I love racing but these days I hadn’t considered myself a motorsport fan. After a decade of working in the industry, motorsport has become a thing that I do. I know I’m lucky and, for the most part, I wake up in the morning thinking how amazing it is that I get to work in a business surrounded by such passion and excitement. But it is my job and, just like any other job, mine brings with it the occasional bout of frustration and sense of monotony. But recently I had an experience that changed everything, and turned me into a fan all over again.
I escaped the cold weather this winter to attend this year’s Race of Champions in Barbados. As a guest of the Bushy Park circuit, I had an incredible go-anywhere credential that gave me outstanding access – vehicle staging, hot pits, VIP suites and the drivers’ lounge included. Generally speaking, I’m unmoved by celebrity, so when I headed for the drivers’ lounge it was not because I knew it was where I’d find the big-name drivers, but because it had the best view of the action and I would most likely find a few industry people I knew that I could hang out with. Even so, I was not prepared for the experience of meeting my hero. When we came face to face, I was dumbstruck.
I found her by accident. I knew there was a chance, of course, because she’s the co-founder of the Race of Champions. But it happened unexpectedly. I was standing on a balcony outside the suite watching a Formula One driver comically struggling to manage a Volkswagen rallycross car around the track, and she was suddenly there, a couple of feet away, chatting with a friend’s brother. It was really her, the inimitable Michèle Mouton, Group B legend. All I could do was stare.
Mouton is a lifelong hero – to me and, I’m sure, to just about every other woman working in motorsport. And no doubt to more than a few men, as well. Her performances in the toughas- nails Group B era are legendary. A standout performer, her career has been judged on her strengths as a driver – not on her record as a female driver. She wasn’t just good “for a girl,” she was flat-out good.
In 1981, Mouton and co-driver Fabrizia Pons debuted the all-wheeldrive Audi Quattro in the World Rally Championship and took it to a win at Italy’s Rallye Sanremo – the first victory for Audi, the first win for an all-wheeldrive car, and the first win for a woman in the WRC. She very nearly won the 1982 championship as a factory driver for Audi, and her success at Pikes Peak in the Group B era – second in 1984 and a win in 1985 – are indisputable.
She wasn’t always warmly received. After she won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1985, Bobby Unser approached her to tell her he wasn’t thrilled that she had broken his family record up the hill. As the story goes, he didn’t hold back, and neither did she, apparently telling him: “If you’ve really got balls, you can race me back down again.”
At the track in Barbados, my colleagues in motorsport did nothing to dispel the myth. “Madame Michèle,” they told me, didn’t suffer fools lightly. I had caught a glimpse or two of her that weekend. I spotted her across the paddock in a golf cart, pedal to the medal and barking orders into a radio; and again striding into an office with a clear sense of purpose.
Of course she’s older now than the image I have of her in my mind. If you’re a rally fan, you’ve seen the image I’m thinking about. It’s from the mid-80s and she’s got those strong eyebrows and a halo of fluffy brown hair; she’s leaning on her Audi S1 with an intense look on her face, like she’s just finished telling somebody what to do, or where to go. Unser, maybe. Now, some 30 years on, she has lost nothing of that assertive presence. As a 600-horsepower rallycross car – the closest thing to a Group B car racing today – exploded past our trackside suite unleashing its snapcrackle- pop anti-lag bangs, there I was, staring at her.
She was bound to notice, as you do when somebody looks at you for an uncomfortably long period of time. And when she looked back, my mouth went dry. My mind was blank. I couldn’t say anything, so I did the next best thing: I looked away. She, like a sensible person, turned her eyes away from the obviously crazy person standing two steps to her left and returned to her conversation. My moment had come, and it had gone. I tried to catch it and, like chasing a spin with slow hands on the wheel, I broke in with my eloquent opener: “Um… I’m a big fan.”
Hey, it’s what came to mind.
She was gracious and said hello in return. And, in an instant, this untouchable hero became a human being. I pressed on and introduced myself. I told her I admired her as a driver, as the co-founder of Race of Champions, and for her continued work with the FIA’s Women and Motor Sport Commission. I told her how, when little girls come up to me when I’m wearing my racing suit and tell me they want to be racecar drivers like me, it makes me proud to think I’ve continued her tradition – helping to nudge open a door to a future possibility that these pigtailed cuties never even considered could be possible. I told her she had done that for me, and countless others, just by being “badass.” And I told her that I’m grateful.
We spoke for about 10 minutes more, about racing, Group B, women in racing and the Race of Champions. She is smart and talks fast. She’s got opinions but asked me to share mine. In short, she’s everything you could have hoped for in a hero.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to pose for a photo; it felt like that would cheapen the connection somehow. So, meeting Michèle Mouton is an experience that I will stow in my mind with all the other great memories racing has given me. Memories that I’ll call up the next time I need to remember why I work in this crazy business – the ones that remind me why I really am a motorsport fan.