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Nile Henry set up the Blair Project in 2014
Nile Henry set up the Blair Project in 2014 (Image: The Blair Project)

The young black entrepreneur transforming the face of motorsport from a workshop in the heart of Manchester

Stretford lad’s boyhood dream of being a racing driver has inspired a revolutionary enterprise
Just out of college at the time and living at his family home in Stretford, Nile saw how a Black man could make it in the motorsport industry.
His younger brother, Blair, was adamant on becoming a race car driver. It was all he ever wanted to do.
That same year, that dream would inspire Nile to set up a business which is bringing motorsport to young people from all of Greater Manchester’s communities – a business which could bring lasting change not only to competitive driving, but society as well.
Many elite racing drivers spend their youths racing karts competitively – a hobby and an apprenticeship that demands very deep pockets.
Success stories like Lewis Hamilton, who came from ordinary beginnings in Stevenage and had a father willing to work four jobs to support his son in motorsport, are extremely rare.
By founding motorsport social enterprise Blair Project, Nile is not only giving young people the chance to race competitively affordably – he’s also steering them towards careers with skills shortages, like engineering, and introducing them to green technologies, as well as breaking down class and racial barriers.
Nile set up the Blair Project when he was just 18, having left college with a triple distinction in software engineering.
“I had gone solo backpacking around the world at the age of 18, which was a little bit scary, but I was so ready for it,” Nile, now 26 and living in Wigan, tells the M.E.N.
“I was meant to spend a year out in America and Australia but I only managed to do four months because I couldn’t find a job in Australia.
“When I came back, the original plan was to get a job in retail and then had back out but that never really materialised.
“In March that next year, I had decided I’d had enough of working in retail and wanted to be an entrepreneur and start my own business.”
Blair Henry inspired his brother to found the Blair Project
Blair Henry inspired his brother to found the Blair Project (Image: The Blair Project)
Being back at home, Blair says he became further frustrated at the thought that his brother’s dream, who was 17 at the time, of being a Formula 1 driver was becoming less of a reality.
“I was trying to think of what business I wanted to start and then it dawned on me that if I could help my brother’s dream of becoming a racing driver then I could maybe achieve my dream of travelling the world by almost being his agent in some way, “Nile says.
“I could be there with him to support him as he traveled around all these cool places.”
Alongside support from his mum – who he describes as his ‘biggest inspiration’ – Nile set up The Blair Project, at that stage with the intention of helping his brother Blair make it in racing.
“It costs at least £35k a year to race competitively at just a grassroots carting level,” Nile says.
“To move up to the next level, and get a single-seater kart, you’re looking at £150k a year.
“To get to Formula 2, you have to spend £2 million. What family has that amount of money to spend on a racing career?
“The top one percent only has the opportunity to get to F1.
“It made me realise that the problem is that it doesn’t matter how talented you are.
“If you don’t have the financial resources behind you then you’re never really going to have the chance to excel in the industry.”
The project started out from the dreams of Nile's brother to be a racecar driver
The project was inspired by a Stretford lad’s dream of becoming a racing driver (Image: The Blair Project)
That realisation made Nile change the course of his business – it would serve as a way of helping lots of young people make it in the world of motorsport, and not just Blair.
“It was a way for me to see if I could support my younger brother’s dreams and help him get a racing career but also try to help others in a similar position,” Nile explains.
“Let’s see If we could try to eliminate the barriers of money and make it accessible like football.
“As long as you can afford football boots, there’s a good chance you can have a football career but who can afford to buy a go-kart?”
One of the ways The Blair Project is making motorsport accessible is by helping young people put together their own karts at a dedicated workshop at The Sharp Project in Monsall.
The karts are then raced at tracks across Greater Manchester – including the Three Sisters circuit in Wigan.
“We convert used petrol go karts into fully electric e-carts and use 3D printing technology to teach children how to design, build, test and race their own karts,” Nile says.
“We think of it as Formula 1 meets Pimp My Ride or Robot Wars, where a group of mates come together to build their own kart and compete with each other via circuits.
The Blair Project is the only Black-led electronic kart organisation in the world.
The Blair Project is the only Black-led electronic kart organisation in the world. (Image: The Blair Project)
“The beauty is that other young people are passionate about climate change so we wanted to tap into that activism by giving them a hands-on opportunity to learn and tinker with green technologies.”
In 2016, Prince Harry visited The Blair Project to meet Nile and to learn more about the organisation.
It propelled the company into an international spotlight – they appeared in magazines in Canada and were being spoken about on television in America.
But, with so much potential, the organisation still faced struggles in its early stages.
“It’s been a long hard road,” Nile says.
“There’s been a lot of highs but also a lot of lows where you start to think if it’s even worth it.
“We didn’t turn over any money for the first 18 months which was really difficult.
“We would go into meetings with companies who wouldn’t be interested in what we had to offer.
Prince Harry visited the Blair Project in 2016
Prince Harry visited the Blair Project in 2016 (Image: The Blair Project)
“It’s a very elitist sport and we have heard from some how they don’t want the ‘great unwashed’ being in sport.
“One engineering director asked us why we were giving these young people false hope. She told us they should know their place in life – and it wasn’t in motorsport.
“Why would you ever tell a young person that? Learn to know your place? Every young person should grow up having a dream and be able to achieve that dream.
“It was completely out of order but it also gave us the fuel and the fire to prove them wrong.”
Nile estimates the Blair Project now helps thousands of children each year and regularly attend schools across the country to give talks.
Alongside Manchester Science Park and Bruntwood, The Blair Project is now working on a new Innovation Activities Hub in Manchester that will provide ‘upskilling, reskilling and retraining’ to local residents. It’s set to open in 2022.
They’ve also recently featured in a report by The Hamilton Commission, an initiative set up by Lewis Hamilton.
The report found that only one per cent of motorsport engineering jobs are held by people from Black backgrounds.
“It’s important that young Black and Asian kids have role models that represent them,” Nile says.
“At the start of our process, we would use retired engineers from Jaguar Land Rover who just happened to be white.
“We found that while people loved the expertise being shown to them, they couldn’t see those opportunities for themselves through that person.
When we switched it up with myself and my younger brother, they could see their opportunities. They started to think if we could do that, maybe they could too.
Nile Henry set up the Blair Project in 2014
Nile Henry set up the Blair Project in 2014 (Image: The Blair Project)
“Growing up, we had no Black role models in terms of engineering and business and it’s still a pretty similar position today.
“A lot of our role models are sports stars or entertainers, like Marcus Rashford and Oprah, but we don’t have so many in business or engineering.
“I thought, well, if I can’t find anybody then maybe I can be that role model for the next generation.”
Nile’s brother Blair, who was ‘so shocked yet pleased’ when he found out he had set something up in his name, has become a role model too.
Nile’s brother Blair has since raced professionally and now also works part time at the Blair Project.
He hopes to get back on the professional race track once restrictions ease.
And Nile admits it’s ‘crazy’ that their work has now been recognised by Lewis Hamilton – someone he has looked up to for so long.
“I don’t think that I would have set up my business, if it weren’t for Lewis Hamilton,” he admits.
Young people get to make their own eco-friendly go-karts and then test them out on the track
Young people get to make their own eco-friendly go-karts and then test them out on the track (Image: The Blair Project)
“If he weren’t out there winning championships, Blair wouldn’t have pursued karting further.
“Now someone like Lewis has come through and done so well, he’s helped spur others on to realise their potential. That’s something we want to continue with.”
The Hamilton Commission report also identified numerous cases of ‘outright racism’ within UK motorsport.
Racism surrounding sport is something we’ve been harshly reminded of this summer, with messages of hatred directed towards England football players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
While many people fought back with messages of support, it has shown just how prominent racism can still be within sport.
“I do think there are still some deep rooted things within sports,” Nile says.
“Even in motorsport, it’s very elitist and they don’t want the ‘great unwashed’, such as Black or Asian people, in the sport, because some people still see it as the Billionaire Boys Club.
“The abuse that the England football team has gotten over penalties and over just a game is horrendous.
“Normally, the racial undertones are quite subtle. It’s not usually that in your face or focal, but we’re starting to see a lot more people are unafraid to make racist comments or write racial tweets anymore.
“It’s a big concern.”
The Blair Project is the only Black-led electronic kart organisation in the world.
There are considerable financial barriers to making it big in motorsport – the Blair Project is breaking them down (Image: The Blair Project)
“It’s crazy to say but Black Lives Matter and the pandemic have actually been some of the best things to happen for our business,” Nile adds.
“People are now starting to listen and companies are aware they need to do so much more.
“A whole load of initiatives are coming out with regards to diversity and inclusion, making sure there are fairer access to opportunities.
“I’m glad that they’re now starting to listen and make a positive change. Great things are happening and on the horizon.”
“Lewis Hamilton is what happens when you give someone a chance,” Nile says.
“He will now go down as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
“It shows that we will always go to the extreme to make sure we harvest the opportunities given to us.
“If we can make all sports, like football and motorsports, accessible for everybody then we’ll see a lot of change and we’ll see a lot of talent shine through.
“Give us the opportunity and we will prove it.”
SOURCE: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/young-entrepreneur-transforming-face-motorsport-21051484
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