This Much I Know: Rosemary Smith, former rally driver

Former Rally Driver, Rosemary Smith.
This Much I Know: Rosemary Smith, former rally driver

From the minute I got into a car, I knew: this is it.

I’d hated school. I disliked the nuns with their long robes and rattling rosary beads and carbolic soap smell. But I was good at anything to do with my hands like games and art. I left school at fifteen to study dress design at The Grafton Academy, won an end of year competition and worked for a dress maker in Temple Bar before opening a little place of my own with my mother. But I was never great with money and, although we got a lot of clients and press coverage, the business folded when a customer didn’t pay a large bill.

My father ran a garage and raced in an amateur capacity, he didn’t have the money for a good machine. He insisted that I learn how to swim and to drive, at a time when few women drove. He was ahead of his time. He always believed humans would go to the moon. By the time of his death, he was learning Chinese.

I became an amateur and then a professional rally driver. There have been so many highlights. I rallied in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe. I’ve driven around the edges of cliffs, through thunderstorms, from London to Mexico. Rallying in the Andes was like being on the moon. I met everyone, from Bob Hope to Stirling Moss and Ayrton Senna.

I’m still not great with money. We never got paid for driving. Everyone thinks we made a fortune but it’s a myth, we just got expenses and the equipment.

Talent, in any sphere, is important but, to do well, you have to have that will to win.

I never worried about crashing. If you did, you’d never drive. My first manager told me I was allowed two mistakes ‘the first one is OK. The second one, I will sack you.’

At first, I was so shy that I sent my co-driver up to collect the awards when we won, because I was afraid to speak. Now, I’m a real people person. I love everyone. Unless they did me down in the past!

My biggest challenge has been - life. My marriage didn’t work out, I’m not sure why, maybe my public success had something to do with it. I had four miscarriages. I love men collectively but am now quite content to be on my own.

I’m a happy person generally. I didn’t like my 50s or 60s - I cried when my cousin threw me a 60th birthday party - but I’m happier than ever now.

My favourite saying is ‘Never Give Up’. It’s what I wanted to name my memoir, but we went with ‘Driven’ instead. Writing the book was a long process. They gave me a ghost writer, Ann Ingle, who put up with me for a year and half.

My biggest fault is that I can be a bit egotistical, because of my job, you know, I quite enjoy the attention of going to a restaurant where they know me, or getting a write up in the paper or whatever.

I’m physically fit. Before lockdown, my main job was teaching young people, mainly in Transition Year, to drive on private ground before they go out on the roads. Our last lesson was on March 10. I’ve been cocooning since. Every window in cleaned. Every flower is tended to. What the hell is next?

My idea of misery is having to get up at 6.15am to drive to Goffs in the dark and the rain to start teaching again - I love the teaching but not the winter weather. But there is no question of giving up. I’m 82 and don’t have a pension.

If I could be someone else for a day I’d be Iris Kellett. She was an Irish showjumper and horse trainer who had such determination - she broke the mould. She had her own riding school in Dublin. A freak fall shattered her left ankle, after which she contracted tetanus and was at death’s door - but she was riding again in just over a year.

My biggest extravagance is clothes. I love shopping and rooting around for a bargain.

I’m not sure about an afterlife, I think hell might be here on earth.

So far life has taught me that a smile is so much nicer than a frown.

Rosemary Smith’s memoir ‘Driven: A pioneer for women in motorsport’ is available in bookshops and online, published by HarperCollins.

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