Q&A with rally driver Emma Gilmour

Updated

We catch up with New Zealander Emma Gilmour: the fastest female rally driver in the world (and she drives a Suzuki Swift Maxi Sport!).

How did you get into rally driving?

I got started in the sport relatively late, as I had spent my teenage years horseriding. I started navigating for my cousin and sister before I had a go in the driver’s seat in my early 20s. I started by doing a tarmac rally and then jumped straight into an international rally as my first gravel event. I was lucky to have a very good Australian navigator, Glenn Macneall, beside me: he sped up my learning process tenfold.

Rally driving is a male-dominated sport: how do you fit in?

I’m not sure if it’s because I have grown up with my father as a mechanic – and in an automotive industry with car dealerships – but I have always felt very at-home in the 'male-dominated world’. I guess I don’t really see gender as coming into it, as we all have a shared love of cars and motorsport. 

As a driver, I am only as good as my team behind me, and I need good mechanics and engineers to ensure my car is as competitive as it can be. I didn’t fully appreciate this when I first started in the sport, as I thought a fast driver could simply win on talent. I have come to learn, though, that there are lots of fast drivers and what makes them stand apart is the team behind them and how good a driver is at working with their engineer on things like car set-up. 

Tell us about your car.

Our Suzuki Swift Maxi was based on a class of car built in Argentina called ‘the maxi’. We bought a set of plans for the build, strut towers, cross members and uprights from Argentina and we fitted them into a road-going Suzuki Swift. We turned the engine around in the engine bay to accommodate the four-wheel drive system and fitted a turbocharger. The car is extensively modified and produces about 400hp. It is a huge amount of fun to drive and, although it is still being developed, it is showing a lot of potential – running second at our home national event until we had a mechanical issue. 

Where have your rallying experiences taken you?

I have been very lucky to travel to some amazing places. I have rallied in Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, throughout Asia – where we finished runner-up in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship in 2009 – and, more recently, this year in America. What’s great about rallying is that, when we are competing in these foreign countries, we are actually out in the villages and the local countryside rather than just going to another racetrack. Taking part in the X-Games this year [in Austin, Texas] was another amazing highlight, as the buzz was like nothing I have ever experienced at other motorsport events. 

How do you transition from being a rally driver to a day-to-day motorist?

It’s surprisingly easy! I’m lucky to get my speed fix in a controlled, safe environment and I actually feel quite vulnerable in everyday driving situations. Having experienced firsthand how violent a car accident can be through racing incidents, there is no way I would ever want to go through that without a helmet on and roll cage around me.

In between rallying adventures, Emma runs Gilmour Motors: the home of Suzuki in Dunedin, Otago. Check out the website for more.

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