By Brendan Coffey
Racing enthusiasts flocked to County Meath on 13 October for the annual Spirit of Dunboyne Motorsport Festival. Among the crowd, a unique group of females showcased their driving skills.
The main junction in the middle of town and a group of girls are waiting to cross the road. Today, the green man is not their signal to walk. Marshals wearing luminous orange tops indicate that the show is about the start. So the girls must wait for a stream of motorbikes to pass, the day’s first event at the Spirit of Dunboyne Motorsport Festival.
With their leathers and their noise, the bikers are most conspicuous in Dunboyne. They roll through the town in vast numbers. Throttle only half open, their raw engine sounds still scream for attention. Those closest to the action record it on their smartphones, crouching to get the best angle. Others lean forward or slant sideways, craning for a glimpse.
Nicci Daly, better known as an Ireland hockey international, is now another face in the crowd. She has corralled this group of girls for a photograph. Together they represent Formula Female, a fledgeling crew of young drivers making their way in this masculine world.
Daly leads her gang like the Pied Piper of motorsport. Amira Bouhlel, (10), is the youngest. Although this exotic name has its origins in her dad’s native Tunisia, Bouhlel is a McNamara on her mother’s side. Home for her is Athenry. Mattie McNamara, her grandfather, is a legend of the Irish racing scene.
From the corner of Main Street, their walk takes them 300 yards to St Peter and Paul’s Church, where the rally cars are gathered. Bouhlel’s older sister, Emel (21), is perched on the rear bumper of a hatchback, the boot door open overhead.
“Before rallying, I wouldn’t have had many close friends because I never had something to bond with people,” Emel Bouhlel reveals. “I just didn’t seem to fit in. I wasn’t interested in soccer or camogie or any of that stuff.”
Here, among peers, conversation flows: “Since I started navigating I’ve made so many new friends. It’s unbelievable. It has changed my life.”
April, 2018, marked the turning point. Sean Lyons, an uncle, decided to run his Subaru Impreza at the Circuit of Kerry. Searching for a navigator, Lyons looked close to home.
“I never thought of navigating until my uncle asked,” says Bouhlel. “It didn’t register with me that I’d stay doing it. As soon as I hopped in that car, I was hooked.”
That moment released a passion, a passion rediscovered. Bouhlel experienced her first rally merely six months old. All through primary school, she learned that weekends were for racing.
“We used to go up in the camper on a Friday night and come back on Sunday,” she recalls. “On a Friday after school, I’d always be picked up early to go to a rally. I grew up with a lot of older people in my life because of my grandad.”
Just as her story slots into place, Bouhlel slips on a different face. Away from motorsport, she works as a make-up artist. For the first two weeks of December, Italy serves as her working base; tending to cast cosmetic needs on the set of a television series.
For Jenna McCann, the contrast is just as sharp. A social care worker from Cavan, McCann (24) gets a kick telling kids about her hobby.
“A rally driver, wha’?” she says, amplifying distinctive Breffni tones to mimic typical reactions.
McCann won her class of the Galway Stages Rally last August. Two years ago, she was nominated for the prestigious Billy Coleman Award following victory in the Junior section of the Irish Tarmac Championship.
“My father encouraged me to go for it,” says McCann, whose family are immersed in the sport. “I got my first rally car in 2014. Hit the stages in February 2015. That was it. Road rallying since then. No nerves. No fear. You can’t take it too seriously. We’re all here for a bit of enjoyment. This is a release at the weekends.”
Today is a social occasion. Competition takes a back seat while these motors parade through the town. All are keen to talk.
“I just like going fast,” explains Letisha Conn (14) from Armagh. “When you’re young and you’re going fast, you think: ‘This is unreal.’ You think you’re the fastest person on the earth but you’re just tiddling around a track.”
Ireland’s youngest ever Rallysport champion, Conn began in karts five years ago but her first race ended abruptly. Another girl spun in front, leaving Conn nowhere safe to go. Her kart flipped and her neck bore the brunt of sudden impact.
“I think I passed out,” she states. “When I was in the ambulance, I had a panic attack. That was scary. Mummy’s like: ‘You’re not going back.’ But Daddy said I had to go back at least once. After about three or four laps, I had done my fastest time. So I just decided to go back permanently.”
Scars are not visible from that crash. Instead, Conn tilts her head left and pulls it just so her neck makes a cricking sound. She repeats it upon request with youthful ghoulish pride.
“I don’t think I’m wise, to be honest,” Conn later allows.
Most are not yet so advanced. Ellen Donnelly (14) only began karting last May. How to get started proved the hardest part. Struggling to source information about the sport, Mum Therese cast her search outside the internet. Leftfield thinking brought celebrity chef Rachel Allen to mind.
“I knew her son [Lucca] was into racing,” she expounds. “I sent her a handwritten letter. I thought there was a better chance she would read it than an email.”
Allen confirmed her hunch with a follow up phone call: “She gave me loads of information. At one point, she said: ‘I have to do a radio interview. I’ll ring you back in 10 minutes.’ She rang back too.”
Soon the Donnellys from Castlemartyr, County Cork were up and running. Ellen, the girl who went to sleep by watching episodes of Top Gear as a baby, was ready to hit the track at Watergrasshill.
“I’m buzzing after a race,” Donnelly enthuses. “I want to do it again. When I go to bed, I’d be going through the track in my head: how I can brake later, how I can take the corner differently.”
Friends at St Mary’s High School, Midleton deem it cool but are taken aback when they see her in action.
‘You’re driving that?’ is their sceptical refrain.
Weekend sleepovers turn less cordial in the mornings. An early riser, Donnelly usually has the television to herself. Slumber is quickly disturbed by the recurrent vroom of racing cars: “My best friend always gives out to me because she can’t sleep then.”
Such sounds are cherished gifts among the cognoscenti. They mean everything to Sara McFadden, whose vision is impaired. This remarkable 18 year old from Castlebar, County Mayo has somehow found a way to navigate rally cars without being able to see through the windscreen.
“My hearing would be a lot stronger because my eyesight is weak,” McFadden discloses. “I do most of my navigating through feel. You have to be very tuned in. You always have to be two or three corners ahead. You can feel it through the seat, your lefts and your rights.”
McFadden was born with albinism and nystagmus, which causes her eyes to make repetitive, uncontrolled movements. She can watch tv, provided her nose is almost touching the screen, but those continuous pupil motions lead to constant strain.
“I have to work very hard to focus on something,” she divulges. “That’s why it’s so hard to navigate when you’re moving up and down in the car. I have to try and stop my eyes from moving when I look at someone.”
Despite these difficulties, McFadden has excelled in sport. A camogie player of some distinction, she lined out with Mayo at underage level, often featuring in midfield: “I wouldn’t see the ball until it was about a foot in front of me. I made do. You can hear the ball a lot of the time.”
Originally, rallying was the dream. Her parents, Keith and Sandra, competed on the circuit. For the McFaddens, like so many in this game, it became a family affair.
“I was brought up in a service van,” says Sara sardonically. “Mam and Dad have always been involved in rallying. I always wanted to be a driver but when I was 12 I found out I would never drive, which was a devastating blow. It was all I wanted to do. I was upset at the time but it didn’t take me too long to realise that it didn’t mean I couldn’t navigate.”
Last year, McFadden received her licence from Motorsport Ireland after passing a medical. She navigated for her dad at July’s Imokilly Stages Rally, becoming the first visually impaired person to compete in Irish rallying.
“That was a special day,” she recounts. “I got the bug then. Once you do your first rally, you never want to stop.”
At their next race, September’s Sligo Stages Rally, the McFaddens finished second in their class: “I never had doubt but it was just amazing to know that I really could do it.”
These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. McFadden has received numerous awards, including special recognition from the Federation of Irish Sport at their industry gala last April.
“I’ve always been determined to be the best that I can be,” McFadden insists. “No was never a word in our house. Rallying is our sport. I can’t say rallying is for everyone. You have to be a special type of mad to do it. If anyone has a dream, they should follow it.”
Outside St Peter and Paul’s Church in Dunboyne, McFadden stands tall among a group of twelve. Emel Bouhlel is beside her for the photograph. Letisha Conn looks giddy in the centre next to Emer Donnelly. The youngest girls, aged between 10 and 13, flank the front row dressed in overalls: Amira Bouhlel (Galway), Eimear Carey (Meath), Holly Dunnion (Meath), Jemma Barrett (Tyrone) and Lauren Summer O’Reilly (Dublin). Laura Carey, Eimear’s older sister, is in the second row alongside Roisn Sweeney (Kildare). Aine Phelan (Leitrim) is just behind them.
All the while, Nicci Daly has been listening to their stories.
“In this sport, parents and their children spent a lot more time together,” Daly surmises. “It’s not like football where you drop them off and pick them up an hour later.”
For this reason, she submits, stronger bonds develop, a view endorsed by Emel Bouhlel.
“You have to be there the whole time,” Boulhel maintains. “You stick together. When you start rallying, you do become a family together. You’re always looking out for each other.”
The day is getting on and classic racing cars zip through town. Shortly the karts will be whizzing past. So the Junior crew return to their designated base facing the filling station. Children and parents huddle around their mini machines. A canopy protects them from the rain.
One mother holds a styrofoam cup, sipping coffee while her husband chances a burger, wary the red sauce might drip and blot his jacket. Meanwhile their daughter takes an age to finish her hot dog.
Simple pleasures amid this noisy retreat.