Life in the fast lane is par for the course

Motorsport is a family affair for Deirdre McKinley and her husband Simon, they are hoping that baby Rory will follow their in tyre tracks.

DEIRDRE McKINLEY isn’t one to let the grass grow under her feet. A passionate motor racing driver, she returned to training two weeks after having her first child and was competing back in the top 10 of her sport a few months later. The 34-year-old, originally from Limerick but now settled in Naul, Co Dublin, has just returned from Luxembourg where she and husband Simon were part of the four-member Irish team competing against 17 other countries in the Inaugural FIA International Hillclimb Masters Event. They were the only husband-and-wife team in the competition and Deirdre was the only woman representing her country.

Rory, now four months old, went along as the team ‘mascot’, donning a set of ear protectors designed especially for babies and with family and friends on hand to mind him as his parents competed.

“I finished 68th of 134 drivers and was third of eight ladies. Team Ireland finished sixth. I’m delighted with the time I put in especially considering the company I was in,” Deirdre says. Simon came in 25th place.

Hillclimbing is one of motorsport’s oldest competitive events, involving cars travelling at incredible speeds as drivers compete against the clock to complete an uphill course. Deirdre has been competing since 2010 and it’s where she met Simon, who hails from a strong motor racing background. He is the current Irish hillclimb champion and Deirdre has secured sixth place, despite missing some early events due to her pregnancy.

“I didn’t grow up with motorsports — I actually did ballet until I was 17 — but I always had an interest in cars. Over the years I used to watch the cars racing and wondered if I could do that,” she says. Her school mates Denis Hogan and Paul O’Connell were involved in hillclimbing and Deirdre came to Limerick Hillclimb in 2002 to find out what it was all about. Then she helped out with organising Hillclimb paddocks from 2004 to 2008, before starting to compete four years ago. The couple married in 2012 and joked about having an ‘off-season’ baby so she would not miss a full championship.

“Our ‘off-season’ baby was so well-timed that morning sickness hit 10 days after the end of the 2013 season,” she says. Rory Peter McKinley arrived on his due day on May 14 and it was Simon’s mother who pointed out that his initials are actually RPM — which was a complete accident, says Deidre. She had set herself a target to get back to training after giving birth ‘as soon as I felt ready’.

In order to be fit for the Masters event in October, she needed to get back on track as soon as she felt physically and emotionally able. “We half seriously planned a training regime for after the baby was born, hoping it would all be straightforward. We were very optimistic, I wanted to enjoy our newborn and treasure each day. In the end, I started back ‘training’ when Rory was two-and-a-half weeks old, just going for a gentle spin to build up neck, arm and core muscles. But most importantly I needed to desensitise myself to speed — it all felt so unfamiliar, I remembered how I should be driving but had no interest in keeping my foot down.

“I enjoyed my few laps but happily went back to my little boy in our camper van.” Within 10 weeks she was back in the top 10 but Deirdre admits it wasn’t all plain sailing. Rory wasn’t gaining weight so Deirdre expressed her milk and used bottles to supplement breastfeeding. He was diagnosed with tongue tie and Deirdre is now back to breastfeeding normally. “It was an interesting time — the feeding regimen in our camper van over hillclimb weekends, leaving Rory with his grandparents as we did our runs, the sleep deprivation... combined with trying to get up to speed again. “As any new mother will tell you, expressing milk, bottle feeding to the baby and also keeping your baby at the breast so he remembers where his food comes from — it’s challenging, 24/7, but it was worth it.

“On competition days, I go from feeding Rory in our camper van to the start line in my competition car. I did this with about three minutes between feed and start line at the last event. There’s quite a change from the relaxing hormones while breastfeeding

and the adrenalin on the start line. In hillclimbing you do about five runs in a day so you go from baby to car, car to baby, all day. It’s a whirlwind.”

Deidre feels it’s important that her son becomes part of their world of sport. He’s already been presented with his own trophy — the Novice award by Donegal Motorclub. “In the 19 weeks since Rory’s birth, he has been to six hillclimb weekends and nine karting sessions. We’ve only had three non-motorsport weekends,” Deirdre laughs. “We felt it was important to start as we meant to continue, by bringing Rory along to our sport. In hillclimbing you travel to the most beautiful corners of Ireland to spend two-and-a-half days with close family and friends. Each hillclimb is like a family reunion, such is the closeness of the competitors. We believe it takes a village to raise a child and we want to bring Rory up with an environment where this is the case.”

Both families have been very supportive even though Deirdre’s family’s only exposure to the sport is through their daughter. “I’m sure they had their concerns when I started, it is an adrenalin sport and has a certain reputation after all. But other than a gentle ‘be careful’ they’ve left me to it.

“Over time, they’ve listened to my stories, saw me relish it, learned about the sport and are now really excited when I compete. My mum comes to events to watch and shows a photo of my racing car to nearly everyone we meet!”

How do people react generally when she tells them about her sporting passion? “When I started people would make a bit of a joke of it sometimes but generally it’s accepted this is what I do. Others say it’s risky — it’s an adrenalin sport but safer than horse riding. There are not many women competing this year but it’s a sport where age and gender really don’t matter. I’m a competitor like any other.”

She would be delighted for Rory to follow in their footsteps.

“Rory will have grown up around motorsport and I hope he learns to approach like his father who is the best sportsman I know. There are so many life lessons we can show him by this world of hillclimbing. There aren’t many sports where parents and teenagers/grown-up children still compete together for decades, socialising and having friends spanning many generations.”

So does the shared passion of the same sport make it a competitive marriage? She laughs, describing her husband as ‘annoyingly good’.

“We both usually compete in Class 7, which is the unlimited class. While Simon usually wins events overall, I would usually finish somewhere between fourth and eight overall at an event. I never let him live down that I have beaten him twice though!

“Simon and I have learned every step of parenting together. It’s very much a team effort, which is how we approach most things in our lives. I did ask him to drive faster on the way in to the hospital — it’s the only time I ever asked him to drive faster!”

Rory Peter McKinley arrived on his due day on May 14 and it was Simon’s mother who pointed out that his initials are actually RPM


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