When James Helliwell attended a model car racing event in a pub car park at the age of 11, he could not possibly have anticipated what the experience would ultimately mean for his family farm.
James is a self-confessed car fanatic and seeing model cars zipping around a circuit completely separate from the driver at this young age sparked his imagination – at a time when radio control systems were in their infancy.
Along with parents Henry and Pat, James operates a farm in North Nottinghamshire, primarily growing malting barley. Their speciality being Maris Otter which is grown for the higher end craft ales such as Black Sheep Ale. They also grow alternative cereals such as triticale and rye, and have produced a variety of niche crops over the years including borage, camelina, linseed and industrial hemp.
The family have also partnered with neighbouring farms for vegetable crops such as potatoes, carrots, beetroot, parsnips and peas. They have entered countryside stewardship schemes in recent years to bolster the already significant wildlife and environmental enhancement across the farm.
A racing dream
After several weeks of his first experience as a young boy of model car racing in the pub car park, James purchased a car and equipment and visited the club event again to participate. It transpired that it was only a small club operating on a shoe string but they were looking for a more permanent venue from which they could grow.
“We actually had a suitable site which had formerly been a clay pigeon shooting ground,” says James. “My father, a champion clay pigeon shooter who represented Great Britain many times, along with my mum had developed the shooting ground into an established enterprise.
“Unfortunately, after several years of operation the local council shut the site down after a long battle on the grounds of noise pollution. The model car racing club took on the site and it operated successfully for a number of years.”
It wasn't until James, who is currently the CLA Nottinghamshire branch chairman, had completed a degree at Harper Adams University and returned to the farm that he decided there was scope to develop and expand the rather unique, niche enterprise further.
The family took the site back in hand, by which time the technology of racing vehicles and equipment had developed significantly. They teamed up with an established Yorkshire club and rebranded the enterprise to ‘Robin Hood Raceway’.
The track was resurfaced and enlarged, a drivers rostrum was rebuilt, a 200 seater grandstand installed, a small cafe and toilets renovated, and automatic timing introduced, along with a public address system.
In June this year they hosted the European Championships, which was streamed on YouTube to 80,000 subscribers. The event had been delayed for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There was an astonishing amount of planning and logistics for the event,” says James. “We had to converse with 25 countries, making sure their racers had legitimately qualified for the event.
“Then there was the general logistics of food, toilet facilities, waste, marquee hire, tables and chairs, seeding races effectively, trophies, adequate power for 150 people charging batteries and other equipment.”
The diversification challenge
A diversification project of this nature clearly takes a large investment in time. “Every day the raceway requires my time, whether that is online marketing, sorting maintenance issues, setting up for the next major event, answering enquires, sourcing materials.
“Fortunately, the site is only two miles from home so I can nip up to the venue and carry out tasks quite quickly, which is very useful when there is also a farm to run. Modern technology, such as smart phones and tablets, allow me to carry out a lot of the admin and logistical requirements when I’m out and about, which is an excellent time saver.”
The upfront investment takes up the major portion of the funding required for this business venture. The ongoing costs for each event are relatively low, but with expenses across the board rising for everyone, the family has taken initial steps to combat this by installing solar panels on a building at the site in January. Racers pay between £10-£25 per day to race.
James has this advice for anyone considering a unique farm diversification such as this. “Follow your passion and stick to what you know, but be realistic. Just because you love your idea doesn't mean everyone else will,” says James.
“Do your research and know the market you want to enter - know your customers’ needs, take on their feedback and implement it. Maximise the internet’s reach for marketing and don’t ignore your competition. Learn from them and improve on what they offer.
“Also, keep educating yourself and embrace new technology. Keep your eye on areas that will make your business easier to run, which will make long term sustainability more viable.” James concludes.