Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s day. I grew up hearing stories from my father of the famous Irish fighting brigades. I read the penultimate Irish history book when I was still in high school. As I planned out what to write during March, I knew I had to pick a great Irishwoman who drove cars. When I started researching Rosemary Smith’s story, I got more than I thought I would. Female drivers have all types of pressure on them both on and off track. Smith’s story explains how she’s still racing into her late 70s.
Smith was born in Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. Her parents were of two different faiths, which was very rare back then. Her father, a mechanic and driver, was Protestant and her mother was Catholic. That caused all sorts of trouble for Smith as she grew up attending Catholic school. It also didn’t help that she was a tall child. I’m not going to say all nuns are mean, but Catholic nuns in the 1940s were all about corporal punishment. Smith talks about the constant teasing from nuns and the troubled family life in multiple interviews. When I’ve written about female drivers, you hear about the father’s being the reason why daughters go into racing (such as Vanina Ickx and Christina Nielsen). The larger presence in Smith’s life is her mother. Smith indicates the marriage wasn’t a happy or faithful marriage and her mother attempted to live a new life through Smith.
She didn’t start her life wanting to be a racecar driver. Though trained at age eleven by her father, Smith’s career path veered into dressmaking/seamstress and a model. It wasn’t until 1959 when a customer, and a rally driver, invited Smith to join her in a race as navigator. Smith was not a great navigator, but the roles switched and she showed a sudden flash of brilliance as a driver. Shortly afterwards she signed on with manufacture Rootes Group as a works driver.
She kept to Rally driving in her career, winning many of the “lady prizes” including the Circuit of Ireland (1964); the Scottish Rally; the Alpine Rally (twice) and the Acropolis Rally. She was the ladies class (Coupe des Dames) winner in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, but controversy surrounds this race as multiple cars were disqualified due to headlights not being up to regulation. Smith’s greatest accomplishments came driving a Hillman Imp. In fact, she became the outright winner of the 1965 International Tulip Rally in the car. She is the only woman to have won that race. She is the five-time winner of the Circuit of Ireland Rally. During one race, she hit a stone wall and her navigator suffered a pretty nasty head wound. Being the calm collected female driver she is, Smith wrapped her navigator’s head with a scarf and drove her to the hospital. They got on the road soon after that.
Perhaps the best story I’ve read about Smith involves her having to up the Khyber Pass in reverse as her car was stuck in first gear. Now the Khyber Pass isn’t a simple Sunday drive, it’s the mountain pass that connects Pakistan and Afghanistan. For anyone who has traversed the Smokey Mountains, think of it as going through the Monteagle section of 24 backwards. My other favorite story about Smith is when she broke the Irish Speed Record in 1978 under auspicious circumstances. The attempt started at 5am morning and involved people having to clear the roads of seagulls. By the way, Smith hadn’t driven the car prior to the attempt.
After retiring from Rally Driving, Smith opened up her own driving school in Ireland. Just a few months ago Smith broke another record when at the age of 79 she drove a Formula 1 car. She drove the Renault Team Car back in November. Right before Smith got into the car, she was told Jeremy Clarkson (of Top Gear fame) had stalled the car. Of course, Smith had no troubles driving the car.
I’ve written about numerous female drivers now, and we’ve featured a driver on nearly every non-race or non-interview episode of our podcast. Each driver has mentioned the struggles they’ve faced in the series being the only woman. Smith recounts being called a “dumb blonde” or “dolly bird” and when she would win the joke was “did everyone else fall out of the race”. I think, in part, Smith has her upbringing to recognize as why she’s been able to push past those comments and continue to show everyone that women can drive cars fast and through extreme conditions.