Why charities, game developers and car enthusiasts descended on Donnington Park Circuit for a day
By Andy Brown

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British Racing Greats. Credit: OneZero7even.

“I‘ve always had a thing against NME,” says Ben ‘The Stig’ Collins, as the rally car we’re sharing growls into life. In a few seconds, we’ll be throttling around the bends of Donnington Park Circuit at 100 miles per hour — but before that, Collins takes great pleasure in outlining how awful that will be for the poor journalist strapped into his passenger seat.

Thankfully, he’s joking. When we tear out of the pit stop, Collins makes the course look easy — the ex-Top Gear driver is on his best behaviour today, as he’s here for charity. Collins, along with fellow racer Jodie Kidd, are in Donnington for British Racing Greats: an inaugural fundraising event celebrating car culture and racing video games.

While Collins and Kidd take visitors on hot laps of the Park Circuit, a host of publishers have converted empty garages into booths for their games, where they take shelter from today’s drizzling rain. Organised by UK game developer Sumo Digital, all manner of studios have turned up for the event. There are playable booths for Forza, Dirt and Formula 1 games to name a few, while a life-sized Sonic The Hedgehog parades outside Sega‘s garage for Team Sonic Racing. Outside, a fleet of very expensive cars flock the pit lane, while hobbyists have brought their own motors to showcase.

 

It’s all for a very good cause: British Racing Greats was organised to raise money for two charities, SpecialEffect and Solving Kids’ Cancer UK. While SpecialEffect helps those with disabilities play games, Solving Kids’ Cancer UK supports children and families affected by neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that develops in nerve cells. Today, both charities have their own garage to raise funds and showcase their work to their visitors. For SpecialEffect, this involves custom-built controllers and racing games that can be played via eye tracking — life-changing gear for gamers who may struggle with using default setups.

After a breathless lap around Donnington’s circuit, we visit Sumo Digital’s own booth, where Sumo co-founder Darren Mills explains how a night out in Liverpool led to today’s event. Mills, who became an ambassador for SpecialEffect last year, wanted to “do more than just sponsor things and turn up” — so when he was out for drinks with the SpecialEffect team, he floated the idea of a charity event celebrating Britain’s rich racing game history.

“It kind of grew from there,” says Mills. “We went out and pitched to companies — I got Sumo on board straight away — but we pitched to Sony, Sega and all these [companies]. The answers straight away were ‘hell yeah — we’ll be part of that!’”

A large part of their willingness was the community that’s built around the UK’s racing game developers. From Playground Games (Forza) to Codemasters (F1), there’s a good chance your favourite racing game is made in the UK — something that’s united everyone for today’s event.

“Look at all these games here,” says Mills, motioning across the rainy pit lane. “They’re all UK-made games. They may have foreign publishers, but they’re all made here. If you’ve worked in games in the UK for any length of time, chances are you’ve done a racing game — and I think that brings everyone together.”

Mills points out that everyone has come together to “do more than a normal charity event”. Sega’s Sonic-themed car is valued at the “double-figure millions,” while SpecialEffect’s booth lets visitors play Forza using only their eyes. “Working with these charities brings out the best in everybody,” he adds, smiling.

Mills isn’t the only petrolhead at Sumo Group. Sumo’s CEO, Carl Cavers, is big on motorsport; and also serves as vice president of SpecialEffect. It was Cavers that brought SpecialEffect and Solving Kids’ Cancer UK (SKC) together for the day, and when we meet SKC CEO Gail Jackson for an interview away from roaring motors, she highlights how important that meeting was. “We hadn’t worked together before, but it quickly became apparent that we had so much to bring to each other,” says Jackson, who explains that because their charity battles a rare type of cancer, it can be difficult to achieve the sort of profile it has been given today.

“It’s hard for us to get our cause in front of people,” she explains. “This was an opportunity for people to really understand what we do — and for us, we’ve learned about the power of gaming for children experiencing cancer. They’re in hospital for weeks, sometimes months at a time. They can’t go to school or interact with friends, and gaming gives them another world to interact with. It’s also a great distraction from pain and treatment.”

As SKC’s biggest event yet, Jackson is thrilled with how today has gone. Because of fundraising events like British Racing Greats, SKC can offer practical, financial and emotional support for those affected by neuroblastoma, in addition to investing in clinical research. Meanwhile, SpecialEffect’s BubbleBusters — desktop robots made to tackle medical isolation — have already been used by SKC to keep children involved in their school life while undergoing treatment. As for Sumo, the company has paid for “practical” support for the hospitalised children that SKC supports, all while raising money for SpecialEffect to continue innovating in accessible technology.

By the time British Racing Greats comes to a close, there’s an atmosphere of triumph at Donnington Park Circuit. Even the overcast skies relent, and sunlight glances off the circuit’s shiny fleet of cars. While British Racing Greats’ debut was invite-only for industry members, enthusiasts and families supported by today’s charities, Mills says the event has brought in around 500 visitors.

“It’s gone better than I could have ever hoped,” beams Mills, who worried the weather would stop people from attending. “I didn’t know whether anyone was even going to turn up, or how much effort [publishers] would put in.”

Now, all eyes are on 2024. After the event concludes, Sumo reveals that British Racing Greats raised over £100,000 for SpecialEffect and SKC. Everyone that NME spoke to on the day said they would be keen to get involved with another British Racing Greats, and there were a few that suggested opening future events to the public. It remains to be seen what happens — though from today’s event, a second lap would get the green light from us.