Motorsport: On the Hot Seat - Emma Gilmour

By Dale Budge

Emma Gilmour celebrates winning Rally Canterbury. Photo / Geoff Ridder
Emma Gilmour celebrates winning Rally Canterbury. Photo / Geoff Ridder

Emma Gilmour became the first ever female driver to win a New Zealand Rally Championship event last weekend at Rally Canterbury. The feat has been over a decade in the making as the 36-year-old has been a front-runner on the domestic scene for a number of years and that break-through win seemed inevitable.

Having got into the sport accidentally and later in life than most Gilmour's rise to the top has been fast especially when you consider the hurdles she's had to jump. Being a female in a male-dominated industry naturally comes with difficulty but it has also opened some doors for her as well.

Just days after her maiden win she is still on top of the world when we sit down for this interview.

"I am just buzzing because I have finally got the win after many years of competing in New Zealand at the top level of the sport and many times being the bridesmaid," Gilmour tells

"To finally crack the top step of the podium is so rewarding and satisfying.

"To also I suppose break that barrier of being the first female to do it is a nice feeling. I do have a lot of support from the females out there - especially the young girls. They really look up to see a girl out there not just competing with the boys but beating them."
Rally Canterbury, held in and around the Ashley Forest, was a particularly tough event this year. Freezing cold temperatures but beautiful clear winter days greeted the drivers as they tackled damp forestry roads. A number of leading contenders ran into problems but Gilmour's fast and faultless drive ensured she was in control of the event for the most part.

"It was a big sense of relief because we got the lead really early on the Sunday and we just kept chipping away at it and we even won the last stage. It has been a long road developing our Suzuki. There are a lot of mechanical things that can go wrong when you're developing a new car so you never really count your chickens until you cross that finish line and the car is still going and you haven't made any mistakes. It was a big relief.
"Forestry stages are always a little bit more challenging - they can be tougher than the normal country roads that you're out on every day. I think what made it really challenging was the ice. There were sections where there was just no grip and then also with it being such a beautiful Canterbury day there was bright sunlight and with the sun being so low in the sky this time of year meant there was some sunstrike. There were lots of challenges like that throughout the rally."

The win lifts Gilmour into second in the championship standings with three of five events completed and she admits she's daring to dream about becoming champion.
"That has been the goal for so long," she explains. "We have finished second three times, we've had thirds and fourths and everything else. That is what we want. It is so encouraging to finally get that win and you can't win the championship without event wins. Plus the trophies are so much cooler when you win them and I have a taste for it now."

With a second place finish at Rally Whangarei and the win in Canterbury Gilmour trails David Holder by just six points but that seemed a pipe dream after the first rally of the year. "At our first event in Otago we had some really good pace but our turbo failed and we got no points at all from that two-day event and I thought that our championship was over," Gilmour says. "But we had a good result in Whangarei and likewise we've now had a really good third round and our rivals had some problems. David Holder, who is leading the championship, didn't finish on the weekend so there isn't much between us now so it is all on for the championship."

Rallying wasn't always in Gilmour's future however. She says cars were always a significant part of her life but the idea of racing them didn't enter her mind until she was well into her 20s.

"I have grown up around cars. My father was a mechanic so he was always fixing cars or building cars and wherever Dad drove with us when we were children he drove quite quickly and so I guess I always thought that was a normal childhood. Looking back on it now I guess it isn't. My grandfather on my mother's side was also a mechanic. I did horse-riding all the way through my teenage years. I eventually got my license and I enjoyed driving but I never really thought I would become a race car driver or anything.
"My sister and my cousin got into rallying and I got the opportunity to be a navigator for them, calling the pace notes and I really enjoyed that but again I didn't think I would ever be a driver. One day I had a go and it was like a duck to water and I was hooked. It was the best buzz you could experience. From that point on I recognized that I couldn't just do it as a hobby and that I needed to do it at a level where I could get some media attention and sponsorship to help pay for it all."

It was at that moment when her gender became an issue. Women don't generally rally cars in a competitive environment. There has been the odd exception - Michele Mouton was a star of the 1980s and has four WRC event wins to her name - but by and large it was a men's only environment. Gilmour would have to break down barriers and stereotypes to gain the respect of her peers.

"It is challenging," Gilmour says of being the only female. "I suppose I have always focused on letting my results do the talking and showing that you have got the speed. As is with anything in life you have to have the right people around you - especially in motorsport. You have to have people around you that believe in you. There are a lot of times in rallying where things go pear-shaped and so if they don't believe in you then it is pretty hard to believe in yourself."

Gilmour's clear ability quickly gave her credibility. She not only mixed it with the best male drivers in the country but she began to beat them and that naturally gave her respect. By the time she was winning stages and fighting for rally wins that point of difference that initially made her goals more challenging actually began to open a few doors as well.

"Absolutely - it is a catch 22 though," Gilmour says. "Being the one that is different and the one that stands out there is a lot more pressure on you and there are a lot more people watching you. It is a good thing because you do stand out from the crowd so you get that media interest but that can only last for so long so you have to step up and have the results as well otherwise the media will lose interest.

"One thing I have been very lucky with is being a female and one of the best in the world I have probably had amazing opportunities overseas that other male drivers wouldn't have had the opportunity to do."

Gilmour has competed in 22 WRC events and will head off to Italy next week to compete in a cross country rally. There have been a number of other invites to things like that which probably wouldn't have come about had she been a male driver.

Although still young Gilmour is an experienced campaigner on the New Zealand scene and she is delighted with the growth of rallying in the past year or two. "I think the sport is looking really healthy. With Hayden Paddon doing so well internationally it is great for the profile of the sport. It keeps kids excited about the sport. You need that to keep the sport alive.

"I think the New Zealand Championship is starting to come away again. It was difficult in about 2012 and around that time with the classes of cars. We had been running production classes - what you used to call Group N with Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Imprezas. They were pretty evenly matched but as those cars came to the end of their life there wasn't an obvious class to replace it. That is where we were a little unsure of what to do. That is when we built the new Suzuki and the new generation of cars, which are really exciting types of cars - they sound and look great and there are more and more starting to come on board.

"Andrew [Hawkeswood] has the Mazda and Glen Inkster a Skoda. Hayden [Paddon] has the Hyundai and then there was news last weekend that Greg Murphy is coming out with a Holden for next year."

Otago-raised Gilmour bought her parents' automotive company in Dunedin a couple of years ago and keeps herself busy running that while competing throughout the year where she can. She hasn't completely given up her dream of becoming a professional driver just yet.

"I'd always love to drive abroad - it has never been a lack of want on my part but it has been a reality of a lack of funds to go and chase that dream. I would love to be a professional driver. I still have that dream and I think I have something to offer the sport being a female driver. Since Michele Mouton there hasn't really been a top female driver at the world level.

"I would love to do the Dakar Rally and definitely get that New Zealand title."

It would make for a great story if she can complete those goals.

- NZ Herald

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