Formula E is all set to host Charlie Martin at the championship's London headquarters next week with the racing driver set to speak about her experiences as a trans woman in the motorsport community.
Ahead of her visit and as we come to the end of Pride Month, Charlie took the time out for a sit-down with fiaformulae.com to chat about her racing career right from grassroots to trophy-winning pro racing driver, her advocacy and what more motor racing can do to further inclusion and help generate positive change for the LGBTQIA+ community across motorsport.
Why motorsport? What gave you the bug?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a fighter pilot – Top Gun was my favourite film! I was obsessed with flying but I gave up on that dream because I was really bad at maths and physics. I thought it’d be better to put my energies into something else. I remember my Mum saying that I probably wouldn’t get the grades and it was quite sad but I knew she was right.
I then found out my friend’s dad raced at club level and I went away with them over a weekend and really loved it. It blew me away and it was something so different – being in the paddock surrounded by cars. So that became a regular thing and that was my introduction to motorsport!
At the same time as that, there was the birth of PlayStation and games like Gran Turismo that kicked off my interest and it’s funny how things come full circle with sim racing and the way we prepare for race weekends. It made me aware of things like understeer and oversteer and the dynamics of how a car works, which was great because I didn’t do any karting growing up. I raced at a circuit the other weekend that I learned on the PlayStation when I was a kid! Crazy!
So, how did you make your way into racing?
I started motorsport the year I left university when I was 23. I had no money like all students and I saved up about £1,500 from my summer job and bought a Peugeot 205 which was so cool – I really regret selling it! It allowed me to compete, though, and I was doing it on a shoestring camping in a tent, otherwise it just wouldn’t have happened.
I bought that and had to put it together and get it prepped – I really didn’t know how to do that at the beginning. Then, I started hill climbing it! I had no big aspirations at that point it was just really fun and I enjoyed it.
The idea of circuit racing was daunting. I can’t rebuild an engine or make repairs myself, obviously. Then what happens when people crash into you every other weekend? I looked at that initially and just thought how on earth do you do it and get a team around you? I just couldn’t fathom it – so hill climb was where it was at and I was happy there with the hope of one day getting into a single seater.
It was really friendly, and quite low pressure, so you could easily run the car on your own – even a single seater.
I went from there, improving the car bit by bit and did it about five years, moved up to a Westfield to learn rear-wheel drive and then I went over to France to run a Formula Renault in a National Championship. I competed there for about three years which was an incredible experience. I just thought it was going to be such fun but I ended up breaking class records and smashing it out of the park! Because I could speak French, I got really involved and newspapers wrote about me.
Suddenly, I started getting a bit of a profile and I was this English girl out there racing. I was vlogging about my transition on YouTube at the time, too and I started writing a blog. That’s when I came up with the Go Charlie! idea and really started to try and build something. I had a graphic design degree and had a lot of the skills to put it all together and I managed to do a lot with a little!
That whole period of my life was when things really started changing for me and I felt that I could actually do this and I really started believing in myself. Just that alone made a massive difference in terms of how I thought of everything.
I then came back to the UK in 2018 and started the odd circuit race and that was another real game-changer. From then on, I’ve been trying to make it and race professionally.
What did you feel your transition could mean for your career? Was there apprehension about making your return after you finished racing in France?
For quite some time, I thought that it would mean the end of my racing really, and the end of that chapter of my life. I didn’t think people would accept me in that space and I knew the feeling of belonging and camaraderie - the family feeling - in motorsport was so important.
I was downhearted but I look back on that period now and think “gosh, I can’t believe I felt that way”. I really did, though. I love motorsport and I couldn’t imagine not having it in my life or what I’d fill that void with. It’s strange to think my apprehension could have been the end of it. That was the feeling at that point in time seeing nobody visible in that space.
You’d hear casual homophobia – the kind of thing you hear in any space – and going back even 10 years I think things have changed a lot. You just have that feeling that it’s not going to go down well with people here. Hill climb was a bit of an older crowd, as well and there’s that feeling that younger people can sometimes be a bit more open minded. Also, in higher-profile championships in a more full-time, professional space with media and everything else, people naturally have to be professional anyway – even if they think one thing, they have to at least be courteous and respectful.
People surprise you. I’ve learned that repeatedly over the last 10 years. You think a person because of their age or the job they have in an industry that they might not accept you, or whatever. Actually, sometimes people you think are least likely to be open-minded are most accepting and vice versa.
I worked in engineering for nine years in the family business while I was still racing in the UK and France. It’s very male-dominated and similar to motorsport in that respect. I had a lot of fears about both industries and people were really nice, receptive and respectful.
I think the problem sometimes was that people had never met a trans person before. So, I had to educate people around me so they felt comfortable engaging with me and understanding the basics like “are you a crossdresser? or "are you gay – are you doing this because you’re gay?".
That education reinforced the power of visibility. Unless someone’s prepared to help them learn, you’re not going to make change. It was just about trying to create an environment where I felt supported where people weren’t worried about putting their foot in their mouth and making a mistake – that’s one of the hardest things people can feel. Anyone can get that in a situation where they aren’t an expert and might not feel 100% comfortable.
In educating people, you’re helping build connections and you’re helping them that way with a shared empathy. They can then start to try and understand and relate to what they’re saying and that’s always going to help. That empathy brings people into the fold and they get it and feel they’re equipped to engage all of a sudden. They might then go on and help educate others about the right and wrong way to go about that engagement and it becomes part of a process.
I feel pretty confident and open talking about my experiences the more people I reach and that’s a big part of my motivation to keep doing what I’m doing. That leads to more opportunities to educate and, for example, I’ve got a sit-down interview coming up with ITV that will just be great – all about inclusion and trans rights. Those opportunities are important.
How important is visibility and advocacy to you and the community?
I think it's really important because one of the hardest things growing up was that I didn’t have any role models – there was literally nobody doing anything like I wanted to do.
I remember Dana International winning Eurovision in 1998. I was 17 at that time and I remember seeing her and thinking this is the first time I’ve seen a trans woman in the mainstream media doing something amazing – blowing everyone away. Being trans was a big deal, but actually she’s just an incredible performer and the platform of the Eurovision Song Contest is huge. Culturally, I think that was a big moment.
The fact that people like that were missing when I was growing up was sad but the power of your own visibility is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if you inspire one or two people and that causes change – that can be a powerful thing. I wanted to try and do that and there’s a part of me that enjoys that. I love what I do and I want to take people on that journey and communicate. Social media gives us the tools to do that.
It felt a natural thing to start doing to try and create an impact and educate people who might have no experience of what being transgender means. Trans people are much more than our identities – I love motorsport, I love snowboarding, I love surfing and being trans is just like “oh, that’s interesting”. I’m trans, and that’s it.
Social media is a double-edged sword. You have to be a positive person and put a positive spin on things. I don’t go out there arguing with people – I’d rather just try and get a positive message out there.
Arguing and fighting is not where the win is. It’s more about the people who are in the middle that you want to try and reach as they’re the most receptive to change – that’s the bigger opportunity. I think that’s a much better way of engaging with people and creating change really by taking a positive stance and picking your battles.
What more can motorsport do?
I think things are starting to happen and things are starting to change and that’s definitely a good thing. When you look at the work that bodies like Motorsport UK are doing, for example, they have a committee that has subcomittees for LGBTQIA, a BAME committee, a disability committee – they’re going about inclusion the right way.
It’s about, first off, looking internally at an organisation and the processes and then start doing some activations. That's really positive.
The FIA are doing great things with Girls on Track to promote women in motorsport and a good friend, Nathalie McGloin chairs the disability commission which is great to see.
I still feel motorsport has more to do in terms of LGBTQIA+ and empowering greater equality in that sense. The sport has made many steps forward in recent years but this is an area where we can take further strides and I know that myself and others would love to play our part in driving forward that conversation.
Where are you racing right now, having come out of a trophied 2021 in Britcar, and how are you getting on?
I’m racing in America at the moment in Super Trofeo and I didn’t know any of the tracks before I went there – they’re all new to me. So, everything I’m learning is from my sim – actually using the beautiful PC Formula E built for me during Race at Home! That’s where we are and it’s now vital. We have a pretty amazing setup and we’ve got a good testing package. It gives you a good idea of circuits before you get there – braking points, reference points and the like and you can then cross-reference that with on-board footage and piece all that information together so you can hit the ground running.
We almost had our first race win last time out at Watkins Glen! We got a 1.5s penalty and that gave the win to the driver behind my teammate as they were nose to tail. Still, second spot is the best finish we’ve had so far. Then, race two on Saturday was really annoying – we should have been second again. I got us a penalty by crossing the line before the car was stationary when we did the driver swap. It was a bit of a brain fart and the couple of steps I took meant a drive-through penalty – it was a bit harsh and we ended up fifth.
We’ve got to the point where my teammate is making big strides in his first season racing and we move forward every race. It’s just trying to iron out these little mistakes and we’ll be fine and on for class wins really.
What is it you enjoy about Formula E as a championship, and could you see yourself racing in the series?
Formula E are doing some pretty cool things and I think have been very good. I do genuinely really love the way that as a championship there’s a much more open vibe. My experience interacting with the community and people in and around the series – and when I’ve come into the studio and things – I just get this really great vibe and they’re really open to different ideas and different ways of doing things.
A lot of other championships and motorsports can be a bit like “this is how we’ve always done it” and Formula E says “okay, we’re going to change it up, let’s do this!” Why not do it differently? We saw that with The Offset, for example.
I’d love to race in Formula E – it would be an amazing opportunity if something like it came along. It would be a big step forward in terms of where I am now in sponsorship, branding, and everything I’m achieving right now but I’d obviously really love it. It’s a different tangent to Le Mans – which is the dream – but lots of guys on the grid do both!
What advice would you give to young people looking to make a career in motorsport?
I think one of the fundamental things is to never question your right to be valid in a space. When you don’t see anyone in the space you want to be in it’s very easy to feel the sorts of things I did. I would say never question where you want to be. Just feeling like you have as much right to be in the sport, competing, working or whatever you want to do is a really important part of that.
You can do it by reaching out to people, whether a team or a championship or anyone else just to make those first inroads and first steps forward to get out and gain experience of what it’s like being in a space – that’s a great thing to do.
I think just because you don’t have that experience, perhaps you see that as a barrier but if you’re passionate and keen, anyone will recognise that and there will be people out there that are willing to open the door and create opportunities for you.
Some of the best opportunities and a lot of the breakthroughs I’ve had in my career have come because somebody opened the door for me when I asked, or they mentored me or gave me an opportunity to show what I was capable of doing.
Put yourself out there, believe in yourself and find the people who will believe in you. You’ve got to be determined, you have to be prepared to work hard but if you want something, you can make it happen.
Published on 30th June 2022