Friday 23 August 2019

A few broken bones won't stop Irish rally driver Rosemary (77) racing

Rosemary Smith has had a great career as a rally driver. She also enjoyed good health until recently, when an accident caused problems, but she says that a few broken bones won't stop her driving in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane: Rally driver Rosemary Smith. Photo: Tony Gavin
Life in the fast lane: Rally driver Rosemary Smith. Photo: Tony Gavin

Joy Orpen

When the late Mr and Mrs John Smith were rearing their family in the salubrious Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham, they couldn't possibly have imagined that their youngest child would turn out to be utterly fearless, completely headstrong, immensely capable and wild as a young thoroughbred colt - with legs to match.

The daughter in question is none other than Rosemary Smith, once one of the world's top rally drivers. And even though she is now in her 70s, Rosemary has lost none of her verve or her considerable chutzpah.

Rosemary was different from the beginning. "I was tall for my age and blonde," she says. "My other siblings were smaller and darker. People used to say my mother had been playing away from home when she conceived me," she quips.

Rosemary went to a Loreto day school, and though she loved geography, art and sport, she hated formal education. "I was a wild child and so they threw me out," she says. Wisely, Mr and Mrs Smith saw the virtue in harnessing their daughter's creative talents, and enrolled her in the Grafton Academy of Fashion, where she promptly won top honours.

Soon after, Rosemary became an apprentice in a clothing company, earning two pounds, eight shillings a week. She has a vivid memory of a colleague's fingers being sliced off when the colleague lost control of the machine she was using. The owner allegedly announced that she'd deduct the cost of the blood-damaged cloth from the poor girl's wages.

Soon after, Rosemary - who is still very fashion-conscious - opened a dress shop. One day, one of the clients invited Rosemary to navigate for her in a rally. However, it transpired that Rosemary was the better driver. So they agreed Rosemary would navigate for the first couple of miles; they would then swap places, with Rosemary driving. Shortly before the end of the race, they would again change places. "This went on for years," says Rosemary, "and we kept on winning."

She recounts a horrific incident during a rally in the midlands, when she was erroneously directed by her navigator to drive straight on. It soon became clear they were on the wrong road when they hit a stone wall at full speed, causing a serious injury to the navigator's head.

"I pulled the flap of skin over her wound, and tied it tight with a scarf," says Rosemary. "We went to hospital in Carlow, in a cattle truck. After that, we resumed our partnership," she says nonchalantly.

Rallies abounded in the 1960s and 1970s. There was the London-Sydney Marathon, a rally during which contestants clocked up 7,000 miles travelling through 11 countries, including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In those days, there was very little support; dirt roads were common, and accidents and breakdowns happened regularly.

"The cars were dreadful," Rosemary says. "We were basically test drivers for the manufacturers. I used to wear false eyelashes. When I was feeling tired, the eyelashes would droop, and once I saw those little fringes, it would wake me up."

In 1965, Rosemary stunned the motoring world by beating not just the other women's teams, but the men's as well, to win Holland's famous Tulip Rally, in her Hillman Imp.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were staying in the same hotel, sent Rosemary a huge bouquet and a lovely letter to congratulate her. Though the rallies were often gruelling, there was an upside, too. "There were terrific parties after the rallies," Rosemary recalls.

Rosemary has had two long-term relationships, including one marriage. But since then she has been on her own, and seems quite content. For the past 17 years she's been running a driving school for pupils in transition year to "teach them good road driving skills". She explains that the Ford Motor Company supports this endeavour.

It's hard to steer Rosemary away from the subject of rally driving, but finally she does give a nod to the topic of her broken bones, and bizarrely they have nothing to do with driving. "I tripped over some bedclothes in my hotel when I was attending a function in the UK earlier this year," she says. "When I came home, I had an X-ray. They said my collarbone was broken and put my arm in a sling. But when I discovered I couldn't drive with a sling for insurance reasons, I took it off."

Then, in May, some 50 years after she first won it, Rosemary again competed in the week-long Tulip Rally. Given her still unhealed collarbone, and the fact that her car didn't have power steering, it was sheer agony, so she was forced to retire from the event.

When she got home, she headed for the Beacon Hospital, where her friend and former racing-car driver Michael Cullen is CEO. Rosemary was seen by orthopaedic surgeon Maurice Neligan, "but by then my collarbone had come asunder," she admits.

Maurice says that collarbone fractures are quite common and that 95pc of them will heal over time, with the help of an arm sling. But it would seem Rosemary's case was more complex, because "the fractured clavicle was close to the junction with the shoulder blade," and because the injury had occurred some time before he was first consulted. So following discussions, it was agreed that a plate would be put in place, to assist the healing process.

Following surgery, Rosemary spent a few days at the Beacon Hospital. "It was wonderful," she enthuses. "I love being fussed over, and they certainly do that there. It's lovely when you know your meals are going to be put in front of you. Maurice Neligan is a dote, and Mike Spain, the physio, is just great."

Around the time of this interview, Rosemary had another fall during a photo shoot (for a different publication), when she sustained a sprained ankle and a cracked knee. So it was straight back to Mr Neligan's consulting room.

"Right now, I'm in a big leg brace," she says with a chuckle. "Maurice and the girls at the Beacon know me quite well by now. They must think I am quite nuts."

Perhaps "feisty" would be a better description. Currently, Rosemary is taking it easy, but that's only because she's determined to take part in the Circuit Deja Vu 2016, a classic run taking place in Kerry next Easter. All the greats from the golden days of rally driving will be there - such as Paddy Hopkirk and, of course, Rosemary Smith.

For more information, email Rosemary Smith at or contact the Beacon Hospital, tel: (01) 293 6600

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