'It's great to see the shocked look on male drivers' faces when they realise they've been beaten by a woman'
Learning to drive at just 13, Maeve Devlin has always shown a passion for cars. The Armagh woman tells Stephanie Bell why she spends her weekends racing in the mud.
While most girls her age will hit the shops on Saturday afternoons for some well-earned retail therapy, 25-year-old Maeve Devlin will be relaxing in the only way she knows how - fending off showers of mud while powering at high speeds round a racing circuit.
The pretty brunette is one of just two women in the province competing in motor racing's most popular amateur sport, National Autograss.
It's not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for anyone who cares about their appearance.
With no glass in the car windows and only a metal grid "to stop the stones" from raining in, racers are showered with dirt as they speed around the muddy tracks jostling for position.
And with no women's championships in Northern Ireland, Maeve competes with a men's licence and, until recently, was the only woman racer up against 150 male members in her club.
She is a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel. Last year, she finished as Down Autograss Men's Class Five champion. With only two local clubs - the other is Causeway Autograss - this is one of the biggest local titles to aim for in the sport.
She also qualified last year for the national championships in England which only the top 40 racers in the UK get to compete in.
While she wasn't placed at the championships, just getting there was a massive achievement as it was recognition that she is officially one of the best racers in the country.
After competing in Class One for many years, Maeve was drawn to the more powerful engine and higher speeds of Class Five which meant also having to learn how to control a rear wheel drive car. She was just 11 when she mastered the basics of driving and manoeuvring a car on rough ground, thanks to lessons given to her by her dad.
At only 25, she is already a veteran of the sport, having followed her father and brother into racing at the tender age of 13. As well as competing against the opposite sex, Maeve also often faces some sibling rivalry as brother Conor (27) competes in the same class.
Maeve would love to see more women take up the sport which has a female league in England, but which, so far, has failed to take off among women here.
"There is only one other woman who recently started racing in our club so I have to compete with the men," she says.
"This year is my 12th year competing.
"I have raced every year which has allowed me to progress through different classes.
"It is great fun and offers a totally different experience for people and I would love to see more females joining us."
Autograss started in the 1960s, although only became an official motorsport in the 1970s.
It involves racing cars on natural surfaces such as grass or mud and is usually held on 400 metre oval tracks, although this varies. There are local club championships, all-Ireland and national championships every year.
Maeve grew up with racing. Her dad Peter was a competitor and her older brother Conor started when he was in his early teens. The whole family head off every weekend on a Friday to watch the two-day racing events.
She also has a younger brother Peadar (17) who is not involved in the sport.
Even though there were no women competing, Maeve showed a keen interest from a very young age and proved a natural behind the wheel.
She says: "I was driving lawnmowers from I was no age and when I was 11, my dad had the use of a track near us and he took me out and taught me how to drive and handle the car.
"When I was 13, I did my Autograss driving test which is a different test to the road test. As long as you can show you are able to control the car on the track, you can start racing.
"I raced in the juniors until I was 16 and then you can pick your class. I picked Class One before following my brother into Class Five two years ago, because it's bigger and faster."
Maeve drives a 1400 Vauxhall which has obviously been modified to suit racing and, instead of two fronts seats, there is only one, right in the middle of the car.
For safety reasons there is no glass in the windows, just metal grills.
If you ever get the chance to see a race live or online, you can immediately see the downside to driving on a grass track with no window screen.
As the cars roar round the tracks, sliding into the bends, huge sprays of mud are thrown up by the spinning wheels showering those around them.
To Maeve, it is all part of the thrill: "The grill is there to keep the stones out and you can't drive without getting a face full of muck, but it's just part of the racing and not something you think too much about."
When she applied for her men's licence, she was already part of the racing family, although it was such a rarity for a girl to sign up that inevitably there were a few raised eyebrows. Maeve says: "I think at the start some people did think I would be a bit ditsy and that I would be a silly wee girl driving round the track, but really I've had no problems whatsoever because of my gender.
"It would be great to see more women in the sport. It is great to see the shocked look on men's faces when they realise they have been beaten by a woman."
Maeve studied engineering at Queen's University, Belfast, with the aim of becoming a teacher, but instead has found a different career as a quality officer at Homecare Independent Living.
Although she says she loves her job, she hasn't ruled out going into teaching in the future, but in the meantime she enjoys putting all her energy into her driving skills.
She competes all over Ireland and the UK, and her chosen sport consumes her whole weekend from Friday to Sunday.
In the 15 years she has been racing she has never missed a weekend's racing.
She says: "I love everything about it. I love the thrill of racing. The adrenaline is amazing.
"It does require a particular set of skills.
"You need to be determined, not be afraid of hard work and you need to love speed.
"In Class Five, I have a rear wheel drive and you need to be physically strong for that, so I had to join a local gym and I've been building up my strength and lost a stone in weight.
"It also requires a lot of thinking because competitors must be able to pass someone without hitting them, which is a lot harder than you would think on a small oval track.
"Last weekend there were three of us continually battling for first place and you have to be smart about it. You have to be thinking about the moves they will make and try to pass them without messing up.
"I won the race on Saturday, but my gearbox packed up on Sunday and I finished fourth. You have to always work for this form of racing, and it also involves endless nights in the garage."
Maeve was thrilled to qualify for the national championships last year and winning it remains her ultimate aim.
As a relative newcomer to Class Five, she plans to spend the next year or two honing her skills in handling her more powerful car before once again trying for the national title.
With her brother Conor competing in the same class, there is some good humoured sibling rivalry between the two.
"We have raced against each other and on the track I am out to win, but I have to be nice to him as he has to do the work on my car," she says.
She also has a boyfriend who supports her at her races.
For Maeve, it is a way of life and she can't imagine spending her weekends doing anything else. She says: "Once you get into it, it is like you are part of this whole big family.
"The other racers become part of your family and we have barbecues and days out - and you make lifelong friends.
"I love the atmosphere in the club. We support each other on all racing events. And if you ever need a hand there is always someone there to help.
"It's a pure buzz, it's all go."
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