excel in it to?’
We’ve had some great guests on the show like Calumn Nicholas, a Red Bull F1 engineer. He said that when he was getting into F1 he didn’t see anyone who looked like him. How he got started was by talking to people at his local racetrack and then go there and build up his network.
That’s awesome. I imagine that you and your brother have different skill sets that you bring to the podcast and The Blair Project. How do you complement each other?
Nile’s strengths are he’s good at technology and setting up internal systems within the business. He’s great on camera, enjoys doing media interviews and goes around the country speaking. So, marketing is definitely where he excels.
With myself I’m in charge of the motorsport side of things. I’m focused on the outreach, engaging with schools and making sure our challenges run smoothly. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that because it ties into my passion for the industry. I also look at the day to day of the business with our staff and how we can improve operations.
Our mum also had a big part in the business in the early days. So, being a family business comes with a lot of strengths and because we’re tight knit I think that’s helped us get to where we’re at.
If you could change one thing about motorsports, what would it be and why?
Making the cost of entering motorsports to be as small as possible. One of our ambitions for the future is to set up an urban electric kart championship. With a lot of motorsport tracks, they tend to be in the middle of nowhere and if you don’t have a car to get to them it’s not accessible.
Don’t get me wrong. You might have the odd indoor track in a city. But the big outdoor tracks are usually out in the country. So, part of our goal with the urban electric kart championship is to bring inner city racing into the hearts of places like Manchester, London and Birmingham.
By doing this, we can increase the opportunities that young racers wouldn’t necessarily get. It’s also like an extension of our EV STEM challenge. With that, there’s a time trial approach. With the championship, it would be a true race for people who’ve built their own electric go-karts and further their careers.
It would be amazing to see something like that in the future. My last question is what’s your personal philosophy?
It’s always doing your bit to help others and give back to the community. It’s helping people with backgrounds similar to myself and give them hope that they can pursue a racing career if that’s what they want to do.