Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter looks back at some of the women who excelled in their chosen sport and some who continue to do so

MOTORSPORT is one of the few sports which has been traditionally male-oriented over the years. At least on the face of it, rightly or wrongly, that’s the long-held perception.

Its testosterone-fuelled image of macho men defying death one minute before being garlanded in silverware the next and then leaving in a Roller with the latest Miss World (remember that?!) and heading for the penthouse of a luxury hotel to "relax".

The stuff of movies and dreams, and a boy’s own aspiration for spotty young lads to drape posters of the handlebar-moustachioed Graham Hill on their bedroom walls, the playboy extraordinaire that was James Hunt, the solicitous Ayrton Senna, the methodical genius of Michael Schumacher via Mansell, Button and Hamilton. And the Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen and James Garner who portrayed these stereotypical and heroic characters on the big screen.

But all is not what is seems because female participation is very much a part of life in the fast lane, and if you delve into the history books, then women have always had a prominent role in various aspects of the sport.

Stirling Moss’s sister Pat and Irishwoman Rosemary Smith were pioneers in rallying and very talented drivers in the 1950s. South African Desire Wilson became the first (and so far, only) woman to win in Formula 1, when she took victory in a non-championship race at Brands Hatch in 1980. That decade also spawned French superstar Michele Mouton, who was at one point the best rally driver in the world in her fire-spitting Audi Quattro.

American Danica Patrick won an Indy Car race and set pole in NASCAR at Daytona whilst TV presenter Vicki Butler Henderson was every bit as good as her male counterparts on the track. On bikes, Spaniard Ana Carrasco won the World Supersport 300 Championship a couple of years ago to become the first female in history to achieve that, Jenny Tinmouth has lapped the TT course at an average speed of 120mph and Emma Bristow is a regular challenger on the world trials scene, to name but a few.

Now such is the participation of women on two, three and four wheels, especially from our region, I’d need most of these sports pages to list them and then I’d invariably forget someone, and I’d be for the high jump. For that specific reason I’m going to be very selective by championing just a handful.

Half of the current Autograss paddock is comprised of a combination of junior girls, their mums and in some cases grandmothers. Trials feature an increasing number of both junior and senior females at all levels, not to mention the mass participation of girls in minibike racing or cadet karting. Rallying and rallycross, as well as circuit racing, enjoys the presence of women increasingly in their droves and what’s more, this isn’t tennis, soccer, golf, athletics, or cricket etc – generally speaking there are few gender divisions or separate competitions defined by sex. The lasses usually race against the lads on equal terms and using equal machinery.

When it comes to circuit racing, there have been plenty of women competing at local tracks including Croft, Catterick and Rufforth. Names such as Jill Hutchinson (Terrier), Jenny Birrell-Nadine (Wylie’s Escort) and Gillian Fortescue-Thomas (Escort) plied their trade back in the 1960s and 1970s.

And then there was Valli. Real name Val Stack, she was a protégé of one of Croft’s most successful drivers Chris Meek, whereby the Leeds businessman helped procure sponsorship and ran her in the same teams as him for a couple of years in the mid-1970s. Meek realised the unique promotional and commercial value of having his girlfriend (at the time) race cars such as a Lotus Europa, a Triumph TR7 and an MG Midget and introduced such sponsors as Radio Luxembourg, Princess Ita and BIBA Cosmetics who bought into the concept.

Valli in action later in the day at Croft Picture: Terry Wright

'Valli' in action later in the day at Croft Picture: Terry Wright

She had some pretty good results during her short career before marrying pop star Emile Ford (without his Checkmates, luckily).

Scotswoman Kim Devine (Hillman Imp), local resident Helen Elstrop (Triumph Spitfire) and Jean Birkett (Rover Tomcat) were more recent combatants on track whilst another local driver, Amanda Whitaker, really did take the sport by storm a couple of decades ago.

Originally from Newton Aycliffe, Whitaker became one of Britain's most successful female racing drivers, taking more than 50 race wins and setting multiple lap records. During her tenure in the sport, she won numerous national single seater titles including the 2006 European Formula Atlantic Championship crown. Amanda was top points scorer overall in European F2 Championship that year and became the first female in history to win a National Formula Ford Championship race.

She then suffered a massive crash at Mallory Park, but it didn’t faze her and soon she was back behind the wheel just missing out by just three points on the 2009 HSCC Formula Ford Championship. After she retired, Amanda became a performance driving instructor throughout the UK, Europe and USA working for most major manufacturers and racing schools as well as doing TV adverts.

But perhaps the most successful female drivers in recent times are Northallerton sisters Paige and Drew Bellerby, who have won a major British Rallycross Championship each in the past couple of years. It was inevitable that Paige and her younger sibling would follow their super successful dad Dave into the sport in which he has been so prominent over the past 25 years.

Paige (left) and Drew Bellerby are trailblazing the rallycross scene these days Picture: Phill Andrews

Paige (left) and Drew Bellerby are trailblazing the rallycross scene these days Picture: Phill Andrews

After only a couple of years competing, a 21-year-old Drew won the 2019 BMW Mini Championship after taking a dramatic victory in the final race of the season and then in last year’s Covid-19 fragmented season, Paige emerged victorious in the Motorsport UK Supernational Rallycross Championship in her Lotus Exige by virtue of one win and two second places out of the three rounds held.

And those a just a few of the thousands of women who have donned their crash helmets, there are many others in all forms of motorised sport and the numbers continue to rise.

Was it Blur that sang about Boys and Girls? Well, this sport doesn’t divide, differentiate, or discriminate, and is one where the girls are every bit as good as the boys, often better. And as someone who has for years competed alongside the lasses and also against them, I speak from experience.

  • Thanks to Terry and Yvonne Wright and Tony Todd for their help once again.