Rallying brings Raftery from Craughwell to Canaries

Craughwell's rally sensation,  Aoife Raftery

Craughwell's rally sensation, Aoife Raftery

When Aoife Raftery recounts spinning her suped-up Peugeot around an unexpectedly wet bend on a rough gravel course in Czech Republic last year, her shoulders sway with the memory. Wearing a sleeveless top in the morning heat of Gran Canaria where this year’s 47th Rally Islas Canarias begins today, May 2, the muscle memory of fast gear changes twitches in her exposed fore arms.

Too much throttle on a freshly wet surface caused her Rallysport Peugeot 208 R4 to skid and crash on an early turn during the very first spectator stage, often considered a short formality before the race stages proper begin. This skid put Raftery two minutes behind the pack, an eternity in rallying when track times are discussed in terms of tenths of a second.

“At this particular event there were four female drivers in the same type of car over the weekend. That’s rare,” remembers Raftery. She recalls the race in a calm, segmented style of speech like she’s going over each twist and dip analytically in her mind. “Over that weekend we had a big focus on just trying to gain back the time, and on the last stage on the Sunday we beat the top female driver going into the last stage. It was a really nice come-back from such a bad start.”

Raftery oozes competitiveness. Even her most negative experiences behind the wheel are relayed with a positive learning outcome. A member of the Rally Academy since 2022, her stories are peppered with ambition to succeed. Ireland’s motorsport talent incubator provides a range of training to its members beyond race driving, including fitness, nutrition, mental resilience and even marketing as drivers are expected to attract their own sponsors.

Not only is the Galwegian the first female member of the Irish academy, along with her co-driver Hannah McKillop from Co Antrim, Raftery is pretty sure the two girls make up the only all-female race team across Rally Europe’s junior categories. The GMIT construction management graduate brushes off questions about being a young woman in a traditionally male sector with assertions that her presence actually puts the boys under pressure to perform.

“This is one of the few sports where a female can compete on exactly the same terms as male. I like that,” she says. “I think it more puts the lads under pressure than I would feel them putting me under.” When Raftery entered the European Rally Championship in Poland last year, she was the first female Irish driver to enter an ERC race since the late Rosemary Smith rallied her Hillman Imp across Monte Carlo in the 1960s.

Raftery played camogie for Craughwell and soccer with Craughwell United, including a brief stint with Galway United. Two surgeries on her leg halted her pitch ambitions, so she turned to motorsport instead, a field her family is steeped in.

“It was probably a combination of different things. I always loved playing different sports. I love competing. I went to the Canaries in 2020 to watch my first European-style rally event, and I remember thinking: this is just the best thing ever!”

Aoife grew-up in south Galway where her family run the Craughwell Tyre Centre. She began learning to drive in a field aged 11, and was helping out in the family garage soon after. Not every girl knows how to change a tyre by the age of 13.

However what she really learned growing up in a business was how to deal with the public as an admittedly shy teenager. “It forces you to learn how to communicate with people,” she asserts. But how did grumpy auld famers with punctured pick-up trucks react to a young girl changing a wheel? “Yeah I probably got some funny looks along the way but – you know – I probably got some extra tips too,” she jokes.

Aoife comes third in four siblings, Dean, Jack, and Emily (13 ). Elder brother Dean Raftery is well-known in motorsport circles, winning the prestigious and lucrative Billy Coleman Award for best young rally driver in 2014.

“I had sat in a rally car with my brother when I was younger, but I visited the Canary Race in 2020 as a spectator and I got to sit in a car that was a much higher standard than I had experienced before. I remember thinking this is quick, this is unreal, I want to do this!” Raftery smiles at the memory. The Covid pandemic put a halt to Raftery’s gallop, but she used the time to prepare, after already earning her driving licence as soon as she was old enough.

“Yeah first time,” she answers to an impertinent question as to how many attempts it took her. “There are plenty of top WRC drivers who didn’t get their test first time, but there would have been some slagging at home if I didn’t get it though,” she laughs.

Raftery's Peugeot catching some air

Last month Raftery was appointed one of two Road Safety Ambassadors by Motorsport Ireland for 2024. Off the rally course, Raftery drives a regular VW Golf around County Galway. She says drivers being distracted is something she notices a lot.

“I think mobile phone use is something that needs to be looked at,” says Raftery. “As motorsport safety ambassador it’s really important for me to caution about speeding. A lot of accidents have been caused by speeding, but I’m just trying to say that there are a lot of other elements too.”

Raftery missed out on a podium finish by just 6.1 seconds in Hungary last month despite holding on to third place for a number of stages with a car damaged by a heavy impact. McKillop and Raftery will start as third seeds this evening in the Canarian leg of the Junior FIA European Rally Championship, and possible favourites in the Ladies category against Romanian and Bulgarian drivers. Aged only 23, she’s come a long way from changing tyres in Craughwell.

 

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