Nicole Drought busy clocking up miles of experience

Dedicated Tipperary woman has always had a love affair with driving and racing others

After a few months spent in the wilderness since the season ended, Irish racing car driver Nicole Drought is back on the circuit in Mondello Park.

She’s flexing her wrists on the steering wheel of a Porsche, while my fingers are clutching the fibres of the passenger seat. I try to hide my fears as we spin around an empty track, but the squinting eyes and unsettled expressions give the game away.

The bends contain our speed for a time, but when we get on the home straight, there’s nothing but road and the engine roars to life. On request, Drought later tells me we were clocking up speeds of about 90 mph on that strip of the track, but she’s not quite sure.

“You don’t really have time to watch the speedometer,” says the 22-year-old from Tipperary.

Drought has been driving vehicles of every sort from a young age. She would often take her grandad’s car for a few laps around the house and, on the occasions when she was refused the keys, she’d hop on his ride-on lawnmower instead. Anything with a steering wheel and a motor could settle her fix.

When her father Owain became a rally driver, she had a new outlet for her obsession.

“I just wanted to drive, that’s all I wanted to do was to get into a car. I followed my dad to every single rally, it’s just what I grew up with and it’s what I love,” says Drought.

“I remember when he bought his first car and he was taking it out to do tests and stuff. I got in with him and I had no fear, I absolutely loved it. I just wanted him to go faster and faster but of course he wasn’t going to go too fast with me in the car.”

“I did a couple of those rallies as a co-driver so it was all drifting and sideways kind of thing. I wouldn’t have a fear in a car, I feel totally comfortable. Once you trust your driver and trust yourself, you don’t have much to fear.”

Rallying scene

She became a fanatic about the rallying scene, collecting programmes at various races and studying the form of each driver. She could identity all the cars as they passed by and knew their characteristics. None of her friends shared her interest, meaning she had to "blow Dad's ear off about rallying".

"He'd be sitting there going, 'how do you know about this?' I just hear the names and just recognise them. You know the car then and it's just exciting to hear about other drivers in Ireland as well, especially the Irish drivers if they're doing well."

“My friends thought it was great that I was doing it but they don’t really understand it that much. Through college, I joined the UL motorsport [club] so I got to know lads that are interested in motorsport as well.”

At 16, she started saving up to buy her first car. She worked a number of part-time jobs locally to pool the finances together, including a spell at her father’s car sales business.

Over the next few years, that special fund accumulated the €8,000 she needed to purchase a Honda Integra. Walking into the bank and withdrawing the money for the car was a liberating moment for the UL student.

“Nothing else really kind of mattered after that. That’s what I worked hard for and what I really wanted. I took the money out, put it in an envelope and I didn’t care that I was taking it all out to put it into a racing car.

“I was just delighted to be able to bring the envelope over, collect the car and it was just in our yard. It was such a good feeling to finally have my own car. My dad was really good, he let me drive his car around Mondello Park and stuff like that but I wanted to have my own car and have it set up for my liking.”

2015 was Drought’s debut year, when she recorded a few podium finishes during the Irish Touring Car Championship (ITCC). She also had one of her most enjoyable days in a car, at a Classic Car event in Mondello Park. She qualified out of a grid containing up to 20 cars, despite driving a Porsche with no rear wheel driving experience.

Gender inequality

But the early days of circuit racing presented some gender inequality issues that she didn't think existed in the sport.

"When I started out first, I didn't think I was any different. I followed my dad from rallying and that was just what I grew up with and I didn't know any different. When I started racing and took out my car for the first time, it kind of felt like they [other drivers] made me feel like I was a little bit different, 'oh there's a girl racing'.

“I got the vibe that the guys didn’t want to be beaten by me but I still see myself as going out and racing against everyone else. I don’t see myself as different to any of the lads.

“I think they kind of guess that you’re not gonna be that good when they see a girl coming to race. I do get the whole thing that they don’t want to be beaten by a girl and this whole manly thing. But at the same time, I just want to go out and race like everyone else does,” says the accountancy student.

With the help of her team, Drought learned to tune out the detracting voices and went on to enjoy an impressive start to her ITCC campaign in 2016. She became the first female winner of an ITCC race and led the competition until Round 4, before her car encountered some mechanical issues that took her out of contention.

“It was so disappointing,” she explains, “when you feel like you’re after working so hard and you feel ready to go out and do it and then, suddenly, you’re at the track and your car isn’t performing the way you want it. It’s frustrating but I just took the year as a learning curve and as just a bad luck year.”

There were other positives for Drought last year.

She travelled to Wales to make her sports car debut by joining the Global GT Lights for a race meeting and is hoping to re-enter that series again this year. She also spent some time in France testing out a Porsche GT3 as part of her work as an ambassador for the Sean Edwards foundation that promotes motorsport safety.

She concluded the year by winning the Sportswoman of the Year award, beating off competition from athletes including Cork footballer Bríd Stack and Olympic silver medalist Annalise Murphy.

Fireproof garments

Her choice of sport carries obvious dangers. Much of the driving gear she wears are fireproof garments and her mother Aisling has stopped going to her races, after witnessing a mild collision which resulted in the bumper of Drought's car getting damaged.

But Drought can't allow herself to overthink the dangerous possible outcomes of a race.

“I don’t want to go out there and wonder, ‘am I gonna crash today?’ It’s in a safe controlled environment. You’ve marshals on every stand. Every other racing driver has gone through the day where you have to get your license so they should know what to do and what not to do.”

“I don’t really think about what’s gonna happen to me but there’s so much safety now. It’s actually as safe as it can be.”

Drought prefers to focus on the things that she can control. She’s still deciding on whether to do a Masters in accountancy or become a teacher. And as for her driving, nothing much has changed since the days when she plagued her grandad for the keys to his car. She just wants to be behind the wheel.

“I hope to do a bit of simulator work with Murphy Prototypes [racing team] and I hope to get in the car as much as I can because it’s so important to be out in the car and keep building experience to get faster.”