Commentary & Interviews

Rosemary Smith: Motorsport Pioneer

Younger generations may not have heard of Rosemary Smith but my own generation and older worship her. She was not only an international pioneer of women’s motorsport but she was a trailblazer for women who wanted to live life on their own terms. She held her own in an overwhelmingly male profession and in an Ireland where conservative attitudes towards women were the norm.

I’ve admired Smith’s racing and rallying skills since I was knee-high. She travelled the world following her profession and passion, often encountering adverse conditions, multiple challenges and sexist viewpoints.

Given her inspirational influence, I’ve decided to dedicate a post to her career and life. So read on and enjoy the ride.

Rosemary Smith Motorsport Pioneer
Rosemary Smith’s autobiography

ROSEMARY SMITH: EARLY LIFE

Rosemary Smith was born in Dublin in 1937. Her father was a mechanic who had his own garage. It was from her father she learned how to drive aged 11, received encouragement and developed a passion for all things vehicular. She had a fraught relationship with her mother.

Rosemary didn’t like academic study but excelled at practical subjects and sport. When she left school, she enrolled in fashion design school and became a dress designer.

MOTORSPORT PIONEER

When Delphine Biggar asked Rosemary to design a dress for her, she also asked Rosemary to accompany her on a motoring rally. The experience left Smith hooked on the sport and she drove with Biggar in a number of rallies including the Circuit of Ireland in 1959.

In 1961, Smith competed in the UK RAC Rally and in the Monte Carlo Rally. She was signed by the Rootes Group in the UK and represented them in many races including the Scottish Rally, Geneva Rally, Tour de France Rally, Circuit of Ireland, and in the Tulip Rally which she won in 1965. She competed four times in the challenging Coupe des Alpes in 1963 and from 1965-’67.

In 1966, she travelled to North America competing in the Daytona 24 hour race. She competed in the Shell 4000 which ran from Vancouver to Quebec, winning the ladies competition in the process.

The Rootes Group was taken over by Chrysler and in 1968, Rosemary was let go. She became freelance, initially driving for Porsche and then for Ford on the London to Sydney endurance race.

Her next big endurance race was London to Mexico in 1970. The first leg of the race involved driving from capital to capital in Europe. The second leg involved picking up the car in Rio de Janeiro and driving the five thousand mile journey to Mexico City. During this race, her fan belt broken and she famously replaced it with her tights.

In 1974, she participated in the Kenyan Rally where wet weather turned the route into a muddy affair. Nevertheless, Smith prevailed where others failed.

In 1978, she set the Irish land speed record.

LIFE AFTER RACING

By her own admission, Smith loved the thrill of racing and she continued in the motoring industry in various capacities. She gives talks to motoring organisations and makes appearances at various events. She participated in classic rallies and, in 2015, was invited to take part in the Tulip Rally, marking the 50th anniversary of her win.

In the early 1980s, she presented a motoring show for RTE. In 1999, she devised a motoring programme for Transition Year school students but failed to get the government backing required to see it come to fruition. However, she succeeded in giving the Minister for Transport driving lessons! In the same year, she set up the Rosemary Smith Driving School, a business which is still going strong.

To mark the centenary of the Royal Irish Automobile Association in 2001, Rosemary featured on a postage stamp. In 2017, she was included in two major photographic exhibitions: A Woman’s Work showcased strong and inspiring Irish women, and Portrait of a Century featured 100 Irish people born each year since the foundation of the Irish state. Rosemary was the 1937 photo, the year of her birth.

Also in 2017, Smith was invited to Circuit Paul Ricard in France by Renault, where she became the oldest person to drive a Formula 1 car.

PERSONAL LIFE

While Rosemary successfully navigated the perils of a motorsport career, her personal life proved more challenging. Her glamourous looks meant no shortage of male attention but genuine love evaded her.

Partners of successful women seem to come in two categories: Those that encourage and celebrate their women’s accomplishments, and those that do the opposite. Unfortunately for Rosemary, her husband was of the latter category.

In 1970, she married but, by her own admission, it was a marriage without romance. She felt her husband was jealous and resentful of her success, continually undermining her confidence by putting her down with remarks. Smith was left financially worse off after their divorce.

Another significant relationship left Smith in an even worse off position financially, to the point that she ended up on social welfare.

Such personal battles would submerge most in a wave of hopelessness. But the resilience, focus and endurance that Smith employed in her racing career seem to have stood to her in her personal life.

On her website, she describes herself as a campaigner, sportswoman and educator. I would add that she is an extraordinarily talented woman, a role model and a motorsport pioneer. Long may we be celebrating this trailblazer.  

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