Driving is Feminine: The DirtFish Women in Motorsport Summit

by: Talia Pakkala, photos: DirtFish Rally School, Talia Pakkala

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2023 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

A weekend in overcast, rainy Seattle started off bright for the attendees of DirtFish Rally School. For a second year, the DirtFish team opened their facility to hundreds of enthusiasts and curated an incredible panel of speakers, including an icon in motorsport and Audi circles, Michèle Mouton. Michèle was accompanied by five other accomplished panelists, including Pernilla Solberg the driver, co-driver and team manager of the Solberg Rally Team; Rhianon Gelsomino co-owner of OZ Rally Pro, ARA National Champion co-driver as well as co-driver for Lia Block (pp. 28-31); Leanne Junnila, the current Canadian representative to FIA Women in Motorsport (WiM) and four-time Canadian Champion co-driver; Michelle Miller, DirtFish’s own Senior Instructor and driver; and DirtFish’s mechanic extraordinaire Heather Holler. Lead by Josie Rimmer, Head of Strategy at DirtFish, these incredible women recounted their time in the heart of their motorsport history.

If you didn’t know, Michèle grew up on a rose and jasmine farm in the South of France, looking at driving as a sense of freedom and escape, as I believe many of us did in our youth. By her early 20’s, a friend invited her to a rally in Corsica, where he planned to compete. This would be her first time hearing the word “rally” and also experiencing the sport as she rode along in the backseat (something you can only do virtually these days)!

After getting an up-close-and-personal experience watching driver and co-driver communicate and work together for a full rally, she approached her friend about being his co-driver. She went on to co-drive for him in several rallies before her father stepped in. Michèle’s dad knew how much she enjoyed driving and wanted to see her in the driver’s seat instead. He believed so firmly in her ability that he purchased a car for her, set her up in a year-long rally training course and planned to enter her the following year into the Tour dè France dè l’Automobile – one of the longest and most difficult rally races in France. The rest is history.

Juxtaposed to this, Pernilla shared her background growing up with a rally driver father who, when Pernilla was 15, purchased a car and co-drove for her in her first of many rally entries.

Once you’ve gotten in the driver’s seat, a huge part of motorsport is being able to afford to stay there, both financially and also in aptitude. Racing is expensive with most (if not all) teams seeking out sponsorship in order to fund the hobby. Why sponsors decide to invest their dollars with teams is a question only they can answer, but Michèle highlighted an interest decision by Audi in asking her to choose a woman as her co-driver. As she put it, it would be good publicity.

While certainly no denying seeing two women dominating the rally field as driver and co-driver made huge headlines for the quattro – it opened another discussion about the pressures of women in the sport. I don’t mean the pressure to beat out your male opponent or be accepted as a capable athlete, though those are certainly pressures, but instead the pressure to be beautiful. After finishing a course, Michèle would talk about getting out of the car to hundreds of photographers asking her to take off her helmet and smile for the camera. In response to this, Michèle would ask, “did Mikkola smile? If so, then I will too.” While silly, Michèle believed there were expectations on her as a woman to still play the part for the camera, despite those same standards not being set for the men.

Through all the different stories and experiences growing up and growing into motorsport, the same message was shared. Driving is feminine. To quote Michèle, “You can’t tell who’s behind the helmet… it doesn’t make a difference, there’s only one way to drive fast.” Specifically driving fast means being soft and precise with your vehicle, not fighting it to do what you want.

The panelist went on to share more trying times of their motorsport career. Specifically, times they had to fight their car.

Michèle with a smile, spoke on her 1982 loss. As regulations required you must push your car to the line to start. With Fabrizia Pons as her co-driver they struggled to get the car pushed to start which resulted in a 10-minute penalty and the subsequent loss of the Championship title for Michèle that year.

Not many years after this we all know that Group B came to a tragic end. What is less spoken about is how the women in this sport chose to take on a part of their lives they had otherwise put on hold – raising a family. Be it as a rally driver, co-driver or mechanic, many parts of being a woman in motorsport require you to decide between the hobby and career you’re passionate about and the unique ability we have to create life. We can’t always have our cake and eat it too. Some went on to start families while others chose to rejoin other areas of motorsport and forego that experience.

No matter the path, they all agreed on the future they want to see. “Growing the base of the pyramid so more girls can rise to the top.” During the Q&A when people would ask, “how do I get started” or “how can I get involved” the unanimous answer was, just do it! These women, while accomplished and idols to many, saw themselves as normal people with normal hurdles like any other woman today (if not more in their time). The first step is to just get involved in any way you can. If you can’t afford to drive, look at co-driving. If you want to work behind the scenes there are many roles you can fill and be a part of. If you can’t find a job opening or have no experience, start with volunteering. You just have to start. As we continue to encourage girls to join motorsport, no matter their contribution, the pyramid will start to grow. That base gets bigger and bigger, allowing others to rise to the top to compete on a more global scale.

The panel closed and allowed all 450+ attendees to speak directly with these six women one-on-one. Outside of the panel walls, a vendor showcase had been setup highlighting local woman-owned businesses and DirtFish partners. Several delicious food vendors offered a variety of offerings from wood-fired pizza to tacos. The team of instructors staged the school’s rear-wheel drive Subaru BRZs for hot laps around their course, a 315-acre property that once was home to a lumber company. Flanking the front lawn also included a lineup of pristine rally specimens from a Lancia 037, Ford RS200, Ford Escort MK II (a replica of the one driven by Hannu Mikkola himself), MG Metro 6R4 down to a stunning Sport quattro. The experience was one for the books, only to be tied by the following day’s rear-wheel drive training course.

Keep your calendars open for the Third Annual Women in Motorsport Summit in 2024 and the next opening of the all-wheel drive training course with DirtFish Rally School. Don’t worry if you think you’re not experienced enough… just remember, driving is feminine. Just do it.