Long before W Series, there was the JRRDS Esso All-Ladies Race. Far from being a 21st century invention, all-female single-seater racing first happened at Snetterton in 1985 and Formula Ford 1600 provided the wheels.
On 25th October, 18 women took to the wintry track in identical Van Diemen RF78s following a week of intensive instruction from the staff of the Jim Russell International Racing Drivers School, then resident at the track.
The race was won by Anita Latham, a 20-year-old rally driver and horseriding instructor, from Motorsport News journalist Linda Keen and Virginia Murray.
Murray would have been second had she not received a penalty for over-revving her car. Keen herself had been penalised for the same thing during qualifying, which handed pole position to Latham. The only non-finisher was Fiona Riddell, whose car gave up a lap early.
In spite of its major-league sponsor, the All-Ladies’ Race was far from the sort of polite, slickly-orchestrated affair that W Series has been. It ran as part of a 750MC meeting. The drivers’ preparation involved attending a party at a country house and “terrorising” the JRRDS instructors during race day.
“They didn’t know what to make of us,” says Latham, although she is quick to add that all of the JRRDS staff took the women seriously. Chief among them was John Kirkpatrick, now a senior figure within the Motorsport Industry Association.
“He was called the Kilt,” says Keen. “He was a great instructor, he really was.”
Latham remembers ‘The Kilt’ as being “dour but actually very funny underneath”.
The race may not have had its own dedicated television show, but it garnered considerable press interest, including local TV news. Daily Express feature writer Adella Lithman attended some of the training sessions, although she did not actually race, and wrote about her experiences in the paper.
She described the RF78s as being like “coffins on wheels”, although she seemed enthused by her time in the car. Keen herself wrote an amusingly candid Motoring News centre-spread about the race, titled Cabbage Patch Dolls.
The media interest was partly down to the presence of newsreader Susan Osman and Julie Brown, who presented the pop music slot on TV-AM.
Neither Osman nor Brown continued in motorsport, but Osman is now a scriptwriter and Brown is the MTV VJ ‘Downtown’ Julie Brown. Brown finished seventh, claiming that she was only fast because she was scared to try her brakes. Osman was 11th.
The ‘media girls’, as Keen refers to them, were a small proportion of the entry. Latham reckons “half a dozen” were already racing or rallying, with most of the rest being involved in motorsport in non-driving capacities; organisers Wendy Hobday and Hazel Clements designed racewear, Barbara Greenway was married to long-term Snetterton commentator Norman Greenway and Sue McLernan was an administrator for JRRDS. Former Belgian motorcycle racer Isobel Joset was the only international entrant.
Keen is circumspect about the actual quality of the racing.
“The thing is, it was a club meeting. It was a bit of a novelty factor, so we got a bit of attention, but at the end of the day, it was a club meeting. It was kind of low key.”
When asked about lap times, she is even more to the point.
“They were crap! It was two or three seconds off the FFord pace of the time. We probably started 10 seconds off. Ten seconds or more, some people were off the pace.”
The race was never meant to be a search for the next Lella Lombardi. Like Osman and Brown, it would be the only foray into single-seaters for several of the entrants, but for Latham, it was when she realised that circuit racing was really her ‘thing’.
She continued to race in FF1600 when funds allowed and then moved into Sports 2000, where she was sponsored by Durex.
“I had a pink car, pink helmet, pink overalls, all plastered in Durex,” Latham recalls.
The condom manufacturer only sponsored female drivers at the time, due to negative attitudes at the time around HIV.
Keen also continued to race and then worked as Brands Hatch’s press officer.
The circuit promoters, John and Angela Webb, were keen to use female drivers as promotional tools and whenever one was due to appear, Keen was instructed to make the most of it. She remembers hearing: “If there’s a woman in any race, I don’t care if they’re useless. Promote them.”
The All-Ladies’ Race was part of a small flurry of women’s motorsport initiatives in the mid-1980s, including a similar competition at Thruxton around the same time which used Ford saloons and was won by journalist Debra Stuart.
A possible inspiration for this was the 1984 TV drama Driving Ambition about a bored housewife who becomes a racing driver.
There was talk of a second JRRDS All-Ladies’ Race, but it never came to fruition.
Both Keen and Latham remember their time at Snetterton with infectious enthusiasm and fondness.
Photo courtesy of Linda Keen
Additional reporting by Craig Woollard.