Charlie Martin is ready to get back on the track.
COVID-19 didn’t entirely nix her racing schedule last year, but she still found herself at home more often than not, turning to esports—virtual, simulated racing against all manner of drivers online—and physical training to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. Now, she’s gearing up for the Britcar Endurance Championship racing season behind the wheel of a Praga R1T Evo, a high-speed machine made by a niche Czech manufacturer.
“I’m a massive optimist, so in the moment, I’m just focused on doing what I can do,” Charlie told A Girls Guide to Cars. “I’m just going to go at it like everything is going to happen to plan, and if it doesn’t, I’ll be ready at the beginning of the season.”
That’s been the mindset of plenty of racing drivers across the world, but for Charlie, it wasn’t just racing that was postponed. The British driver combines her career on the track with activism off the track to help create a more inclusive environment in motorsport—and being away from the track meant that she wasn’t able to help break down barriers of the traditionally cisgender, male-dominated space.
A few years ago, Charlie did something most racers don’t do.
She began the process of gender transition to feel more authentic and at home in her body. Motorsport, though, hasn’t been known to be the most tolerant environment. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, if not outright banned from racing, have been discouraged from taking part by hostile reactions to their presence. Transitioning was a huge unknown, especially with it happening while she was kicking off her career.
Growing up, Charlie fell in love with speed, which frequently took her to local hillclimb events—which are, essentially, a test to see how fast a driver can race their car up a twisty mountain road. Racing, though, is notoriously expensive, and growing up in an average family meant Charlie was in charge of everything from buying and maintaining a car, gaining sponsorships, and crafting a dedicated fan base. She sunk money and passion into motorsport but began to realize that she needed to be true to herself.
She took 2012 off racing in order to undergo her transition and to recover from what is often an intense process, both emotionally and physically. She thought about quitting racing altogether, so worried was she about how folks in the paddock would respond to her return. But thankfully, she had the love and support of her close family.
“I worked at the time with my brothers in the family business,” Charlie said. “It was great to have that kind of stability from them, and seeing each other that regularly made it easier to get through the initial peculiarities of transition. It got rid of the weirdness, having that day-to-day, of growing up as brothers. We just had to get on with the job we were doing.”
The normalcy helped, and when Charlie returned to the race track as a spectator, she felt a little more prepared to handle anything that came her way.
“A lot of people didn’t know who I was, didn’t know what was going on, didn’t even make the connection that it was me,” Charlie said in an older interview. “It was really, really hard.
“But a handful of people came over to me that day, gave me a massive hug and really made me feel welcome. The difference that that one gesture made to me at that time… I realized that even if I’ve got just a handful of people, then I can go from there.”
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Since then, her career has taken off.
With that difficult return under her belt, Charlie was ready to get back into the swing of things. She has predominately competed in sports car racing, like the Ginetta GT5 Challenge, the Michelin Le Mans Cup, and VLN (Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring). This is generally a more affordable racing series since, depending on the rules, the cars have to retain the basic principles you’d find in a street car, but optimized for safety and higher speeds.
But Charlie also incorporates activism into her career. She’s an ambassador for an organization known as Racing Pride, which is dedicated to increasing visibility for members of the LGBTQ+ community in motorsport. She travels to different companies to speak about equality in the workplace. And she brings her presence to the track which is, above all, crucial to changing the makeup of motorsport.
“A big part of [equality] is visibility,” Charlie told me. “I think it’s just down to having people who work in motorsport—whether they’re drivers, engineers, media people, whatever the role—to see members of the LGBTQ+ community working in those roles. That, in turn, then paves the way for other people to follow in their footsteps.
“In a motorsport perspective, it can be difficult because I am so much in the minority that, when I go racing, I don’t know any other out people from the community. I suppose that whenever I’m putting things on Instagram for a race or whatever I’m doing, I try to be myself and not filter what I’m saying, not giving a damn about who’s next to me. it’s showing that, if I can be here, so can you. I don’t have a big rainbow on my car or anything, but my helmet has the rainbow colors, things like that.
“I suppose I just try to be open about the way I communicate in that space. So many of my followers are in the [LGBTQ+] community that people can see, physically, this is an inclusive space. Even if you don’t see many other signals and signs that say, ‘motorsport is inclusive,’ I can be there and say that it is. That was my finding, was that people were more accepting than I thought they would be. I feared in my mind that, if I couldn’t see it, that support wasn’t there. But it is there. You just have to create the connections.”
Our Identity Is Intimately Tied Up in Our Passions
Every person who considers themselves to be a car enthusiast relates to cars in different ways that are unique to that person. Someone who grew up in urban California will have a different relationship to cars than a person from rural Michigan—that’s part of what makes the car community so fascinating. And it’s the same with Charlie.
“I bring all of me to the table. I don’t try to leave anything behind,” Charlie said. “That, for me, is what it means to be authentic and to live as your true self. The opposite of that was what I was doing when I was censoring who I am and having to compartmentalize certain aspects of my behavior.
“People have said to me before, ‘When you put your helmet on, does it matter?’ Well, no, of course it doesn’t matter what gender you are; I’m purely focused on driving the car. But it comes down to not only being able to be yourself and to let your guard down a bit, it’s knowing that people around you aren’t judging you or joking about you.”
That assurance is huge. Racing requires a driver to exert total control and maintain total focus. As Charlie notes, “The more clarity of thought you have, the more focused you can be, the less distracted you are.” It’s so important for everyone in racing to be able to be their most authentic selves, not worrying about anything but the task before them: being as fast as possible.
And Charlie has really grown these last few years. Like many people, she felt pressure to look and act certain ways when out in public.
“I used to worry as I came into transition that I had to conform to a certain level of femininity to be somebody that was coming from a position of being gendered male to wanting to be accepted as a woman,” she said. “I thought there had to be enough of a gap to create that distinction.
“When I was in the early days of transition, I probably wouldn’t do boxing [as fitness training], or I wouldn’t put it on social media because everyone will think I’m too manly. Now I just think, I’m Charlie, I’m a trans woman, and I do what I do. Take it or leave.
“That, to me, is what it’s all about—not conforming to a gender stereotype. Just being you.”
Now, The Sport Is Evolving
Motorsport has done a lot of growing up lately. It has become conscious of its position as a cisgender, straight, white, male-dominated sport and has realized it’s time to start pursuing equality. Whether it’s IndyCar developing an all-Black feeder series, Formula One introducing the We Race As One campaign, or Extreme E mandating female participation, the sport is evolving to take on a more nuanced perspective.
“Motorsport does have to evolve. It does have to become more inclusive and more of a diverse space because, ultimately, if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be relevant to future generations,” Charlie noted. “When you look at kids growing up now, they’re so much more open about their gender identity and their sexuality. If you say, look into motorsport when all other sports are trying to do what they can to be inclusive, and motorsport says no, we’re not moving forward, that’s not good.
“[These changes are] something I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. Things are happening, and they’re happening at the right level with the right people. People who can make changes from the top down. It’s one thing when you’ve got one person. I can only make so much impact, but it’s a start. It’s about the more people that join that, the more we’ll see the momentum grow.”
The Future Is Bright
This year, Charlie will be racing in the Britcar series, an endurance racing series that challenges drivers to take on difficult tracks for hours at a time—but she does have a little advantage. Praga, a Czech manufacturer, proved so competitive in the series last year that it has been awarded its own class of racing for 2021. That essentially means that the Praga cars will be competing amongst themselves for class points as well as against other cars for overall wins. And if Praga’s domination in 2020 is any indication, Charlie is in the perfect place to further her career.
Which is a good thing, because her ultimate goal is a big one: Competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That event, which takes place every year in France, draws some of the most accomplished names from all disciplines of racing to compete for 24 straight hours (but the drivers, of course, swap out every few hours). It would be a huge personal step for Charlie, and it would be crucial to further raise the visibility of LGBTQ+ folks in the international racing world. A competitive win in a smaller endurance racing series will prime her for the most illustrious endurance race of her life.
“ I want to be remembered as somebody who made LGBTQ+ history at Le Mans, first and foremost,” Charlie said when I asked her what she’d like to be her legacy. Then, she paused, and continued. “But also somebody who did something that was quite brave and took the opportunity they had to make things easier for people following in their footsteps. Because that’s ultimately a big part of what drives me to do what I do.
“When I was growing up, there was never anyone like me—not in motorsport, not in any careers, not in anything. I posted a video recently from Dana International. She was the first person, actually, back in 1998 when she won Eurovision Song Contest, that was trans in mainstream culture. She was so confident, stunning, and absolutely out there being amazing in front of everybody and just blowing everyone away and saying, actually, being trans is awesome! Look at her, she’s incredible!
“That was such a big moment for me in my life. I remember cutting her photo out of articles in the newspaper and things. The impact she had on me—I was spellbound. It was really something. But that was probably the only time I had one of those moments when I was young. Growing up in that kind of environment, it’s incredibly limiting being unable to see anyone like you in anything you aspire to do. It sent out a very strong message. That’s why I want to change that in motorsport. I want to be that person to the kid, someone that they can look to, so that they can know what they want to be when they’re ten years old. Not like me, where I waited until I was 30 to start transitioning. “
I’d have to say that Charlie Martin is already well on her way.