The death of Rosemary Smith last week, peacefully at the age of 86 following a period of illness, brought to conclusion an extraordinary chapter in Irish motorsport, writes Brian Byrne. Apart from her ground-breaking prowess on international rallies at a time when they were dominated by men, Rosemary’s uncompromising attitude to road safety and to passing on proper driving techniques to several generations will be part of a lasting legacy.

Paddy White, a well known rally driver expressed his sympathy to family and large circle of friends. ” We had many a battle over the years and she was as competitive a driver you ‘d meet in competition. We would also have met socially over the years and enjoyed good times. she will be missed but not forgotten” concluded the former West European rally champion.”

Above; The late Rosemary Smith, Paddy White and her good friend the late Eileen Murphy 

at a charity function in The Merrion Hotel, Dublin. 

Rosemary, from Dublin, became a pioneering woman rally driver in the 1960s. She began as a co-driver, but a shift to the driver’s seat caught the attention of the Rootes Group’s Competition Department, which offered her a coveted works drive. She took the ladies’ prize at the Circuit of Ireland Rally in 1964, and the following year, alongside co-driver Valerie Domleo, she secured victory in the four-day Dutch Tulip Rally in a challenging 1,800 miles of driving. A controversial disqualification in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally was followed by an outright win in the 1969 Cork 20 Rally and multiple victories in competitions that included 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 had defied societal norms from her childhood. She learned to drive at 11 under her father’s guidance and obtained a driving license at 16 through resourceful means. She was a model, and also forayed into fashion design, including setting up a boutique with her mother. She went on to drive for many leading motor manufacturers, including Ford, British Leyland, Porsche, Opel, Lancia and Chrysler Talbot. She set a new land speed record in Cork in 1978. On 10 May 2017, 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. In 2022 she was inducted into FIVA (Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens) Hall of Fame.

In the 1990s she founding a driving school, imparting her wealth of knowledge to aspiring drivers. Over the last two decades she specialised in giving Transition Year students from all over the country an introduction to safe driving. In 2018, she penned her memoirs in the hugely popular “Driven”.

(My thanks to Leo Nulty for providing the motorsport historic detail in this account.)