Zoe shows plenty of drive

Motor-racing is still seen as a bit of a male preserve. Steven Russell meets a Suffolk woman keen to show you don't need testosterone in order to triumphWHEN the going gets tough, the tough get going - and Zoe Dickson is ready to make plenty of sacrifices while chasing her dream.

Motor-racing is still seen as a bit of a male preserve. Steven Russell meets a Suffolk woman keen to show you don't need testosterone in order to triumph

WHEN the going gets tough, the tough get going - and Zoe Dickson is ready to make plenty of sacrifices while chasing her dream.

In the summer she faces a daunting “boot camp” in June that will slash 96 female motor-racing hopefuls down to just 12 for a four-round championship. Between now and then she's pledged to do her utmost to claim a seat.

Like putting a big dent in the credit card by spending £4,000 thus far to pursue her goal. Like embarking on a strict training programme during these chilly and damp winter months. Like quitting smoking. Like rationing alcohol.

You wouldn't bet against it. In the past, out of necessity, Zoe learned the art of property maintenance on the hoof. It's allowed her to do up a couple of houses she now rents out, and is currently renovating the new family home near Halesworth - a farmhouse that's lain empty for years. She's just done the roof.

The mother of three slides a sheaf of paper across the kitchen table. “I'm on week one,” she says. The fitness schedule demands a 25-minute cycle ride and 20-minute run three times a week, along with rowing-machine work and sessions on a cross-trainer. And it doesn't let up for what looks like months.

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Luckily, Zoe's fairly fit anyway - though she admits it would be great if a fairy godmother gave her free use of a gym where she could train in comfort. She's got bits of equipment already, and is scanning eBay daily in the hope of picking up a cheap rowing machine, but the prospect of a warm gym wouldn't half help with motivation.

Years ago she applied to be a contestant on the show Gladiators and got down to the last 28. She reckons she was probably the fittest she's ever been; she used to go to the gym and pound away while her young son was looked after in the crèche.

“And I've given up smoking, at Christmas,” says the 39-year-old in triumph. “I've never been a big smoker - just three to five a day, really. But that's it: it's got to go. I haven't touched them and it hasn't bothered me, really.” Patches or willpower? “Just on my own; I can't be doing with patches,” she smiles.

Alcohol's out on weekdays, too. “Not that we were big drinkers: just a lager or a glass of wine in the evening. And I'm into healthy food: fruit and vegetables, and pulses. We do treat ourselves a bit at weekends, though; you've got to live a little, haven't you?”

Such is her passion for motor-racing that Zoe is even prepared to postpone her holiday, should she get the call.

A big group of family and friends is heading out and she's booked to go. But there's no way she'll be gadding off to Greece if there turns out to be a single-seater car with her name on it.

“If I get through, I'll go a week later,” she smiles. “I'll find another plane to Greece! If I have to miss a few days it'll be worth it.” It's actually a win-win situation. “If I get through, I shall be celebrating and won't care about the holiday! If I don't get through, I shall be cheering myself up on my holiday.”

It was in 2004 that she saw Formula Woman races on TV, and the next morning was asking for an application form. “I was just sitting there thinking 'This looks absolutely fantastic. I'd love to do that.'”

So, last spring she attended a novice day at Dunsfold Park in Surrey. There was driving tuition in a Honda Civic R, with women practising skid control and learning how to heel-and-toe - fancy footwork with the pedals, designed to keep the revs up while braking for a corner.

Club Formula Woman aims to offer women the chance to take part in motorsport, or simply to develop their skills with professional instruction in a female environment at an affordable rate.

Zoe is pleased with then higher profile being given to women racing.

“I know that, with equality, we are catching up generally, but there's still that view that 'Oh, men are better.'

“I used to get it from my dad: 'Oh, you can't come; you're a girl' - to football and things like that. I used to hate that, and I'd never do that to my children. I don't think people tend to, nowadays.

“Which is probably why I'm a bit more determined than both of my brothers; I'll get stuck into anything. I think that's 'cos my dad made me like that.

“I think the number of female racing-drivers is going to expand; it's going to happen.”

In 2004 ITV1 televised the first Formula Woman Championship, a national competition targeting novice female drivers. The organisation is currently whittling down the numbers to arrive at the final 16 drivers for the 2006 championship.

Zoe also arranged a couple of sessions of one-to-one tuition at Snetterton in Norfolk, driving at speed round the circuit, to gain more track experience.

In the autumn came an assessment day at Dunsfold Park, consisting of a fitness test, an interview, a written test and driving behind the wheel of a go-kart. Zoe made the cut and was among the 100 chosen drivers.

In November it was off to Thruxton, in Hampshire, for an Association of Racing Drivers Schools course. She passed and received her racing licence. Next stop, last November, was a proper racing weekend at Pembrey in Wales, in single-seater Caterham cars.

Quite simply, it “was just the most awesome thing I've ever done. It took about two weeks for my feet to touch the ground afterwards. I was just in a different world when I got back: I couldn't concentrate, couldn't sleep because I kept thinking about it. It was just so exciting”.

There was also much to learn. There was a bit of a misunderstanding/misreading involving the lap-boards held out during qualifying. Zoe thought she was going quicker than she was, so backed off during the latter part of the session. Drivers were sharing cars and she didn't want to put hers out of action by slamming into a barrier. It was simply down to inexperience, she concedes.

She qualified about three quarters of the way down the 16-car field and finished the 12-lap race in a similar position - with an exhilarating spin to look back on, when she caught her left-front wheel on a corner. Fortunately, she managed to restart the car and press on to the chequered flag.

Setting the third-fastest lap in the race was an accomplishment to treasure, and there were numerous memories to take home.

“I learned a lot and I'm itching to do it again. I don't know why, because it will probably age me 10 years! It was terrifying being on the grid, waiting to go. There were a couple of false starts as well, which didn't help. I do like racing, but I'd never been in a proper racing situation before.”

The winners of the four races held that weekend go straight into the Club Formula Woman championship this summer, being staged at Pembrey, Mallory Park, Brands Hatch and Snetterton. The other 96 women have that date with destiny at the boot camp, and a tussle for the remaining 12 spots.

Day one will see the dream over for 50 competitors, based on fitness tests and, it's thought, success at obtaining sponsorship and publicity. Then racing prowess will see another 25 hopefuls saying goodbye.

Next up is a “fear test”. The details are still to be revealed, though last time women were apparently submerged in a mock helicopter, upside-down in the dark, and had to get out. “And you had to jump off a diving-board. So who knows what it's going to be - but it will be something horrible!” says Zoe.

“If I don't get through, at least I can say I've raced here and there and I've enjoyed it. Because if I don't get through I'll never do it again.”

Her interest in racing goes back years. She used to live near Harlow and her first husband, a property developer, had a limited edition Ferrari 288 GTO. “He used to do track days and go to Le Mans and places like that. I did go on a track day at Castle Combe, which was absolutely fantastic. That's probably where the first great experience was - 15 or 16 years ago now, I should think now.”

The couple lived in France for a year, but the marriage was breaking up. Back in England, they bought a pair of cottages in the Great Dunmow area intending to knock them into one, but it ended up that Zoe lived in one side and his wife in the other.

“That's where my building interest started, because I didn't have the money to do mine. I learned a lot there - completely gutted my cottage on my own. The children were really small and we lived in a caravan in the garden.”

Her husband had had an idea for a go-karting circuit in Harlow. They opened it together and worked there for a time until Zoe left and about 10 years ago bought a house near Halesworth that needed doing up. Her mum was living not far away.

She renovated the property herself. “I couldn't afford not to.” Her dad's a carpenter and brother is also practical. “I've learned from them. I love doing DIY. It's progressed from there and I've done more and more. From leaving with absolutely nothing, I've managed.”

Today, the family consists of second husband Nigel - also a motorsport fan - and children Alex, 17, Max, 13, and Zara, seven.

What do the children think of mum's quest?

What do they think?

“Oh, they love it. Alex likes going go-karting with me and tries to beat me all the time. He will, I'm sure, take over at some stage, but I'm still holding him off at the moment!”

What about the danger? How fast do you go?

“I don't know. I wasn't looking!” laughs Zoe. (The leading cars during the Pembrey races were averaging in the late 60mph-early 70mph zone.) “When I went to Snetterton I was doing about 115mph. I might have gone faster, but there was only one point I looked, because you're concentrating so hard!”

Is she worried about getting hurt?

“Er . . . I would worry about my children getting hurt, but I don't think I worry about myself, even though I was very scared before the race. But once you get going, that just all disappears and then you're thinking about the car and in front and catching that up. And that's it. So, no, I don't think I do.”

Probably the worst aspect is trying to drum up the backing that would maximise her chances of reaching the final 16. “I don't like asking people for money,” she shudders. “That's the bit I find most difficult.”

(Sponsorship backing would be warmly welcomed. Zoe can be contacted on 0780 1573821.)

And what about the secrets of success - money aside?

“I suppose it's about co-ordination and balance. I think you've got to have natural ability in order to progress, though. Some people are just a bit scared, a bit nervous. They're never going to be fantastic. I think you have got to have a certain element of being quite confident. It comes to you naturally, and then you can learn and progress from there.

“I can still learn a lot more. I'd love to have one-to-one instruction. If I had thousands and thousands of pounds I would be going to Snetterton every week.”

It seems Zoe's got that ability with sport, and the necessary co-ordination. She did clay pigeon shooting and shot for Hertfordshire. But you have to keep your brain in neutral to do well!

“I picked up a shotgun and was naturally good at it straight away, but if I started thinking about it, it went wrong! If I start thinking about things too much, that natural ability seems to go out the window!”

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