Our Woman of the Week is Ruth Nugent, a twenty-three year-old marshal turned driver from County Meath in Ireland. She started marshalling alongside her dad at the age of twelve, after catching the motorsport bug from him. She is driving in the Fiesta ZETEC Championship in 2018 as the realisation of a life-long dream to race. We caught up with her ahead of the season.
Bridget Schuil: What is your first memory of motorsport?
Ruth Nugent: My first memory of any sort of motorsport would be motocross. We lived very near a motocross track and my dad owned a trials bike up until I was about four years old. He was always down there or down at the beach. I remember sneaking into his shed and climbing on shelves, just to try sit on the bike for a magical minute! He was motorsport mad and I was lucky enough he shared this interest with me.
BS And your favourite?
RN My favourite memory though was my first time marshalling in Mondello Park with him. It was a rallycross event and we were marshalling a corner as well as being on tow-in duty. I was completely mesmerized by everything happening around me! It was my first memory of ever feeling an adrenaline rush just watching a sport. I especially enjoyed getting to help rescue a broken down or crashed rallycross car. It was like meeting a celebrity on the red carpet for me! I felt so privileged to be a marshal, to get this sort of opportunity.
BS What motivated you to start marshalling? And what inspired the move over to racing?
RN My dad asked me to go with him one weekend, and that was that. I was sold. Some people don’t understand why we’d volunteer to stand out in all sorts of weather for hours at a time, risk getting ourselves involved in an accident, or willingly attend a crash or fire. There’s one real reason why, and that’s our love for motorsport in its entirety. I’ve had drivers ask me why in the world we would work a whole weekend out on track for free. The truth is it’s because we don’t have either the money or the courage to race, mostly because we don’t have the money. But we absolutely adore the buzz of being right in the middle of the action and being able to help out.
Moving over to racing was something I’ve wanted to do since the first day I marshaled, but the harsh truth as we all know is that it was just too expensive to even consider. After I finished college and got myself a good job, I decided to do it. I’ll give it a go now while I’ve got the chance.
BS How did you get from where you started to where you are now?
RN Everything I learned from then to now came through other people. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, even the ones people might’ve thought were a bit obvious, because that’s how I learned everything that got me to where I am now. I hadn’t a notion on how to get into racing. Things like who to go to, and how much everything cost aren’t open topics of conversation, so I learned how to do it through networking and building friendships around the paddock. Some of our marshals marshal when they’re not racing, and were more than happy to answer questions and give me tips. Once I got figures, I worked out what’s affordable and what’s not, and went from there. My big tip is networking, and getting to know people in the motorsport family near you. I’ve been lucky to meet people spotting me from the control tower or the stands to give me tips on how to approach a corner differently for a better lap time. Or people who can give me the best advice with regards to seeking sponsorship. Or even people who don’t know me, but have offered me valuable advice, skills, and even mechanical tips.
BS Who would you say has been the most supportive of your motorsport career?
RN My dad is getting a huge shout-out here. I’d have to say him first. He’s spent his whole life involved in some sort of motorsport, and he always dreamed of racing, it just wasn’t something he could afford. So when I decided to give it a shot, he was super supportive and excited and couldn’t wait to help out and get involved.
My boyfriend has absolutely no interest in motorsport, but has been incredibly supportive and helpful. He’s excited. I think secretly he loves telling people that his girlfriend is going to be a racing driver!
I can’t not mention my marshal family. They were so unbelievably proud that I was going to go out and give it a shot. They’re excited to support me, and they’ll be marshalling at nearly all the rounds of my championship this season. It’ll be great to have familiar faces at each corner.
BS Where there any marshals (other than your dad, obviously) or racers you look/ed to as role models?
RN We have a few marshals who race in the Masters Superbike Championship here in Ireland, and I’ve always admired their dedication to the sport. Whatever events they weren’t racing at, they were out on the banks marshalling. That’s exactly what I plan to do this year. I’d miss marshalling too much if I didn’t do it for a whole year.
She’s going to kill me for mentioning her, but Nicole Drought (former ITCC champion and currently competing in Strykers) was someone who I always knew of. It was genuinely inspiring to watch her achieve so much so quickly in motorsport. We met by accident in the Mondello paddock once, and since then we’ve been two peas in a pod. She’s given me a lot of insight into what to expect as a newbie, and also as a woman in the sport. She’s even recruited me as her navigator for some ALMC endurance trials this year. We competed in our first round last month, and came first in class. It was definitely more down to her driving than my navigating! You can put her in any car and she’ll drive it past its limits. She’s been a huge help and role model.
BS Onto the habits section, can we talk about your workouts? Have you upped your intensity since deciding to start racing?
RN I knew from my first track day that I needed to increase my upper body strength, so it’s been something I’ve had to incorporate into my everyday training. I’ve also tried to increase core strength, and change my lower body workout. I feel like my hips would benefit the most from more strength, as they’re something that ached the most after being in the car for a day. I have Crohn’s disease and fibromyalgia, and they’re both illnesses that can suck the energy from me before I’ve even begun. I’ve been trying to keep on top of all my symptoms and how best to manage them. I’ve never let them stop me before, so I’m certainly not going to stop now. But they will add a little challenge to the training and race days!
BS How do you manage those? Are you worried about medication for your illnesses affecting your driving?
RN I’m not on medication at the moment. I try to avoid it whenever I can because the side effects can be nasty. I kept a food diary for a while, and that helped eliminate a lot of trigger foods. However, I’m still finding out the hard way what foods don’t agree with me. In the last year, I found that once I listened to my body and what it needs, I could usually avoid doctor’s visits. I found going mainly vegetarian helped a lot too.
BS Do you have a meditation routine or spiritual practice as part of your self-care ritual? Do you find it helps your mental balance?
RN Illnesses like these have brought major anxiety into my life, so I had to develop my own self-awareness and ways of dealing with it by myself. Mindfulness is something I’m using to manage that. It helps me accept a lot more on bad days and keeps the balance that I work hard to maintain.
BS Do you do any kinds of self-care for your headspace, like journalling? I find Morning Pages and bullet journalling help me stay on top of my symptoms.
RN Yeah, I’m old school. I’ve kept personal diaries since I was seven years old, and they’re where I can put down my thoughts to try understand them better. It’s also good for me to read back over them, and give myself credit for getting past what’s bothered me then.
I’ve written a few pieces for people like the Irish Society of Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. That was hard in the beginning, but fantastic for my own mind. It was especially good when other patients contacted me to let me know that my work had helped them feel validated in their struggles.
(One of my favourite sociology researchers, Brené Brown, says lessons move from the head to the heart through the hands. I’m glad the coping strategy that emerged from her data on wholehearted people has helped you too!)
BS Onto the challenges section, have you had a hard time finding funding, or has the sponsor search been easy for you? What are some things you found that helped?
RN I knew seeking sponsorship would be hard, so I had a fair idea before starting out. Because I work for the Mondello Park Track Team, Mondello have agreed to help me out. We’ve agreed to work together to make vlogs (episode 1 above) following my transition from a marshal to a driver. We’re hoping to inspire more people to take an interest in the sport, bring more marshals in, and hopefully get more girls and women interested in a sport that has traditionally been made up of mostly men.
The rest of my sponsors are more there fore support than financial help, which I totally expected seeing as I’m only starting out as a racer this year. It’s hard to get a reply out of some people regarding sponsorship, and you’ve got to be careful what approach you choose to take too. I found if you find a company that can relate to something about you, you can give them a reason to support you. For example, my local tyre fitment and crash recovery centre agreed to support me this year as I could relate to them from working as a marshal and on the fast intervention/tow-in vehicle on track. I took the road safety and crash recovery perspective when approaching them for sponsorship.
I knew I wouldn’t receive huge financial support from anyone this year as I’m new to racing and have something to prove first. Therefore, it’s purely up to little ol’ me to pay for myself this year! I’m working hard, saving as much as possible so I can try get a full season in. the society for Crohn’s disease were also delighted to be on board to raise awareness of the disease in a way that’s very different to most of the media coverage.
BS Do you feel like you’ve been treated differently at the track because you’re a woman?
RN Over the years, yes. As I got older, I began to open up and socialise around the paddock, and I met more marshals, officials, and drivers. Most men were friendly, but there were the odd few that dropped comments here or there that soon made me realise I stood out more than I thought.
I’ve said this before in an interview, but one of the most common comments I got from when I was about fifteen was, “What are you doing marshalling when someone like you could be a grid girl out there?” [Sarcastically…] Yes, because I’m a woman, all I’m good for is standing out there with fewer clothes on holding an umbrella over a man? Not a chance! I would never say it’s all men, because it’s not. But it’s shameful how many still believe women aren’t made for driving, or genuinely don’t believe we have an equal part to play in this sport.
BS So your opinion on F1’s recent decision about grid girls?
RN I can see it from both sides. The women who worked as grid girls enjoyed it. That job was part of their employment, so I can empathise with the loss of a job. But I feel the bigger picture is women in motorsport. Women who live and breathe motorsport who have been fighting for years to be seen and treated as an equal, rather than being sexualised. Women who’ve stuck it out in a male-dominated sport because they love competing.
Grid girls have been a marketing and promotional tradition for years, but I feel that they didn’t really serve a purpose in the sport. I feel the proposition of bringing in grid kids is fantastic, as this will encourage kids to get the once-in-a-lifetime chance of being in the pit lane with their role model drivers. Getting involved young is how almost every racer in the top series made their start.
BS Do you feel like your illnesses have affected the way people treat you?
RN No, not really. I’m quite open about it because it’s a part of my life and it’s going to affect me whether I like it or not. I just take it on board. I guess because I’ve taken that approach with it, people I’ve told have sort of adopted it too. Our chief marshals will always listen to me if I request to be posted on a corner where I can access a toilet quickly if needed, or if I want to work on tow-ins so I can be seated and in a warm place for the day but carry on working. Similarly, our ambulance team have been hugely helpful and understanding on days when I needed help with something.
BS I’m really glad they’ve been accommodating! It’s heartening to hear. Have you worked outside Ireland enough for a question about xenophobia to be relevant here in the context of how much hate has erupted since the Brexit vote?
RN I’ve never worked outside of Ireland, so I wouldn’t say so! Give me a few more years under my belt and I’ll see what I can conjure up!
BS Do you think motorsport has a culture of consent, or is there some more work we can do?
RN What do you mean by a culture of consent?
BS A culture of asking for and respecting consent (consent as in, informed, enthusiastic, and sober permission that is continuous throughout the interaction, whether or not that interaction is romantic or sexual in nature).
RN Aha, so like men coming up to me, not asking me who I am and just shoving unhelpful or inaccurate “advice” down my throat and then walking away? No consent there!
BS Yeah, something like that. So, that’s a “motorsport could do some work” vote?
RN Yeah, we could definitely do with a bit more work there!
BS Do you feel pressure to be heterosexy (from Griffin, 1995, who talked about how women athletes are expected to be pretty in a way that straight men find sexy)? (I love that word, and am trying to make it more common.)
RN Well, I could see why I might feel pressured to be heterosexy, but I’m not that type of person. And yeah, it’s such a valid word for that topic!
BS I guess your sponsor strategy is more focused on competence than heterosexiness, given that your partners are mostly automotive and motorsport service/product providers.
RN Yeah, I carefully planned that, and so far so good. Seriously, though, I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve used my experience and the contacts I’ve made over the years the best I can to do this season.
BS What do you think motorsport can do to be more environmentally sustainable? Should we be working on tyre solutions, alternative energy, and those aspects, or is it enough to offset our carbon footprints with tree planting?
RN I work for the electricity supply board here in Ireland, and I’m always reading about how our company is trying to incorporate more sustainable strategies. They’re trying to adopt new ways of becoming a more eco=friendly company, and are really starting to focus on renewable energy. This often makes me think about how we could do the same in motorsport. Most classic petrolheads stick their noses up at the implementation of Formula E, but I personally think it’s fantastic. If we’re being realistic, electric or even hybrid cars can make a huge difference to the environment and how people perceive motorsport. Although hybrids may not be the most fancy and impressive cars, they output exceptionally low CO2 emissions, and give a level of fuel efficiency never seen before in the sport. If it was put forward and supported more, we might start to see more sustainable forms of motorsport, and not just in top-tier series like F1 and Formula E.
BS Do you think motorsport needs a new business model now that the recession and social media have changed how we do advertising, branding, and marketing?
RN Yes, absolutely. Social media especially has changed pretty much everything when it comes to advertising and marketing. Only the most popular and well-funded forms of motorsport have caught up with the changing times. Small, local forms of national motorsport struggle to keep up, and get people interested in their events and even the sport itself. If a new business model was to be implemented, national forms of motorsport need to adopt the new strategies too. After all, all the big names in motorsport started in the small, less popular series and clubs.
BS Last question: do you have any advice for youngsters interested in getting involved in the sport?
RN Yes. If you get the opportunity to do it, start young. Start out in karting. So many drivers have said this to me, and I agree with them. It’s the best way to start off and see if you’re made for this sport. Also, if you end up adoring it, get a part-time job while in school, because you’re going to want to start saving!
Jokes aside, it’s not impossible. The best advice I can give is to network. Go to events and meet new people, because you’ll never know what opportunities arise!
Follow Ruth on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Follow Mondello Park’s YouTube channel to follow her season vlog.