Nathalie McGloin: A truly inspirational story and journey of a motorsport fanatic

  • Jim Weeks

When Nathalie McGloin first took up motor racing, it was as a challenge and a hobby. At the time, she could not have known how far it would lead her. She certainly didn’t ever picture herself on a Formula 1 podium.

Much of Nathalie’s life has been about taking on and conquering challenges. At the age of 16, she was a passenger in a road traffic accident that left her paralysed from the chest down.

Her approach since can be summed up in her own words: “I don’t like to be beaten by things.”

This mantra saw her through almost a year in hospital, back to school and then on to university. She took up wheelchair rugby and made the British squad, then began racing competitively in 2015.

An unapologetic Porsche fanatic, she drives a specially-adapted 987 Cayman S and currently competes in the Porsche Club Championship and Classic Sports Car Club. Among other alterations, her car is equipped with hand controls, mounted to the right of the steering column, leaving her left hand free to steer.

Racing drivers generally feel a car’s behaviour through the base of their seat, but as Nathalie is paralysed from the chest down this is impossible. Instead, her seat is shaped to fit her ribcage, allowing her to feel the car in this way. Since starting out in racing, she has learned that wet weather lends itself to this particular adaptation.

“I don’t have any sensation below my chest, so I read the car differently to non-disabled drivers,” she explains. “When it’s wet, all of the senses are heightened and so everything the car does is very obvious. It gives me more feedback and more confidence, so I’m more comfortable in the wet and with that more competitive.”

This first clicked for Nathalie during a rain-hit race at Brands Hatch, where she found herself carving through the field on her way to sixth place. But racing can take away just as much as it gives. At the same circuit, her participation in the sport was nearly brought to a halt.

“I knew that crashing was on the cards, but you never think it’ll happen to you,” she begins.

Nathalie had been working with an instructor in her car at Brands. For the final session she went back out alone to see what kind of time she could put in without the added weight and with fresh rubber.

“I could hear a weird noise; when my instructor got out I didn’t unplug my helmet, so I assumed it was just feedback from the intercom.

“It turned out to be a wheel bearing about to collapse. As I approached Paddock Hill Bend at 130mph I went to apply the brakes and the ABS failed. I locked up and hit the wall at 70mph.

“I’m still suffering from soft tissue damage because I was trying to steer away from the wall, whereas a more experienced driver might have taken their hands off and braced for the impact.”

She couldn’t compete that weekend or at the following event. Before her next scheduled race, she realised she was dreading simply getting back into the car.

“My partner Andrew came back one afternoon and found me in floods of tears. I told him that I didn’t know if I could race again.”

She did, but the enjoyment she’d once found was gone. It wasn’t until an end-of-season race at Silverstone with her fellow BWRDC (British Women Racing Drivers’ Club) members that things began to change.

“Silverstone’s one of my favourite circuits so I knew it was the right place to do it. I told myself that if I still hated it when there was no pressure, I’d leave racing.

“It was such a chilled-out weekend and I got my first podium – it always helps when you win some silverware! I’ve since taken a third-place in my class at the Classic Sports Car Club race at Silverstone this year, so I’m still riding the wave.”

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While Nathalie first took up racing as a hobby, she is now as involved with the sport off the track as she is on it.

Shortly after starting out she received messages from others with disabilities that require them to drive with hand controls. They loved what she was doing. Some even wanted a go in her car.

“I saw an opportunity for us to do something,” Nathalie explains. Along with Andrew, who was looking for a career change, she set up Spinal Track.

“It’s a charity that gives people like me the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a track car on a circuit, to either give them their first taste of motorsport or just give them a boost.

“If you can drive a track car around Silverstone at high speed, other things you might experience in your life seem kind of insignificant,” says Nathalie.

Most importantly, the experience needed to be offered for free. That meant Spinal Track was initially run out of their own pockets, before two anonymous donations allowed the charity to go to the next level. Silverstone also offered their support with a free place on all track days (which will soon expand to two places for two cars).

Stanley Black & Decker have since come onboard as the main sponsor, and the charity will expand to include rally experiences later in the year following a donation from the Richard Burns Foundation.

“Our waiting list at the moment is two years long,” says Nathalie. “When we get the second car up and running, which will be during the first few weeks of August, and when the rally experience starts in September, we’re hoping to cut that wait down to six months.”

The overriding aim of these sessions is to provide a confidence boost and a fun day driving a very fast car. But they could also expand the number of disabled drivers competing in the UK.

“We had one guy who came and did a session with us. About four months later we went on another track day and he was there having bought his own car. I thought: ‘Oh my god, this is incredible!’”

Now, one of Nathalie’s long-term goals is to get enough backing to assemble a team of Spinal Track drivers, put them through their licences, and contest a race.

Silverstone is important to Nathalie. She was there again on Sunday afternoon, but not to race: she was on the podium at the British Grand Prix handing the third-place trophy to Kimi Raikkonen.

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It was the latest unexpected twist to her life story. It bears repeating – and Nathalie says it herself – just how wild this idea would have seemed to her on the day she took up racing.

The podium gig came about thanks to newly-appointed Motor Sports Association (MSA) chairman David Richards and a role that Nathalie took up last year.

She had spoken at a Women in Motorsport Commission conference in 2016, which led to an invite to speak at an FIA conference in June 2017. Among the audience was the current FIA President, Jean Todt. Afterwards, the most senior man in global motorsport congratulated her.

“Jean doesn’t do small talk or give out praise unless it’s justified, so I knew that what I’d said about disabled drivers and safety had struck a chord with him,” recalls Nathalie. “But I didn’t think anything else of it, just that I’d given a good speech.”

Four months later she was sitting in an office in the FIA’s Geneva headquarters, stunned into silence. Todt had recently created a Disability and Accessibility Commission and wanted Nathalie to be its inaugural president.

The commission is currently focussing on three main pillars: standardisation of the licensing process for disabled drivers; a list of certified controls that competitors can use with confidence; and the back-to-racing programme.

“For example, Billy Monger has had to do this prior to the start of the season,” Nathalie says of the latter. “If we have drivers who suffer life-changing injuries, either through motorsport or outside, we have a system that gets them back to racing in their desired championship in the swiftest and safest way possible.”

Nathalie speaks with conviction and maturity about what she is trying to achieve with the FIA. At the same time, she can’t shake the surprise at having been appointed to such a role: “It’s just crazy. To have an FIA presidency… I still can’t quite believe it.”

She was a natural choice, however, possessing vital experience of the practical challenges that disabled racers face, the moments of self-doubt, and the satisfaction that comes from competing against and beating non-disabled drivers.

This is a characteristic almost unique to motorsport. While Nathalie’s car is modified to allow her to race, once she is out on the track she is just another competitor. There is no visible difference and no one treats her differently. That, surely, is how it should be.

“I’d like to see more disabled people involved in the sport, to the point that it’s not an anomaly,” she says. “I really want this sport to be seen as one that naturally lends itself to disabled people, to the point that their disabilities are complete non-events.

“I’d also like to see disabled kids starting to realise that this is something that they can aspire to. I’d like them to think: ‘Yeah, I can be a racing driver.’

“If we can change their perception of what a racing driver is, then we can change the future of motorsport forever.”

Such a bold ambition will require tremendous effort, but there is one key trait that is worth remembering about Nathalie: she doesn’t like to be beaten by things.

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