Features > Sarah Donohue

Sarah Donohue -
Women In Motorsport

It used to be unusual to find women in Motorsport, but as the years have gone on, I’m no longer the only female in the sport of Powerboat Racing. It has spread rapidly and in the lower ranks of racing, in smaller boats like the Honda Formula 4-stroke series, there are many joining up donning race overalls.
It’s still a rarity to find women in the Superboat Classes and I think I was the only 1 for many years out in the USA, and I’m still asked to this day, ‘how did you start racing?’

When I tell people it was by chance, that on a lads night out I was spotted and approached by a billionaire club owner Charles Burnett III (CBIII) who had been watching me all night. When he found out that I was training to be a stuntwoman, he knew I was the girl for the job of working with his world famous team ‘Los Locos’ at Windermere to get the Class II World Speed Record. Then he invited me to race full-time and the rest is history.

I joined forces with his pilots’ wife Julie Kondac and thus was born the only all-girl team in the World. It was done purely as PR stunt for his restaurant, little did everyone realise that 14 years later, I would still be on the circuit making me the longest standing female in the sport, racing in more countries than any other female..and most guys, holding more foreign National licenses than anyone else. Infact, when I won the 2ltr European Championships in Italy in 2001. There was a look of confusion when they played the Italian National Anthem. I wasn’t racing as a Briton. I was racing as an Italian. Traitor? No…..these guys saved my life the year previous. It was to say thankyou and keep the trophy where I felt it belonged!

This was what started my career in racing. It wasn’t a fad like it has been for many women who have come and gone, or like some of them, a way of self-promotion desperate to gain fame. It just became a way of life for me for many years. Travelling and racing for whoever phoned me with the offer of the best all-inc paid holiday in the hottest country. The Italians became like brothers to me and to this day I often fly over to Italy for the weekend just to see them, the racers became my family.

Jo Dixon my now team mate in Honda, grew up into a family of racers, her mum, Debra France and dad, Rory Power have raced for decades. Jo used to race with her dad and funnily enough, so did I! Her mum Debs holds a World Speed Record which she got with CB III so as you can see…..Jo comes from good stock and I’ve known her years so it made sense to race together.

In 1999 I received a call from EON Productions asking if I could do the next Bond Movie. I actually put the phone down on them twice thinking it was one of the Offshore lads winding me up. They got my attention long enough for me to realise it wasn’t a wind up and then I joined 2nd Unit for the next 5 months working with Simon Crane and Vic Armstrong, the guys responsible for movies like Terminator, The Mummy, The Mask Of Zoro and Titanic. I worked closely with Pierce and his doubles perfecting the boat chase and then moved into Q’s lab for some more antics at Pinewood. Since then it’s been pretty hectic, both myself and Jo have worked in the States on some boat sequences. We try to do most things together, it makes life easy when you know what each other are thinking without the need to talk. The beauty of it is that no one can hear.

I get asked a lot about my accident in the European Championships in Venice, as it was so bad no one expected me to race again. My close friends knew that I looked at that life-support machine like it was a mere scratch (northern humour)….my feathers were a bit ruffled. My heart stopped for 4 minutes, but nothing that a good Italian with resuscitation skills couldn’t sort out for me. I had broken most bones and didn’t look so pretty, however my parents thought I looked lovely! Even with no teeth, this was never going to hinder my racing…although I’m still on painkillers to this day.

Jo took time out of racing to concentrate on her career in IT. She is at the top of her field now hence she wanted to start racing again. I took a year out to concentrate on Fitness Competitions in the USA, so I was ready to start racing again when as if by magic, I bumped into team ‘DELMAR’ Tony Crossley and Mark Glanville for the 2nd time at Plymouth. These guys for the past season had been racing both the Honda 150 and 225 boats back to back. Out of one into the other, literally. They were at the point they wanted 2 boats on the water, but only wanted to drive 1 of them. It was only a week after the Plymouth Class 1 event, Tony called and asked if me and Jo were up to the job of joining DELMAR. We snapped his hand off….

It’s been a difficult type of racing to get to grasps with so far. Now the smallest Class (by this I mean slowest) of offshore are the Honda fleets. This is now entry level for those wanting to move up, or, stay safe. They run at similar speeds to the 1.3ltr boats of old school races, but they have another 10ft of length to the boats making them…..shall we say, not as much fun. The engines are big heavy domestic engines also, bringing the speeds right down. My last 2ltr boat was the same length, 27ft, but it went 20mph faster than my Honda. It was a lot lighter..you can’t beat the power and sound of the Mercury XR2. It’s a beautiful thing….
Honda also run tiny circuit courses inshore for spectators. Great for sponsors, really boring for racers, unless the racer knows no different…It’s hard staying awake for 13 laps of 2.5miles with an overall race length of about 30miles….It works for sponsors, but not for the real hardcore offshore drivers….once a boat gets a lead, it usually stays in the lead as there are no real straights or navigational skills used to alter positions. So it’s about having the quickest boat. And that’s about having the most cash and who you know to get you the things available to make it quick..
I think it is heavily promoted as being a one-design series, but every boat is so completely different that it doesn’t fit into that category anymore. In any one-design race series there is always going to be a natural progression. The only one-design series that has any chance of staying just that, is Fiona Pascoes ‘Thudercat Racing’. They are also awesome little boats….. There are some Honda boats that have had their hulls worked so much that if you dropped them back in the original mould, they wouldn’t fit. If you were to feel under the boat along any edges, they should be square, just like when it pops out of the mould. However some are so smooth and rounded that money and time has been spent on taking them away from one-design and making them faster and a lot more stable. Indeed dropping them back in the mould would leave a gap where they have been altered. Some engines sit higher than others. They should all sit at the same height.
The actual decks are also different, there are 2 types, one you can see behind easily and one gives you no viewing ability at all. Seeing behind is massively important.

The new engines give out 5% more power than the old, only a few have the new engines. There is a list of differences that anyone coming into the sport should take into account if thinking of purchasing. It’s only through years of racing that we take note of the little things. It’s the little things that change the speed and stability massively. It’s also the little things that go undetected unless you’re as interested as me for example, and walk past a boat and feel the bottom of it. Some people also have more access than others to specialist equipment. But it’s also these little things that shouldn’t be done as you are pushing the boundaries out making the sport unfair. It becomes ‘he with the most money wins’ This is what happened to Class II just a few years ago. It was dominated by VICTORY. No one had their money and no one could keep up with their advancements until one day Class II died and has now gone forever..

Each year you will see some boats getting quicker as the teams note what the other teams have done and follow suit. In all reality they should be the same speeds as they were when they started years ago. There should be no progression in a one-design fair racing Class. Only a progression in driver ability, but now it’s about having knowledge, the best engineers, not always the best drivers....
But if none of this bothers you and you want to have fun on the coast, then sign up and get involved. There is always room for more boats!

For anyone that likes fun on the water but doesn’t fancy racing, but fancies that way of life. Once a year the BLADERUN’ leaves town. It’s a rally like the Gumball Rally but on water. Happy to say I’ve done both a couple of times, I would certainly recommend this for high octane fun, safety at sea and great parties….It has been well thought of, well planned, and the coast guards are tracking you to keep you safe…contact www.bladerun.co.uk or contact me for more info www.sarahdonohue.com  and I’ll sign you up and get you started!


portrait of Sarah Donohue wearing her numerous medals around her neck
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