Irish Motorsport Legend, Rosemary Smith passed away peacefully earlier today, aged 86 at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin.
Rosemary etched her name in the annals of motorsport history as a pioneering rally driver from Dublin. With a career spanning decades, Smith’s journey is a testament to her skill, determination, and groundbreaking achievements on the racing circuits and rally stages.
Smith’s initiation into rallying began while running her fashion business It was at a rally in Kilkenny as co-driver to Delphine Biggar, the wife of Monte Carlo Rally winner Frank Biggar. However, soon her love for the driver’s seat led to a pivotal role change with Delphine, and the partnership thrived.
She was soon catching the attention of the Rootes Group’s Competition Department, which offered her a coveted works drive.
Having clinched the ladies’ prize at the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1964, the year 1965 marked a significant milestone in her career when she, alongside co-driver Valerie Domleo-Morley, secured victory in the four-day Dutch Tulip Rally, manoeuvring a factory-entered Hillman Imp through 1,800 miles of challenging terrain.
Despite facing controversy and disqualification in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally, Smith’s resolve remained unbroken, leading to a series of triumphs, including an outright win in the 1969 Cork 20 Rally and multiple victories on renowned stages like the Scottish Rally, the Alpine Rally, the Canadian Shell 4000, the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon and the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.
Beyond the racetrack, Rosemary Smith’s life story is a narrative of resilience and passion. Born in 1937, she defied societal norms, learning to drive at 11 under her father John’s guidance (he was an keen amateur racer himself) and obtaining a driving license at 16 through resourceful means.
Her foray into fashion design, when she attended the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design and afterwards set up a boutique with her mother, added another layer to her diverse persona.
Smith went on to drive for many of the leading motor manufacturers of the time, including Ford, BL, Porsche, Opel, Lancia and Chrysler Talbot amongst others, showcasing her driving prowess but also as a trailblazer for Irish motorsport.
In 1978, Smith set a new land speed record in Cork, adding another achievement to her illustrious career.
There is a great story of Rosemary’s resilience. She was racing in the desert in Afghanistan, and her Ford Cortina is reputed to have developed a mechanical issue. It seems that damaged pistons had greatly reduced the power in the car and it was unlikely to make it to the finish. However Rosemary refused to give up and recalling advice from her father when he was teaching her to drive, “if a car won’t forward, it’ll go in reverse”. She turned the car around and did the whole remaining 30-miles of that stage in reverse.
In the 1990s, Smith expanded her influence by founding a driving school, imparting her wealth of knowledge to aspiring drivers. One of her crowning moments came on 10 May 2017, when, at the age of 79, she became the oldest person to drive an 800bhp F1 racing car during a test drive with the Renault F1 Team at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France, a remarkable feat that wasn’t noted by the Guinness Book of Records, because it was a record so unlikely to be achieved, that they sent no representative to verify it. They didn’t know Rosemary.
In 2018, she penned her memoirs in the hugely popular “Driven by Rosemary Smith” book. In 2022, she was inducted into FIVA ( Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens) Hall of Fame.
As Rosemary Smith’s legacy continues to inspire generations, her remarkable journey stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of an Irish motorsport legend, and a lovely woman.
The funeral arrangements for Rosemary are not yet available.