With speed in her DNA, Nicole Drought continues fast track to the top
Nicole Drought chuckles as she recounts the story about learning to drive on her grandparents land, scooting up the lane, reversing and coming down at a clip, as if immersed in a mini version of a rally stage.
Childhood memories are dominated by family days out supporting her father Owain’s passion for motorsport, accompanied by mother Aishling and later, her younger siblings, Natasha, Owain Jnr and Richard.
Clinging to ditches and peering over hedges, she marvelled, watching the cars hurtle by in a nanosecond, sliding and bouncing, kicking up gravel, the engine notes indicating acceleration or deceleration, before disappearing, the spectators left clinging to the audio that lingered a little longer. Rallying fired her imagination and framed her ambition; at least initially.
Drought explained: “Growing up I was around cars, my dad has a car business in Roscrea. He started rallying and I was with him when he won his first event; it was the most exciting thing in the world. That’s when I thought this is something I wanted to do.
“We watched rallies together, went to them together and my uncle Edwin took me to watch him [my dad] rally. I fell in love. I’m the eldest. I took to it more than anyone. They [brothers and sisters] weren’t really diehards but they did come to races.”
Her father competed in national championships, propelling his Honda Civic to podium finishes, before a bad accident forced him to take some time out. Drought continued: “That is when he started circuit racing. Rallying became a lot more expensive; people put more money into their cars.
“He stopped for a couple of years and then a buddy of his started getting into circuit racing. A car became available and he bought it. I remember thinking at the time, ‘what is he doing’ we are supposed to be going rallying. The first day he went out in the car I had to be there to see it. I followed him for two years going to different tracks, before I thought ‘I might give this a go’.
“They are two very different disciplines, rallying and circuit racing but he pushed himself very hard. He did very well in circuit racing.”
Nicole Drought signed a three-year deal with CJJ Motor Sports and was due to be competing in a Britcar championship in a Porsche before the Coronavirus intervened. Photograph: Michael Chester
Nicole didn’t take the conventional pathway of karting, motorsport’s kindergarten, apart from a brief flirtation in her mid-teens, but that ended abruptly when the engine blew. In 2015, aged 20, a car became available for the right price. She went to the bank, withdrew the money, and bought her first racing car, a Honda Integra and with it a route into the Irish Touring Car Championship.
“It was tough. I thought it was a case of just jumping in and driving. A lot of people think that. It’s absolutely not. That was a huge learning curve for me in the sport, knowing that you need the right people around you, the right equipment.
“The first weekend I surprised myself and qualified on the front row of the grid. I was so happy but petrified because I had never been on a track with 15 other cars around you, wanting to lead into the first corner. It was scary. The rest of the year was a learning experience, trying to master race craft; fortunately we got a couple of podiums along the way which made it all the better, while racing in Mondello Park, Kirkistown and Bishopscourt.
“My dad was racing in the same championship but in a different class. He found it hard to go and race because in the back of his mind he’d be wondering if I was okay. It was tough for him. After that first year he took a step back to keep an eye on things and look after me at the track. I did reasonably well.”
A friend of her father with whom he had rallied, Timmy England, sponsored Nicole’s first set of tyres. She was the first woman to win a race in the championship. In 2016 while leading the drivers’ standings her season ended prematurely due to mechanical issues but she made her sportscar debut that season, racing a global GT Light at the Anglesey circuit in north Wales. She qualified second and finished fourth.
The following year her finals in accountancy in the University of Limerick took precedence. “I knew that I had to study professional exams in accountancy if I wanted to be fully qualified. My races were at the weekend and so were the exams so I didn’t know what to do. I did a bit of work around Dublin and stayed around the motor racing scene. I got a job in a Limerick accountancy form, Shane Somers, and was able to take time off to race which was great.”
In 2018 and 2019 she competed in the Irish Stryker Championship. She explained: “They are a kit car, rather than a saloon car. It’s a rear-wheel drive and I was used to driving front-wheel drive, so that was a big change.”
She also signed up for the Endurance Trial Championship, racing a one-litre Nissan Micra – she was an ambassador at the time for the Japanese company – and winning back-to-back championships while also in the second season moving up a class one weekend and winning in a Toyota Starlet (1.3 litre).
“It’s like rallying but at a much less cost. It was so much fun. I had a co-driver which I wasn’t used to as I never had anyone else in the car when I was racing. They were directing me. That was cool and we won it two years in a row.” She won the Citroen C1 Challenge with Colin Lewis, a four-hour endurance race with two drivers.
In August 2019 she got to drive a Formula 1 car at the Mondello Park Historic Festival thanks to Cork-born, America-based John Campion. It was a Guinness liveried March 811 that had been raced by Derek Daly during his F1 career some 40 years ago. Daly was on hand to offer words of encouragement and some advice.
Drought said: “It was the most incredible experience. I thought it was going to be the first and last time that I was going to drive a F1 car. Only half a year later [in February] I got a message from John Campion asking me when I could travel to the States. He had bought a Jordan F1 car and I got to drive it at the Palm Beach International circuit. It was Rubens Barrichello’s car.
“It was like a movie set when I arrived at the track. I was already in awe looking at the other cars, when I looked up the pit lane, sun beaming down and saw the Jordan F1 car. I was shaking.”
Campion signed Drought to his CJJ team on a three-year contract and she was due to be competing in a Britcar championship in a Porsche before the Coronavirus intervened. She has yet to see the car or test it but hasn’t been idle to preparing for the day when she can return to the track.
She explained: “I got hooked up with a simulator through Digital Motorsport at Mondello Park. They helped me pick out a rig and we eventually got it up the stairs and in my bedroom. It’s unbelievably addictive.” It allows her to practice, virtually, on the circuits she’ll hopefully race including Silverstone and Brands Hatch.
The 25-year-old, who cites Rosemary Smith and Sebastien Loeb as her heroes, would love to race in the ELMS (European Le Mans Series), having watched a race at the Paul Ricard track in France several years ago. “That’s my goal where I’d like to get to. If you had the talent it’s not often that you make it; right place, right time.”
As someone who is part of the 20x20 Women in Sport campaign, she understands than she can be an inspiration – she got an inkling in talking to a group of schoolgirls recently – through her ability and visibility in the upper echelons of her chosen sport. She’s right on track in every respect.
Article first published in the Irish Times. Words by John O'Sullivan, Photo's by Michael Chester