Veteran racing driver Rosemary Smith (80) made history this year when at 79 she became the oldest person to drive a Formula One car on a racing circuit writes Eddie Cunningham. Rosemary Smith is no stranger to making history on a global scale. Along with a trunk full of sheer driving talent, her larger-than-life personality has helped her achieve unrivalled success as an international rally driver and business woman. But at 80 you might expect her to be taking things a little bit easier? Not a bit of it. She has never been so busy.
Rosemary is constantly on the go – be it to drive in the United States or to give a lecture in England or mainland Europe on her experiences behind the wheel of some of the world’s fastest rally cars. She has always been well known in motor racing circles, but her recent courageous escapade in a Formula One (F1) race car has brought her to the attention of a whole new audience. Her drive in Renault’s 800bhp F1 car (which has a top speed of over 300 KPH) on the Circuit Paul Ricard near Marseilles, France, went viral on YouTube. She admits to being terrified when she sat into the F1 car initially, but her flawless driving pedigree quickly took over and she really enjoyed the experience. Another box ticked. It had been her lifelong ambition to drive an F1 car.
First rally Rosemary’s father was a motor engineer and both her father and brother raced Chrysler cars all over Ireland. Rosemary left school early to train as a dress designer and opened her own dress shop. A client, (whose husband had incidentally won the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally) invited her to navigate for her on a rally and having proved herself more adept at driving than navigating Rosemary quickly began to make a name for herself as one of the fastest females on four wheels.
In 1964 she took the ladies’ prize on the Circuit of Ireland Rally driving a Sunbeam Rapier. Two years later she was controversially disqualified from the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally after winning the ladies’ class. However, that bitter disappointment didn’t stop her winning nearly everything she competed in for years afterwards alongside her long-time navigator Pauline Gullick. Notches on her belt include the Dutch Tulip Rally, the Acropolis Rally and the Canadian Shell 4000. In 1973 the duo took part in the 2,500 mile East Africa Safari in a Datsun (Nissan) Bluebird and also in the 7,000-mile London to Sydney rally crossing countries such as Iran at a time when women simply didn’t “do” such things.
“I don’t feel eighty. Not a bit of it,” Rosemary says. “A lot of people are not as lucky as I am. I know that. I’ve had great health all my life. At my age now it was either a matter of lying down under setbacks or deciding I wouldn’t let things get me down. I’m a lot more positive now than I was when I was younger. I have made myself think positive and it has influenced my life and what I do. Age should not stop you from doing what you want or from setting yourself new challenges.”
Asked where she finds the energy, Rosemary jokes “I don’t know. I just keep going. When you don’t have a family and grandchildren all around you, I suppose you have to find something to fill in the time. When the chance came to drive the F1 car, I didn’t think twice. I’ve had six operations to put stents in my heart, mainly because of the stress of money worries during my life, but I’d never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t done it.”
Mature drivers Rosemary has been running her own driving school for many years and was at the vanguard of a movement to teach young Irish people how to drive as part of the school curriculum. But as an older driver herself now, what advice has she for how mature drivers should keep their skills honed on today’s busy and dangerous roads? “The biggest danger is complacency,” she says. “They say: ‘Oh! I’ve been driving for years and have never had an accident.’ Maybe so. But maybe they have also caused a few! A lot of people don’t realise that modern cars are so much faster than even a few years ago. Be aware of how fast you are travelling and take much greater care.”
Rosemary also advises older drivers to pay more attention to the basics of driving because they can become slipshod about best practice over time. “I really wish they would use their wing mirrors and indicators more and respect the road markings. It is shocking to see what people do sometimes,” she says.
And so we come back to the future. What plans has she in store?
“Whatever comes along. I love to be busy and there is plenty to do. I am honorary president of many, many motoring clubs and I am frequently asked to speak at them. I really love doing that.” It means she is on the go a lot, but then she always has been.
Youtube Link to Rosemary's F1 drive: