By Michelle Newman
Rosemary Smith is one of Ireland’s most renowned rally drivers, having been involved with the sport since the early 1960s. With many wins and titles to her name, she’s now taken on a new role as one of Peptalk’s Dream Team members, for the Peptalk All-Ireland Games.
The initiative, which promotes health and happiness in the workplace, will see businesses from all over the country compete in a four-week step challenge to be crowned the 2018 champions.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea, I’m delighted to be involved with them,” says Rosemary.
The challenge is also great opportunity to work on team building, as those taking part will be competing with, as opposed to against, the people they work with.
“Companies are embracing wellness all the time because they don’t need their staff being out sick. People are sitting so much just looking at their little phones, so anything that gets people up and doing something [is great]. When I was a child we always were doing something; we played hockey or tennis or climbing mountains. I think what they’re doing is great I must say.”
The Peptalk All-Ireland Games is open to women and men, and everyone is encouraged to get involved.
Rosemary thinks this is exactly how things should be as the situation was very different when she started out as a rally driver.
“The other lads on the team would say things like, ‘This dolly bird’ or ‘The dumb blonde’ and all this,” she says.
“Even when I won something then it would be a case of, ‘Oh she was very lucky, she had the best engine,’ or as one man said to me one time, ‘Did everybody else fall out?’
Rosemary says this was very ‘tough’ at the beginning but she was determined to not let it affect her.
Her introduction to rally driving happened almost by accident, after initially training as a dressmaker and owning her own shop on South Anne Street in Dublin.
“I enjoyed it. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what I did want to do,” she says.
Her question was answered when a customer asked Rosemary if she would like to come along to a rally, where she began as a co-driver, or navigator.
“After about three miles we ended up in somebody’s farmyard, so I drove and she navigated and then before we got to the finish line we changed over and she drove in,” says Rosemary.
This went on for a few races but when another driver told officials who the real driver was the ‘cat was out of the bag.’
Throughout the 1960’s Rosemary continued to prove her critics wrong, winning both the Tulip Rally and the Cork 20 Rally outright and competing at the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally.
A career as a rally driver is certainly not an easy one with ‘rolling down the side of cliffs’ and the possibility of getting seriously hurt, all part of the day job.
“But if you weren’t prepared to do it then you shouldn’t have gone rallying. The cars are much safer now than they were,” Rosemary says.
“I still have a little old car, but before I could take it out it would have to be up to the standard with fire extinguishers and this, that and the other.”
Having retired from competitive rally driving in the 1990s, in May last year Rosemary was given the opportunity to get out on the race track once again when she took the Renault F1 show car out on the Circuit of Paul Richard in France.
A spin which made Rosemary the oldest person to drive an 800bhp (brake horse power) race car.
“I’m an ambassador for Renault,” she explains, adding that the experience was ‘terrifying.’
“A Formula One car is very long and I like little cars. It’s very narrow, you’ve got to get right down, it was dreadful. They kept saying I had to go right down and I said, ‘If I go any further down my toes will be peeping out the front of the car.’
It was only when I had been fitted into the car that I realised what I had let myself in for. It was only then it really sort of struck me.”
These days Rosemary keeps herself busy with her driving school in Nass, co Kildare.
“I opened it out of necessity when I gave up driving professionally. I had to make a living, I had to do something,” she says.
“We’ve a classroom element and then we’ve got the actual driving element. I’m doing it nearly twenty years now. The way the youngsters have changed totally, they’re much more confident. I think what youngsters do nowadays is brilliant, I really do.”
The Peptalk All-Ireland Games challenge begins on January, 31. For more information, visit www.peptalk.ie