Rosemary Smith beat the men in the 1960s when women were considered arm candy in motorsports, and off the road she has survived heartache and being “stony broke”, says Margaret Jennings.
BACK in the mid-1960s, she was the ‘blonde dolly bird’ who grabbed the headlines with her winning spirit and dogged determination as a rally driver.
For those of a younger generation to appreciate the impact Dubliner Rosemary Smith made, think of the TV series Mad Men and the sexist attitude of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency males towards any attractive female.
Then, rev-up that sexist engine to full throttle in the sport of rally driving, where most women were arm candy for the macho drivers, or draped across car hoods by advertising agencies, and you can appreciate how Rosemary not only broke that mould, but exploded it.
As a dress designer who loved style, she grasped the steering wheel of the rally car with her perfectly manicured red nails and took to the dirt tracks around the world. She won often, including beating the men in the Tulip rally in 1965.
Now 77, there is no sign of Rosemary’s spirit or energy declining. Last September, she drove from London to Monte Carlo, an eight-day trip over the Alps.
“I finished third and was very pleased with myself. You can’t just sit down and do nothing — sure that’s ridiculous! Once I get behind the wheel of a car, I can go infinitum — I just get into the groove and away I go and have a great time.”
Even when she’s driving normally, the adrenaline kicks in and she gets the urge to “put the foot down. At this stage of my life, I should be trotting along like a dear old lady. No way I can do that.”
The trajectory of Rosemary’s life has been as bumpy and unpredictable as the mountainous and rugged terrain she has navigated behind the wheel.
Married once and in a long-term relationship with another man straight afterwards, she spent 30 years doing what she now regrets as her own “bad choices”, ending up “stony broke” in her late 50s.
“I had to go and try and find a job and I had to go on the dole, at one stage, and I tell you it was the most awful day of my life. It was arranged that I would go down to one of these centres, where I would sign on, and I had dark glasses on and a headscarf and an old raincoat and the head down and the first thing I heard was ‘Hi, Rosemary, How are you?’,” she laughs. “I nearly died!”
Her determination kicked in, though: “You either go under or you say ‘No, I’m not letting this get me down’.
“All these fair-weather friends I had, when I was giving big dinner parties, disappeared off the face of the Earth. Now, I have some very good girlfriends, who are very important to me and I’m always busy.”
A major part of her recovery was setting up her driving school for transition-year students, which is run out of Goffs on the Naas Road, Dublin. She loves it.
Though she has the energy to “go on and on and on”, she has had five stents put in her heart, the first two 12 years ago, which she blames on the previous stresses in her life.
And though people of any age would consider driving at 60 miles an hour over corkscrew roads a heart-stopper, not Rosemary.
Does she think of the years running out? “Ah, I suppose I do in a way. I went down to the solicitor and said I wanted to leave instructions for my funeral,” she says.
“I said I wanted a pink wickerwork casket. I want David Brett flowers — pink and purple. The poor solicitor... I think he thought I was out of my mind.
“I would like Blaze Away music.. And [my coffin to] slide through the curtains, because I want to be cremated. And that will be the end of me... there you are!”
She says she had her friend, Pat, accompany her to reassure the solicitor that she was serious. And she says: “I want a nice funeral. I don’t want everybody dressed in black, not that they’d be crying — they’d be laughing, knowing my friends.”
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