Helen is one of only a handful of women competing in motorsport today, and probably the only regular female Mini circuit racer. She has had more than her share of problems, but is always smiling, always eager to help others coming through the sport, and very appreciative of the support and help she has received along the way.
Her advice to young people contemplating motorsport is to maintain persistence. “Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do it. If anything, embrace it. If someone says you can’t do it, take that as a compliment, because you are going to love the look on their face when you have done it.”
“It’s not an easy road, but it will mould you as such an amazing person, and the experiences you will have are out of this world. I couldn’t recommend it more to any young person who wants to get involved in motorsport”, she continues.
That’s advice that comes from experience, and Helen feels that her best achievement is simply being accepted as an equal in the male-dominated sport. “The Historic Touring Car Association of Victoria has been a huge support in that. When I first started, people didn’t think I’d last very long, or they didn’t think that I’d be a contender, or anything anyone had to worry about.”
“But, I was very determined, through many an engine blow-up – like at Winton 6-Hour one year I lost two engines in one weekend.”
Showing her determination after the first engine broke, and that of her team-mates, Helen was driven to Melbourne by good friend Dean Bryant. She worked with the rest of the team all Saturday night to fit a replacement engine, getting back to Winton at around 1am, in order to race on the Sunday – but that engine also expired at the end of the race.
“Nothing prevented me from racing. It was something I had this passion for, and nothing else mattered other than the motorsport, which is a bit ridiculous, but I think any other racer can understand that passion. Once you’ve had the adrenaline rush, and you’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of the club and the people, that is not something that you give up lightly.”
“So, I think just to finally be taken seriously as a competitor, and to be able to keep up with the other Minis and keep up with the other cars, was special to me”, Helen continues. “When I started doing the hillclimbs I stuffed up more starts than I got right, and the commentators would say, ‘oh the girl has done it again’. Toward the end I started getting quite good at it, and it was great to beat a lot of experienced competitors. A lot of the wives used to come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed seeing me beat their husbands, and they used to give them heaps on the way home about being beaten by a girl.”
Helen said she has had an enormous amount of help and support throughout her racing. She began competing in her early twenties, while working as personal assistant to Consultant Engineer Richard Lightfoot. “Richard built a couple of Minis, with the idea to have his two sons racing. They were a little bit younger than me, so two of us got our licenses at the same time. Because I had to drive them to the sessions and things like that, I said I didn’t want to miss out, I wanted to give it a go as well.”
“That was an opportunity that I couldn’t let go by. The four of us used to go to sprints and hillclimbs together, and we used to share the cars and do club-level events. The boys lost interest, or other things came up in their lives, whereas I really loved the racing. So, I asked Richard if it was OK to use the car myself, because I’d really like to keep going with it. He was wonderful. The whole family was great. They all supported me and said, ‘yep, away you go’.”
“Max and Marg Sherry (Mini Macs in Werribee) built my engines and were a huge support to me in my early days. Then I got a taste for it, and I wanted more.
The hillclimbing and sprinting just wasn’t enough. So, I went for my CAMS license, in the Mini, and started circuit racing.”
Helen began circuit racing about six years ago, concentrating on historic events and the Victorian State Race series. “There are so many people who have helped me. It was amazing. It made it so much easier. Slowly, through everyone’s help, I’ve now surrounded myself with the right people, the experts that know the car.”
A year or so later she moved to Sydney and bought the Mini from Richard Lightfoot. However, she wanted to give the Mini a complete overhaul and Helen was again overwhelmed by the help and support of the people in the sport. “I’ve had some amazing friends in Sydney and Melbourne who helped me with that. Dean Bryant, and Deb and Stu McStephney were three in particular. I met Graham Russell, at Russell Engineering, who is such an expert engine builder, through some of the racers in Sydney, and he helped me enormously too. Graham builds all my engines now, and I just love dropping into the workshop to potter around and try to find things that will make my Mini go faster!”
Don’t get the feeling, though, that Helen doesn’t do any of the work on her car. She is quite happy to roll up her sleeves and get dirty like any other self-funded racer. “I’ve got a bottle of black nail polish, to cover my dirty nails for work. Whenever I wear it to work, they all say, ‘hello, Helen’s been racing on the weekend”.
The fact that Helen is still racing at all is quite remarkable in itself. If you would like to read the rest of this story, get your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, or subscribe today.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 18 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>24</plumshop>