Rosemary Smith is recognised internationally for her outstanding achievements in the world of motorsport. Originally from Dublin, her father taught her to drive aged 11, and after training as a dress designer she found herself inexorably drawn back behind the wheel. Over the years she has competed in iconic rallies all over the world, and away from the heady smell of petrol her life has taken some fascinating off-road twists and turns – including setting up her own driving school - that make her autobiography something really worth reading.
Here we have an extract of her book describing the events that set the wheels of her incredible career in motion, and a few questions she answered just for Saga Magazine.
Rally good fun
‘You drive,’ she said
Delphine was 10 years older than me; a striking woman with a head of thick wiry hair and an imposing stature, one of those larger-than-life characters you sometimes meet. She was a woman of the world and, among other things, she taught me to drink. She introduced me to gin and orange, which I didn’t take to, too sticky and sickly for my liking, so I replaced it with vodka and tonic, but I never really got into the habit until much later.
Delphine was fond of a good time and used rallying as an excuse to get away from her husband and flirt with other men. But it took me a while to work that out, naïve and innocent as I was. It was convenient for her to have a woman with her and that’s why she asked me to go along when she went rallying. ‘We’re going to Kilkenny on Sunday,’ she said, ‘and you are going to navigate.’ She knew I could drive but hadn’t thought to ask whether I could read a map, which I can’t, even to this day. We got in the car and she handed me a map and a list of reference numbers. I kept turning the map as we went around corners and telling her to turn left and right. After about three miles we found ourselves in somebody’s farmyard. My dad never cursed and Mum might say ‘damn’ now and again, so when Delphine began to swear at me that day I truly didn’t understand what she was saying. The words she shouted were all new to me, she might as well have been speaking Swahili, but I could tell she was cross!
Are road maps making a comeback?
‘I hope you drive better than you navigate. Get in the bloody car!’ she snapped, getting out and leaving the door open for me to get in the driver’s seat. In between giving me instructions, she was muttering and cursing, and so I did what I was told until eventually we got back on the road. As we neared the finish, Delphine told me to get out of the car. ‘It wouldn’t do for you to be seen driving,’ she said, so we changed places.
This business of changing places went on for weeks and nobody knew that I was doing the driving until one day we were found out. In front of us that day there was a car upside down in a ditch. I slowed down and Delphine was adamant that we shouldn’t stop, but for once I took no notice. I pulled over and asked, could we do anything, but the man sitting on the side of the road with a broken arm said that someone else had already gone for help. To tell the truth, if I had been more experienced I probably wouldn’t have stopped to enquire how the man in the ditch was; sentiment has no place in rallying. When we arrived at the finish, word had got around that I was seen in the driver’s seat and Delphine wasn’t happy, but she decided that as people knew anyway it would make sense for me to drive permanently.
How to plan a road trip
Advice and opinions from a rallying great
Is there anything cars today have lost that you miss – or have they only got better?
They don’t compare. I think if all new drivers were to learn to drive in older cars they would be better drivers. The new cars are easier to drive and a lot of new drivers are not even aware of what speed they are doing.
Is there any car that you really would have loved to drive, but never managed to?
I was very lucky in my professional life to have driven so many great cars. Minis, Imps, Sunbeam Tigers, Ford Escort, Lancia, Porsche and last year a Renault Formula 1!!
In the book you mention you often heard your dad’s advice in your ear. What was the best piece of advice he ever gave you?
If you can’t use the brakes, slow down by running down through the gears and at the very last minute, use the hand brake (as in the Geneva Rally).
If you have engine trouble and no power to go forward, turn the car around and reverse (as I did on the Kyber Pass)
You tell your pupils that they haven’t failed their test, just not passed this time - is this great attitude the reason you did so well in rallying?
Maybe. I always look forward, there’s no use in looking back. You can’t have regrets, they don’t get you anywhere!
You mention you think we should all get retested for our driving licences as we approach a certain age. Could you give some more advice on this?
I do think older drivers should have to do a re-test at a certain age. There should be a compulsory eye test every 5 years and more often the older you get. We should be tested on the latest rules of the road, as road markings, roundabouts and motorways change so much.
The car mirrors – all of them – should be at the right angle always and USE THEM! Indicators should be used all the time – especially at roundabouts.
The updated driving test
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