The word ‘drive’ has many definitions, yet pioneering British racer Charlie Martin seems to embody them all, writes Rachel Steinberg.
First, let’s start with the verb: to operate a motor vehicle. The 39-year-old Stonewall Sport Champion has competed for more than 15 years, and in 2020 became the first transgender driver to contest the prestigious 24 Hours Nürburgring.
Tonight, Martin will take to the virtual track at Oulton Park to open the Diamond Drive Cup, a six-race e-championship for female and non-binary drivers she co-developed for Racing Club International (RCI).
Some questioned why the event was necessary, since motorsport isn’t usually segregated by gender. But as Martin explains, change isn’t always a zero to 60 proposition.
She said: “It’s like W Series. I was one of a lot of people who spoke out against [it] initially, because I didn’t really understand the concept of it.
“And I think actually, once you see the impact that it’s having…it’s like saying, if we get to 50 per cent that’s amazing, but at least we want to try and close that gap so there’s a higher proportion of women in motorsport.
“If you’re just going to do that organically and say, ‘well, we’ll just see what happens over time’, it’s going to take a long time.
“So sometimes you need to do things that accelerate that uptake of people coming into the sport.”
Having drive can also be a concerted effort to achieve something.
She added: “And I think it’s not like saying, oh, this is excluding guys – ok, it is. But let’s be honest, if you want to race in an e-sports championship, just go on the internet, there are hundreds of them.
“So I think to have one championship running at any one point that’s about encouraging female talent, I don’t think from an exclusionary point of view that’s a bad thing.”
Turn 1’s Alton Jones and Hedda Rangsæter helped Martin develop the Cup, which welcomes both new and experienced drivers who can select and compete against their own ability level. The inaugural race week, they realised, dovetailed perfectly with International Women’s Day.
And as the calendar changed from February to March, LGBT+ History Month became Women’s History Month. Martin, who is used to being one of the only women on the grid, was keenly aware of her significant legacy in both.
The Leicestershire native realised it was possible to be transgender around the age of seven, and began her transition in 2012.
Martin started racing in 2004, winning her first race at St-Gouéno in France in 2014 and breaking the class record in a Westfield SEiW. She raced on the continent before returning to Britain to compete in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge in 2018, when she also made the decision to come out as transgender within motorsport.
Martin joined Adrenalin Motorsport for the Nürburgring Endurance Series last year, and she is now set to compete with VR Motorsport in the 2021 Britcar Endurance Championship’s expanded Praga campaign. Her ultimate goal is to compete in 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Given all her accomplishments, what would Martin like to see written beside her name in the history books?
She pondered this for a moment before saying: “I’ve had a good life, don’t get me wrong…I had a lovely family, loving parents.
“But the belief system that I inherited as a result of the society that I grew up in was that fundamentally there was something wrong with me, and that I was ashamed of a really integral part of who I am.
“And that had an incredibly negative effect on my view of what I could hope to achieve in my lifetime.
“On the one hand, I felt I had to choose between who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and that those two things couldn’t be connected together.
“I wish there had been somebody like me when I was 10, 11 years old because it would have opened my eyes to possibility. It would have made me believe in possibility.
“And I think when you believe something’s possible, you’ll give it absolutely everything.”
Drive, as a noun, means energy and determination to achieve.
She continued: “So I hope [I could be remembered] as someone who gave hope to people and made them believe in possibility, and inspired them to do what they need to do to live a happy life.”
Martin’s logo, which adorns her helmet, is a blue butterfly. She was walking past a shop during her first year of transition when she spotted one in the window.
She said: “I saw it…and I just thought, it’s the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“I bought it and I was thinking, yeah, the butterfly is just a really obvious symbol for transformation, but also of possibility, because if a caterpillar can change into a butterfly, then what else? That’s the most impossible thing you can imagine.”
But the symbol has a double meaning. One of Martin’s favourite books is Papillon (French for ‘butterfly’), a memoir documenting Henri Charrière’s time spent in a French penal colony after he was wrongfully convicted of murder.
She explained: “He just has this incredible spirit to carry on living… and also this vision of the future.
“I read that book [in my early 20s] and I just felt like he was in a physical prison, but he kept going, whereas my prison was kind of more mental.
“But I thought, if this guy can survive just on a vision in his head for all these years, then… I really took a lot of strength in that.”
In sport, a drive can mean a powerful force used to propel something a long way forward – something, perhaps, like Martin’s own vision for the future.