#WomensMonth: Age is nothing but a number: Meet 61-year-old speedster Clare Vale

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

Published Aug 12, 2023


Johannesburg - This week, we feature Clare Vale, the first lady racer to race in the premier national WesBank V8 Supercar series.

In March of 2009, at the WesBank V8 race at Kyalami, she became the first woman to take pole as well as lead a V8 race.

Clare also became the first female to have a podium finish in WesBank V8 Supercar history: at the historic East London Grand Prix circuit, Clare finished a podium third place in October 2010.

She then moved to the drifting motorsport discipline, becoming the first female driver to participate in the Supadrift Series.

After moving between circuit racing and drifting during the 2012 season, she focused on National drifting for the 2013 season.

Clare won her first race during the Springbok series at the Killarney circuit in 2006, racing a Shelby Can-Am sports car.

She has raced in the national Shelby Can-Am series, as well in Production Cars Class A in a Subaru STI. She has also raced a Porsche 917 in the International Sports Prototype class, finishing 2nd in the Championship in 2011.

Off circuit, Clare is a director of The Truck Man in Boksburg, dealers in used trucks and trailers. She has taken on the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre – De Wildt as a personal cause, and is a past President of MSA’s (Motorsport South Africa) Women in Motorsport Panel. She has been nominated twice for the Colin Watling Award for service to motorsport.

In 2010, she was appointed as a Road Safety Ambassador for the Road Safety Foundation, and in 2011, she was appointed as Chairperson of the Women in Road Safety Forum.

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

When did you first start really loving cars?

I was car crazy for as long as I can remember. I spent all my pocket money on Matchbox cars and spent hours drawing cars with big exhausts and plenty of GT stripes. My brother was my hero as he had a motorcycle and later a Renault Gordini, but my parents were not at all interested in cars, so unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to spend time at the race track until I was much older.

Were you ever told to focus on other interests as cars were for boys?

My parents never discouraged me – I think they probably thought it was a phase that would pass. As the laatlammetjie in a family of five children, I spent quite a lot of time on my own, so never had much social pressure to think more like a “normal girl”.

Tell us about the first car you ever got and what it was like sitting behind the wheel for the first time?

When I was in Matric, my brother had an old blue Beetle called Ernie sitting under a carport for ages. I used to work at Checkers after school and began saving up to buy Ernie as my first car. My first serious boyfriend also had a Beetle, and he taught me to drive when I was about 16 – he also taught me to ride a motorbike. In the end, I never got around to buying Ernie, and my first real wheels was a Yamaha XT500, which I then rode to work and back for years. I got my motorcycle licence before I got my car licence and loved the freedom of the bike, especially in traffic, although it was less fun in the rain.

You thrive in a mostly male-dominated environment. As a female, do you feel like you’ve had to work extra hard?

I think that being a woman in motorsport is not all that different to being a woman in the motor industry. We all have to work harder, work smarter and always bring our A game in order to earn our respect, and prove ourselves. Certainly, in motorsport, all eyes are on you, and if you make a mistake or there’s an incident of some kind (even if it’s not remotely your fault), there will be people rolling their eyes and saying, “Typical woman,” “Female driver!”, etc., there are people who become your biggest supporters and will stand behind you. Just a correction: I am not a pro driver, sadly – there are very few pro local drivers of either sex, as sponsorship is hard to come by. We have a used truck dealership, and running the business is very much my day job, so I am only a part time racing driver.

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

How did family and friends react when you revealed you wanted to be a motorsport driver?

I only started racing very late in life, after I turned 40. There were a lot of raised eyebrows. Fortunately, my husband, Don, has always been involved in motorsport and has always been my most enthusiastic supporter, along with my son, Dirk. I have always been competitive (I rode horses competitively for many years), and my family know I can be quite determined when I make up my mind about something (they may even say I can be stubborn). No-one actively tried to discourage me.

Do people in the industry still underestimate you and your talent because you are a female?

It’s an interesting question. I think it’s become easier in some ways, because I have a consistent history in the sport, and that has helped people to take me more seriously. In recent years, there has also been a lot of global focus on promoting female drivers, so seeing a female face under the helmet has perhaps become less of a shock to people. People’s expectations of a female driver still tend to be lower, as in the old adage of “she drives well for a girl.” On the other hand, if you drive well enough to actually outshine the men, the reaction is almost overwhelmingly positive, especially from spectators.

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

What are some of the challenges you face as a female motorsport driver in SA?

Most of the challenges I face are similar to those faced by any local driver: lack of sponsorship, the expense of racing at the upper levels, the challenges of working full time while trying to compete at your best. Drivers also need to stay fit, and the only way to stay “racing fit” is to drive. It’s a lot easier to practice and hone your skills if you play golf or tennis, for example. We need to pay for track time, trailer the car to the track and back, and usually need a few crew members to assist. Many talented young female drivers also drop out of the sport due to the pressure of raising young families.

What words of advice would you give to young women eager to follow in your footsteps?

If motorsport and cars are your passion, don’t hesitate. There are so many ways to get started and become involved. Start out where your budget allows: join one of the many car crews to meet like-minded people and take part in skid pan and track days; sign up for indoor league karting; take your car to safe street car drag nights, like Wicked Wednesday at The Rock in Gauteng; even take up Sim Racing, a great way to start learning racing lines and basic car set ups.

After that, if your budget allows, invest in a car for an affordable class such as VW Challenge, one of the many Historics classes, or endurance karting. You could also become a Marshall or an official. I would personally love to see more young women considering technical careers in the motor industry. Technical qualifications are in great demand globally, and many women are making their mark in motorsport as technicians, strategists and in computer diagnostics rather than as pit girls!

Motorsport driver Clare Vale. Supplied image.

You are 61 now. Do you ever have plans to slow down?

I’m still making up for lost time. As much as I enjoy the adrenaline rush of racing, I also love the intense focus you need to race. Running any sort of business these days is like living in a pressure cooker, and when I race, I have to forget about everything else and pay attention. I also believe that everyone needs something to look forward to – that’s what makes life worth living and keeps things interesting. If I ever stop looking forward to driving a race car, I think that might be the time to think about slowing down.

Why is it so important to celebrate women this Women’s Month?

Although we’ve come a long way towards recognising women as equals and worthy of respect, there is still a strong movement that thinks women really do belong in the kitchen. That’s fine if the woman in question is a passionate cook and really wants to be in the kitchen, but Women’s Month is important because it shines a spotlight on all of us.

Women can and should be free to achieve whatever they want to, as mothers, sportswomen, businesswomen, or in any role they choose. For me, it’s an opportunity to invite women and girls to take a look into my world and realise that it’s never too late to start chasing your own dreams.

Why it is so important as a female to chase your dreams regardless of the industry?

Thanks to the generations of strong women who came before us, today, there are fewer real barriers to stop women from following their dreams. Most of the barriers that remain are those which we put up for ourselves: fear of failure, lack of self-belief, lack of confidence. Whether you dream of being a pilot or an engineer, the opportunities are there; it’s up to you to take the first step, no matter how small. Remember, talent is often a product of opportunity: given the opportunity, your talent can bloom.

The Saturday Star