Schoolgirl Chelsea Herbert was a motor racing fan as a tot. That's how her mum Donna remembers it.

Dad Mark was a hobby competitor and motor racing nut. Chelsea quickly caught on.

"F1 would be on TV and there she was, a little baby pointing at the screen," Donna tells the Herald on Sunday at the family's engineering business in Albany.

The 17-year-old Chelsea, in her last year at Albany Senior High, followed brother Joel into karting, and a decade on is hell-bent on being a professional driver. She has fans - veteran Kiwi motor racing ace Heather Spurle rates Herbert as a star prospect - but motor racing is no easy street.


Team Chelsea and brother Joel Herbert is a mom-and-pop operation, with a professional edge. Chelsea has a psychologist, nutritionist, personal trainer and athletics life advisor. She does jazz dancing, but only to boost her core strength for racing. School work is brain food to keep her driving skills at peak. Herbert says females have advantages nowadays.

"When the helmet goes on, nobody knows if you are a boy or a girl," she says. "But [being female], it is a unique selling point and an advantage in getting sponsorship. I'm sure Joel would love to chuck a skirt on sometimes. But it soon falls back to being purely about talent.

"I've always heard things like dads telling boys off because they were beaten by a girl. But the girl thing is growing hugely. When I started, you'd be lucky to see two girls at the same club. To see so many girls coming in is awesome."

Herbert's racing world and issues sound universal rather than gender specific.

She still battles concussion-related memory problems after an accident in the ute series at Timaru last year. Money is always an issue. The future is an open book but the pathways unclear.

"I have never thought about another career," she says. "I've always been into IndyCars; F1 and V8s are very cool. I don't have boundaries because I don't want to close any doors. I'm at that stage of trying to get my name out there. It's all about money and who you know."

Lypp and Spurle: The female pathfinders

Sybil Lupp was an amazing pioneer for women in New Zealand motor racing.

Lupp took part in the first championship road race at Wigram in 1949, coming fifth, and raced various events, trained as a mechanic via correspondence courses, was a national motor racing administrator, a highly-regarded tuner and sold and serviced Jaguars in Wellington.

In later life, Lupp - the 'Jaguar Lady' - had a gold E-type painted to match her best evening gown. Lupp, who died in 1994 aged 78, was truly remarkable.

Heather Spurle, a champion of the track who also set world powerboat speed records, carried the torch. Spurle was incredibly tough. At the age of 43, she came fifth in the Bathurst 24-hour race on eight months' gruelling preparation, after chemotherapy and surgery for ovarian cancer.

The England-born Spurle experienced positive reactions as a woman in a male-dominated sport, although recalls incidents like being deliberately marked for an early exit by a team during a touring car race in Malaysia.

"You can't turn up in pink and be a princess," says the 56-year-old Spurle, who now lives on the Gold Coast. "I only raced woman later in my career. Some people don't think women should be racing. The trouble was, I stood out, especially when things went wrong. I had to have a tougher skin. I do look back with pride."

Like others the Herald on Sunday spoke to, Spurle is sceptical about special projects such as a $1m attempt to get a woman into an Australian V8 Supercar team.

"If you become a spectacle rather than a serious competitor, it can damage your reputation," she said. "You have to get there in your own right. I'd like more women in the top echelon, but I can't see anyone with potential for F1 or IndyCars.

"Not many girls are trying that avenue. It is tough enough for anyone. Look at Mitch Evans - he's more than capable of driving F1 but you need millions.

"The aim now is to be a Supercar driver. Two or three [females] are capable - young Chelsea Herbert is an exceptional driver. I'm sure she could build the endurance and stamina."