European drifting champion Danielle Murphy told Fiona O’Brien about what it takes to reach the top of one of the world’s fastest growing motorsports
Drift racing is the fastest-growing motorsport in the world and London-based Dubliner Danielle Murphy is one of, if not the most, successful and highest ranked female competitors in the world
Danielle, 32 from Saggart, is the daughter of haulage company owners and has been competing since 2008. She is a double European Drift Champion, and has competed professionally across Europe since 2013 and has also gone as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Jordan as a guest driver against some of the best male drivers in the world.
Now she is about to make her American debut this week after being personally invited to go to Las Vegas at one of the biggest motor shows in the world, the Hillbank Motorsports / Superformance / FORD at the 2016 SEMA Show.
Drifting is, in Murphy’s words, ‘basically figure skating in cars’.
It is a form of car racing where precision driving is the key skill, although speed obviously isn’t far behind.
Competitors win based on points from the judges, and it ranks on from the line and angle you take into a corner to the amount of smoke you generate with your tyres as you drift around it. The cars are brutish and Danielle has built hers from scratch, but unfortunately it has been out of action this year. But her never give up attitude didn’t let that stop her contending for the European Championship title which she has won twice previously.
Drifting is not the only motorsport Danielle has turned the wheel to, she has also competed very successfully and on top of podiums while testing for the GT3 Touring Cars European Series (DTM) whilst driving the Dodge Viper of Vulkan Racing/Mintgen Motorsport (Germany) and also trying her hand at Rallycross in Ireland earlier this year, where she impressed again to beat the UK’s 2015 Champion to 3rd place. Both of which she had no prior testing or tutoring.
Danielle has achieved all of this on her own back without full team or corporate financial support, herself and her mother, Caroline travel alone around Europe transporting her car to and from the events without any additional help.
Danielle grew up with two brothers but, she says, was a tomboy before either of them came along. She is a two-time Queen of Europe champion in the sport and last year finished fifth in the King Of Europe, the male equivalent. And if she wasn’t doing this, she’d be doing something like it.
“I didn’t know any different growing up. It was normal for me to be hanging around garages on freezing cold nights watching my dad fix an engine on a truck. It was just something we did. I got into horses then and competed in showjumping as a teenager but as soon as I started driving, I realised that one horsepower wasn’t going to be any good to me.”
Drifting is well named. To get into it, you’ve got to put in the miles.
The hotbeds are in Eastern Europe, in the US and Japan, where it originated.
“It’s literally just me and my mam. I built the car from the ground up, I’ve done all the development on the car. I am going out competing with teams that have six-figure sums to spend on development, teams with full sponsorship packages that mean they can arrive at an event with a full 10-man support team to back up a driver.
“Whereas with me, it’s me and Mam travelling Europe in the van with the trailer hooked up to it. We sleep in the van and sometimes by the end of a trip, we’d have a fiver between us and a long conversation over what to do with it on the way home. That’s the reality of it.”
It’s a hardscrabble existence, a life of making do. You could say it was a love of the sport that led her to build her own car but the truth is a lot less dewy-eyed. She built her own car because she is a team of one and if she didn’t do it, she’d have nothing to race in.
“When you blow an engine and you have no one to help you fix it, you learn! That’s really how it was.
“You break things, you learn by fixing them. You break a gearbox, you either find a new one or fix the one you have or you don’t race.
“I blew the engine at one event in the UK and I had another event the following weekend and I had no support so it was either find a way to fix it or that was that.
“So a guy let me use his garage and I stripped the engine down and built it up again using diagrams I drew myself. I made notes and took photographs and put it together again with the help of Google.That was the first time – ever since then, you learn as you go. You do what you have to do.”
And she has done it in a sport that predictably enough, hasn’t always made much of an effort to welcome her. Like all motorsports, drifting is an almost exclusively male preserve.
At times, being a woman has helped. When she got her break doing some stunt driving at the Toys For Big Boys exhibition in the RDS in the early 2000s, the fact that she was female marked her out and gave her a leg up that she probably wouldn’t have got otherwise.
But for all the heights she has reached in the sport itself, women are second-class citizens. The King of Europe competition has prize-money, the Queen of Europe – which she won in 2013 and 2015 – does not.
Murphy feels this will change as more sponsors get involved and the sport moves to come under the umbrella of the FIA, the world motorsport governing body. But there’s a long way to go.
“The sport is still a little bit sexist in that regard I think. That’s probably the wrong thing to say but it’s true. The women’s championship didn’t have any financial return but the two men’s championships did. It’s like flogging a dead horse here in a way.
“The amount of times I have sat down and said, ‘Jesus, what am I even doing this for?’ Everyone gets hit with that brick wall.
“It is tough. I am paddling my own canoe. It is just me and my mam. I work on the car myself, prepare it, fix it, transport it all by myself.
“To then get to the event and win it, I’ve defied all odds to get to where I am. There’s no other way to describe it.
“So when you see that there’s not a lot in return from a financial point of view, you do have to wonder. “But my outlook on it is that I’ve done it now for eight years. I am coming into my ninth year.
“When I’m competing with the guys, I’m constantly ruffling feathers. In general, things are much better now and the camaraderie is great. “But it’s still difficult for them – you have a laugh and a banter with them but at the end of the day, they don’t want to be beaten by a girl.”
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