On the rural border between Herefordshire and Wales in England, the country air is fresh and pure and village life is kind and gracious. But for one weekend a year, a fearless crew of farm-bred tomboys descend onto dirt tracks carved out of a ploughed, muddy field to push the boundaries of speed, time, and safety. At this year's Autograss National Championships, women and teenage girls race in scrap metal stock cars and kit cars, which are self-assembled automobiles built from scratch.
Amateur motor racing—or autograss, as its fans call it—remains a relatively niche sport in the UK. The underground sport lacks sponsors or glamor, but spectators still flock to its races. When we went down to the tracks in Monkland, Herefordshire, we watched female racers tinker underneath bonnets and build their engines with elaborate and intricate industry, assisted by fathers, husbands, and boyfriends. Most drivers are the product of generations of autograss and stock car racers who came before her; the desire to ride with no care for consequence fuels their love of the sport. Risk rules their world, and they are as fast as any man on the track. Broadly went down to hit the races and meet the fearless women who love being behind the wheel.
Ashlea Cowperthwaite, 24, and her dad
What's been your best race?
Ashlea Cowperthwaite: Last year l won one of the best rounds in the final, and that was the first time l won in the finals.
Do you come to every race with Ashlea?
Dad: l do. l help look after the car for her, she been racing since she was 16, nearly eight years now. I worry about her all the time. l did rallying and circuit racing when l was a young chap. I just started messing about with motorbiking in the field or quad biking. l'm extremely proud of her.
You seem very close to your dad.
Cowperthwaite: I wouldn't be able to do this without him. I feel very lucky to have him; he built the car.
What's been his proudest moment?
Cowperthwaite: When l won the BAS [British Autograss Series] and the nationals two weeks ago.
Dad: The last two years she had been third, so l'm extremely proud, and then the win at the nationals—it gets me emotional thinking about it.
Cowperthwaite: I look up to my dad a lot. He's a kind dad.
What do you do for work?
I'm a secondary school teacher. My students don't know l race. l just started [at] a new school. The pupils at my old school knew, and the lads used to think it was pretty cool. People at work are pretty surprised when they find out.
What are your ambitions for the sport?
I just want to take it year by year, because we don't have that much time. We just do what we can and take it as it comes.
Charlotte Goodsire, 50
How did you get into racing?
Charlotte Goodsire: My parents raced when l was a little girl and it has always been in the family. When l married Tony, my husband, he used do hot rod racing; he's always been a racing freak. And then we decided to go into Autograss.
How do your non-racing friends react to the sport?
They always say they don't think l'm the type to do it—l'm too glamorous. They expect a female racer to be covered in oil and muck all the time, but us ladies fly the flag as well.
Is it aggressive when you're on the course?
No, l wouldn't say it is and you can't go out with that attitude, either.
Have you ever had any bad accidents?
I had a really bad roll, l went over a lot of times, totally wiped the car out. It was that quick. Luckily l landed on all fours, but the car went splat. It was a Mini but it ended looking like a mini pickle because the back end was just gone. This was a few years ago—l went to hospital, l hurt my neck. I had a period off after, we needed to rebuild the car so it was quite a while till we got back out there. It was bad and l didn't know if it would put me back, but you've just got to go out there without any fear. You've gotta go out there to get round those corners and get round those bends.
Ellie Bailey, 17
Has racing changed you?
Ellie Bailey: I actually think l am more confident now, because it's so sociable at the races and you talk to so many people you wouldn't normally talk to. I do belly dancing dancing as well and l'm even now more confident at that. I came a long way this year with racing and l made a lot of new friends. I used to really keep myself to myself. l was scared to talk to anyone, but l'm not too bad now.
Is there much dating that goes on between the girls and the boys in autograss?
There is actually. l just came out my relationship. A lot of people do get to know each other through racing and then get together. Even with four hours' travelling distance, the relationships seem to happen. They make it work somehow. I met my ex-boyfriend through racing.
How differently do you think the girls and the lads race?
Very differently. If you watch a men's race and a women's, the men are very aggressive with each other. I don't think the women race with that same level of aggression. There are women who race with a men's licence and they do well. There is a lady who races with the men and she's picking up thirds and fourths.
Penny Smith, 62
What do you do for a job?
Penny Smith: I am a finance director.
How long have you been racing?
33 years. My mom and dad used to race. l have always loved it. l guess it's in the blood.
How was the race you just competed in?
Excellent. l just love racing. Even at my tender age! I feel great after a race, if l have won it l feel fantastic!
What's happened to your car today?
Just as l pulled off, they told me to stop because it was tapping and they think the engine might have gone.
Have you ever raced against your husband?
No, but we are about to next year. l am going to have a go against the men. More women are going into the men's racing because there aren't enough pitches for them to practice on.
What's the history of the sport?
My mom and dad were two founding members of the Gloucester Autocross Racing Club, so they started racing early in the 60s and its rapidly changed. They used to race old cars, some specials, some saloons, using old bits of scaffolding. It's much safer today.
Do you have children who race?
Yes, my son races class ten. Unfortunately his engine went yesterday but he had been doing very well. I always worry about him and he's 37, but as for me, l don't feel the fear. I just want to win.
Is there a sisterhood amongst women drivers?
We just enjoy it. l think it's great.
Kirsty Epsom, 20
What do you do for work?
Kirsty Epsom: I'm a nursery nurse, a deputy manager.
Were you racing from a young age?
Since l was 13 and my sister was 12. My first memory of my racing was thinking l was going a hundred miles an hour but l actually wasn't. I practice as much as l can now and l try to drive with my head.
How do you overcome fear?
Just get back on the track and drive! I'm quite a fearless person generally. I've rolled the car but it doesn't put me off—it's quite fun, really.
What does you boyfriend make of your racing?
He loves it, he helps me out with the car all the time. He doesn't race but he's tried it.
Josie Tomkinson, 17
I hear you've been coming to the track since you were a baby.
Josie Tomkinson: Since l was six years old.
What made you fall in love with the sport?
My grandparents started racing with my mom, then my mom with my dad and then it carried on for the next generation.
What's been your best race?
The first run of yesterday was one of the best l have ever had. The whole race was just so close. Me and Claire Cockrill, she's been racing since I've been coming and l was fortunate to race against her and beat her, and that's a real adrenaline rush.
When are you happiest?
When l am racing with my friends, definitely. No one would understand it from an outside point of view. [It's] just the atmosphere. Everyone is friends with each other, and it doesn't matter where you come in a race, everyone will be in the beer tent after having a laugh. That's the best bit. We have very good socials.