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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 21 November, 2019
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'Once you go out on track, you’re on your own... you don’t have time for thinking out there'

Tipperary’s Nicole Drought reflects on her incredible career in circuit racing.

Drought is competing in the Irish Strykers Championship.
Drought is competing in the Irish Strykers Championship.
Image: Michael Chester

HER FRIENDS CALL her mad. Nicole Drought is 24-years-old and still listens to Bon Jovi. She cannot help it; like many things in life, musical tastes were influenced by her father. Big hair and big sounds from the 1980s weathered the fads and fashions of her own formative years.

Bon Jovi bring their latest tour to Dublin in July. The band play Liverpool four days later and the Droughts, Owain and his eldest daughter, will follow them from the RDS to Anfield.

“I just love them,” says Nicole to her friends when they tease.

Today, however, is a heavy metal kind of day. Nicole Drought is in Mondello Park for the first Saturday of the motor racing season. So far, the gods seem unkind. Yesterday’s practice session was going to plan until a mechanical problem derailed her afternoon. Unable to get out on track after lunch, she headed for home, head in a spin.

The car – one of 18 in the Irish Stryker Class – is not yet finely tuned. The brake bias needs adjustment (to favour the front wheels more than the back). A new gearbox means that taking the corners in third is slicker than in second. And, she must pay more heed through the turns, to make sure the back end does not get away from her (a harder task in these rear wheel drive sportscars).

On top of those issues, she has to scrub in new tyres. Good as it looks, fresh rubber is too slick for top speed on the tarmac. At least two laps of this morning’s qualifying session will be sacrificed to skim the tyre surface. Only when the wheels are warm, and a little worn, will they be ready for full throttle.

“I think racing is like a rhythm,” Drought surmises. “You’re dancing with the car basically.”

Driving, like dancing, is mostly arms and legs. Thinking about the act while doing it makes the movement clunky.

“Once you find a rhythm, you literally have to completely relax,” Drought continues. “You feel everything in your backside. You’re watching the line you want to take. Your braking, accelerating and steering has all got to do with the feeling here.”

Drought politely indicates her behind again. The physical toll of driving a racing car takes most by surprise.

“When you’re turning, you can feel the force against your body,” Drought explains. “When you’re turning into a corner and you’re carrying so much speed, the pressure comes on your back and your legs because you’re trying to hold them in the same spot.”

Source: Sport TG4/YouTube

Her sport demands sacrifice. After yesterday’s practice session, Drought drove back to Roscrea, an hour down the road, and spent 30 minutes in the swimming pool, easing her limbs through water.

Megan Ryan, a Tipperary camogie player, is a friend from home. Often, they spend time together in the gym, working on their fitness. Ryan is a personal trainer and so she points the way, devising workouts. Still, this morning when Drought woke, her body was a board.

At 7.45am she clambered out of bed. Eggs boiled the night before waited for bread to pop from the toaster. She took off for Mondello, breakfast by her side, tucked away in tinfoil. By 9am, the return journey was complete. Back at the track, she spoke first with her mechanic, Peter Auerbach, continuing a conversation they had begun the day before.

“Yesterday the engine overheated and I couldn’t get the tyres on to scrub them up,” Drought relays after the briefing. “Those kind of things were playing around in my mind.”

So much in motor racing is worked out off the track. If not the mechanics of the car, the finance for it will exhaust you. Often, it feels like the never ending struggle. “You can make all these plans and say: ‘I’m going to race in Europe.’ But, unless you have the budget, you can’t do it. It’s as simple as that.”

Ambition must be tempered and Drought has learned the hard way. Her friends in the paddock have seen how much those lessons left their mark.

“There has been some change in the last year,” says Maureen Cross from Kildare. “She would have been locked into the caravan and crying. She was very hard on herself.”

Emotions spike on race weekends. Drought can see the difference in herself now that she has learned to school her mind. A year ago, when something snapped, doubts plagued her: Can I do this? Am I a good driver?

Swirling thoughts engulfed her: “It goes round and round in my head. It starts getting worse. It’s very hard to tell people.”

She could not be placated. Heartfelt appeals only made things worse.

“Why don’t you just enjoy it?” those friendly voices pleaded.

“Because I’m too competitive,” she protested.

***

Nicole 2 "I always thought I was going to be a world rally driver.” Source: Nicole Drought

Everyone knew her, growing up in Roscrea, as Owain Drought’s daughter. So nobody had to wonder why she drove a pedal car around the garden and kept a ready copy of Buy & Sell.

“My father has a garage in Roscrea,” Nicole begins. “I literally followed him around the country when he was rallying. We’d all have a job when we’d go to the rallies. I’d be going around cleaning the car and thinking that this was the best job ever. I’d be inspecting the car to see if there was any damage. I was introduced to it at a young age and I really loved cars. I always thought I was going to be a world rally driver.”

At home, they spent their evenings searching through the classifieds, circling cars that craved attention.

“I grew up getting tractors for Christmas and overalls,” Drought recalls. “My poor mother couldn’t buy dollhouses because I didn’t want them.”

From there it was not much of a leap to jump into the driver’s seat. When Owain switched from rallying to circuit racing, Nicole considered her own potential. Rallying is expensive; here was a route that she could also take. “When I arrived here [to Mondello] first with the racing car, people were like: ‘Are you driving that?’ I didn’t realise there was this thing of people thinking like that.”

Those kind of questions never cease to puzzle. Racing had been her aspiration from an early age, a place where she would feel at home. Now it dawned that others saw this world a different way.

“There aren’t that many female racing drivers,” she notes. “I want to show that this idea that women can’t drive is nonsense.” On the first Saturday of the season, she is one of only three women (along with Ruth Nugent and Aimee Woods) racing.

Since 2015, when Drought started competing, serious credentials have been established. In 2016, she became the first woman to win a race in the Irish Touring Car Championship. Meanwhile Drought completed a Business degree at the University of Limerick, graduating in 2017. Now she works for Shane Somers & Associates, an accountancy firm in Limerick City. Those days behind a desk help to fund weekends at the wheel. However hectic life may be, racing never loses its appeal.

“The buzz you get when it all works out is the best feeling ever,” says Drought. “It’s a thrill that I haven’t got from any other sport. I’ve played music, tennis and loads of others. But the adrenalin rush from motorsport I can’t even describe to you. It’s so tough, but when it works out, it’s so rewarding.”

Today does not bring much reward. In qualifying, she posts the third fastest time, news of which delights Auerbach (“I’m over the moon; that’s the fastest she’s gone in a Stryker.”). A pile up at the first corner leaves her playing catch up in race one. Battling from the back, she moves as high as eighth before the chequered flag.

“Once you go out on track, you’re on your own,” Drought acknowledges. “It’s up to you to post the times, it’s up to you to pass out other drivers. It’s tough. You don’t have time for thinking out there. The pace you’re going means you don’t have time for anything but to control the car at that very moment.”

Rosemary Smith Nicole Drought With Rosemary Smith: "To be along those lines, that would be pretty cool." Source: Nicole Drought

This time last year, the problems encountered in a race would have left her speechless. “If something went wrong, I was going: ‘Oh my God, how am I going to cope with this?’ The emotions just took over.”

The emotional toll is high. In motorsport, the drivers invest much more than racing time. “You just feel so upset and so disappointed because you work so hard and you’re putting your money into this. You’re just feeling so low. You’re the only person in the car. Everyone else has done their work and you just feel like you’ve let everyone down and you haven’t done your job.”

“But it’s not all doom and gloom,” she continues. “Every sportsperson has that, where you have a bad streak. It can get to you and if it does, it’s not easy. You have to catch yourself before you get too far in.”

While hindsight lends perspective, time spent in despair is not wholly detrimental. Learning comes from living through those moments.

“You have to make all the mistakes to see the limit of the car and the limit of yourself,” Drought reasons. “I think it’s great that I did carry on like that because I can see there’s a big difference in myself.”

She presents a practical example: “If you’re stressed in work and worrying about how you’re going to get something done – what can I get done in the next hour? Plan it out.”

Performance coach Alan Heary proved a major influence over the past 12 months, introducing her to visualisation and relaxation techniques.

“This morning I wasn’t stressed,” she says, explaining the contrast. “I knew what I had to do and I went out and did it. I’ve learned that you just have to relax and take it as it comes. And prepare the best that you can.”

Foresight accrues from hindsight. In race two, late on Saturday afternoon, Drought encountered further problems, losing ground when another car spun in front, coming onto the home straight. Another situation outside of her control, more seconds wasted making up the lost time. The points for fifth place may mean more later in the season. The next race is really all that any driver can consider.

“You have to take racing year by year and see where you’re at,” she cautions. “At the end of the day, it actually all comes down to budget.”

Dreams are not as complicated and ambition still burns bright. To race at European level in the Le Mans series remains her ultimate aim. “I really want to show people where my ability is. It would be a goal to get to a level of Rosemary Smith [Ireland’s pioneering rally driver of the 1960s]. To be along those lines, that would be pretty cool. I really want to do well myself but I also want to show girls that they can do it and can come to the track. It’s not just a boy’s sport.”

Perceived wisdom is no match for a big heart and a quick mind.

Nicole Drought is an ambassador for Nissan Generation Next and Mondello Park, and is sponsored by Gem Oils. In partnership with Ireland hockey international Nicci Daly, Drought is one of the brains behind Formula Female.

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