Jem Hepworth – Taking Pole Position
In my experience, there’s nothing like the excitement and atmosphere of a race track. My first ‘adrenalin rush’ experience was promoting a grease removing product at a Motocross race. I was sixteen and not thrilled at having to promote something so ‘mundane’, but the day turned out to be one of the highlights of my teenage years. The noise, the smell, the heat, the dirt, the grime and dust; oh boy, was I hooked!
If just standing on the edge of the track was enough to make me feel that ‘rush’, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who participate; the racers. Extreme and very addictive!
I was delighted to ‘catch up’ with Jem Hepworth recently, although I suspect that catching up with Jem is something that many of her competitors find challenging! Whilst we sat and chatted at the Boston Tea Party, Jem proudly revealed that the weekend before, she had become the Wessex Go-Karting Champion having won overall. She named it as one of her highest achievements to date, and this year will be competing in the British Championships, so hopes to follow up this success with a top ten.
As we sat and chatted, I was struck by her calm demeanour, and impressed by the 18-year-old’s quiet confidence. There’s nothing boastful about Jem, just a matter-of-fact determination to race to her best ability, to bring her all and if that produces a win, all the better. Always looking for the positive, even when facing technical issues, or difficulties, she is a force to be reckoned with. Move over, guys!
BLAZING A TRAIL
Jem recently joined Motorsport Woman to compete in the 24-hour kart race at Le Mans. The team experienced several mechanical issues that were beyond their control, but they never gave up and finished 21st out of 48 teams. As the only all-female team, they were triumphant in their quest to represent equality, inclusion, diversity and pride. The competition was superb and Jem said,
“I want to show them that girls race too and that girls can beat boys”.
Jem also represented Britain in the FIA Girls On Track contest at Le Mans back in March, which was a real confidence boost for her as she was selected from 1000 competitors. She was the second fastest out of the group and relished the fact that she got to meet so many professional drivers.
Jem studied Business Studies (Level 3 BTech) at Petroc College, and at the time of our meeting, only had a month left before completing the course. She hopes to concentrate on her racing career now but is pragmatic about her chances, saying that she realises that she needs a back-up in case her racing career doesn’t pan out as planned.
Jem acknowledges that go-karting, as a sport, is predominantly male at the moment. I asked her how many girls participate in the Senior Rotax class with her and she replied that there are only about four as when she first started, there weren’t many at all. The sport has progressed a lot since then, however, with many more girls who are up and coming.
As to how she has been accepted, she replied that the boys have been so ‘respectful and nice’. She continued,
“There are obviously some who don’t like being beaten by a girl, but they are still really respectful towards me and I’m respectful towards them. At the end of the day, we are all just drivers on the track, and it shouldn’t matter”.
W Series, an all-female F3 championship has recently been introduced, which Jem says is not what many of the female drivers that she knows, really want. She can, however, see the other point of view and acknowledges that some women may welcome an all-women’s series. Whilst she doesn’t think women need to be separated from men, she says it is a massive opportunity and one that she would never turn down.
Jem’s advice to girls wanting to get into racing is
“Don’t let it phase you that you’re a girl. There’s no difference to who’s behind the wheel except in the experience and skill of the driver; so, if you want to get into a sport like this, do it!”
She says racing gives her a buzz unlike anything else. She went on,
“Don’t worry about what anyone else says, just do what you want to do, do what you love”.
BORN TO RACE
But when did Jem’s passion for karting begin? When she was just six-years-old, she told her dad that she wanted to race. She said,
“I didn’t want to play football or basketball or anything like that, I wanted to race!”.
Jem’s dad bought her a quad bike and she began quad racing until she reached the age of eleven, when she discovered go-karting at her home track, then known as Dunkeswell Kart Club (now Mansell Kart Racing Club).
It was ‘love at first ride’ and she embraced the karting world together with her dad, who handily, happens to be her mechanic too. Jem is now hoping to make the move from karts into cars, which she says is a massive step and one that she will need sponsorship for.
Her dream to go from kart to car recently became a reality when she competed in her first race with a car at Silverstone’s Citroen C1 24-hour endurance race weekend. She took part with a team of three other girls – the only girl group. They started at 17th position and battled their way through to come 5th out of 100. No mean feat, especially as some they raced against were professional drivers!
She was chosen to compete despite her inexperience, following an action-packed test day at Silverstone. Her 6 years of karting experience and the fact that she had represented Britain at the FIA’s Girls on Track karting final at Le Mans, sealed the deal. And she surely proved her worth, if that were needed, by setting one of the fastest lap times in her second stint of 2hrs45.
Jem and the team are planning on competing again and have organised two more races, at Anglesey, near Wales and at Spa in Belgium. She hopes to stay with the same group of girls and keep progressing upwards, and she added with a twinkle in her eye,
“Maybe get a podium!”.
I asked Jem if she found driving a car a lot different from a go-kart, she replied,
“It was a good transition for me because I could throw it around the track like a go-kart; it was a little bit quicker, though!”.
She did admit to feeling a lot safer in the car, as normally when driving her go-kart
“she just goes flying around, no seat belt, nothing”.
The Motorsport UK Championship is currently the biggest karting championship in the UK. Jem’s home track, Mansell Raceway recently hosted one of the championship fixtures and of that Jem said,
“I think the Mansell Track is amazing, I never expected it to be in the British Champs List!”
The championships see over 550 drivers in 12 classes compete for victory over 18 race weekends. At the time of our chat, she’d earned enough points to be in the top 20 out of 80 drivers in her class. Go, Jem!
During her race at the Mansell Raceway Champs, she experienced some technical and mechanical issues but remained upbeat, saying,
“It went very well …. 6th and 8th in the heats. Sunday, I qualified 9th on the grid for final 1, finished 4th, with 2nd fastest lap! Unfortunately excluded from this race due to dad putting the back tyres on the wrong way – gutted! But dad is forgiven! This meant I had to start last for final 2 and I had a mechanical failure so couldn’t complete the race. Overall, I’m so pleased with my ‘4th’ in final 1 and looking forward to the next round.”
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
Jem’s ultimate racing dream is to be a Formula One driver and she certainly ‘rubs shoulders’ with many legendary drivers when it comes to starting out in go-karting. World Kart Championships have seen many great names come through the ranks, including the late Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Nigel Mansell, all of whom went on to achieve Formula One success.
One of Jem’s inspirations, Tatiana Calderon Noguera, was recently confirmed as Alfa Romeo’s Test Driver for the 2019 Formula One World Championship. Jem said,
“I find that amazing, and it inspires me to think that there is a chance of me fulfilling my F1 dream!”
On some of the challenges that she has faced along the way, Jem says that there are some weekends where things go wrong mechanically. One weekend, her steering wheel came off and caused quite an accident, luckily, she escaped unscathed. Whilst she finds things like that frustrating, she tries to remain focussed on the big picture and says that when she faces challenges it makes her push harder to succeed. True grit indeed!
Jem is very grateful to both her parents for the support that they’ve given her over the years. She said,
“They’ve given up a lot of things for me to be able to race and I can’t thank my parents enough”.
She recently joined the YRDA (Young Racing Driver Academy) programme, whose aim is to focus on her development by mentoring, marketing and offering management support. Jem has been able to practise on a Formula 4 simulator at the Academy and appreciates the support that they’re providing to get her ready for cars.
We, at Grow, wish Jem the best of luck and every success in her racing career. She is hoping that her dream to race cars will become a reality next year but needs to compete in a few more 24-hour endurance races before that happens.
“Hopefully by the end of the year, there will be a series set up for me to move fully into cars”.
As much as she loves karting, it’s time to move up.
If you would like to get in touch with Jem or would like to find out more about sponsorship, pop onto her Facebook page, @jemhepworthracing
Written by Stella Nicholls
Featured image by Schulpher Photography Kart photo taken by Kartpix
On track photos taken by Bertrand Vessier Photography.