A few years ago I wrote an article on safety in top class racing. Not something I recommend for the faint hearted as with all of todays social media it turned into a right bun fight. It really is something that splits opinion. It would be fair to say that a certain section of society would bring back the Roman amphitheater’s and Gladiators while others are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum and would make everything as safe as possible. Obviously there is middle ground but it is hard to find! And controversially the comments and views to my article were much more fervent and aggressive on the side of safety. A small but interesting contradiction.
So while researching the participation of Ladies racing at Le Mans I discovered a similar and fascinating contradiction woven into the history of top level Motor Sport.
From the very first motor races the fairer sex have always excelled. In 1903 Camille De Gast competed in the Paris to Madrid. While on this side of the channel countless ladies competed in speed trials and sprints. During the 1920s & 1930s women in racing cars was certainly not unusual. At Brooklands there numerous females, and the likes of Key Petre and Glenda Stewart made their mark as great drivers. At the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours the first all women’s team of Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse not only entered, but came home 7th overall and two years later Siko paired up with Jean Sabipa and finished 4th overall.
In 1935 ten ladies entered and there were 4 all women crews! Right up until the 1950s women were a contstent fixture at the great race. And then in 1956 all women were banned! As far a I know “no women had caused a crash or died” but it was not until 1971 they were allowed back. Even Rosemary Smith the famous Rootes Rally driver was refused entry in 1969!
In 1954 a certain Archie Scott Brown had just won two top class races at Snetterton when another competitor complained to the officials that Archie was disabled and should be disqualified! Yes disqualified for being disabled! Unbelievably Archie lost his British racing licence for a full two months and the future looked bleak but for a certain enlightened group of drivers and journalists who campaigned Archie’s cause. He regained his licence and went on to become one of the best Sports car drivers of his era. He became famous for his big drift and bullying style in the famous Lister Jaguars and Maseratis. But despite this, incredibly the ACO at Le Mans would not let Archie drive in the great race! He was one of the all time great sports car racers and was not able to drive at the sports car Mecca! In single seaters the story was much the same: Archie had won the Formula 1 Silverstone International Trophy in a Connaught and seven weeks later at Monza Archie had provisional pole position for the Italian Grand Prix! But it was once again not a happy ending as you might have expected, Archie was sent packing after his disability was highlighted and he could not appeal without an International licence, and guess what “Archie couldn’t apply for one of those as he was disabled!”
In the early years of Top Class racing across the planet, the roads were littered with carnage! Death by decapitation, burning or any other ugly end was common. It was accepted right up until the late 1960s. There were small improvements here and there but essentially motor racing was dangerous end of! But gradually things changed little by little. Through the persistent campaigning of drivers like Jackie Stewart and the professionalism of Bernie Ecclestone Formula One became unrecognisable from it’s gruesome past. In the USA, Indycars and Ovals cleaned up their acts with stronger cars and better medical back up. And so today we have maybe reached a point where it could be seen as too safe by some. A sport struggling to maintain excitement and appearing totally safe.
In 2016 Frederic Sausset raced at Le Mans and finished 36th and it brought a tear to my eye when he crossed the line. Frederic has no limbs! A quadruple amputate who was lifted into the car. showed the world there were no boundaries to what a disabled person can achieve.
In the next year 2017 Billy Monger an up and coming teen racing star had a Formula Four racing accident which left him with one leg fully amputated and another gone from below the knee. Billy is still on the way up! He is in single seater F3 with two pole positions and an amazing sixth place in the final championship placing. He has tested a formula one car and looks set for a bright future! Alex Zanardi is a legend too! Overcoming such terrible injuries in his Indy car crash but going on to race again and not only that but in his spare time he is winning Olympic Paralympic medals.
So it is so ironic that in times when safety was just a minor irritant to the Motor Racing fraternity, a person could be biased against on grounds of gender or disability, and today in an ever cautious world the Ladies and the Disabled are encouraged to race. Yes motor racing is still dangerous; ask Billy! But it’s changed attitude to gender and disability is something that today motor racing fans should be so proud of.
Billy and Frederic are looking to pair up for a crack at Le Mans in what would be the first ever all disabled team. Go Billy Go! Go Frederic Go! You have my support!