Meet Rowena aka Rafiki. She has been actively involved in motorsport for more than 50 years. Mainly competing as a rally driver in the past years, she is currently part of the Formula Woman Challenge and is a huge inspiration for the LGBTQ+ community.
Rowena: I admit I was somewhat surprised when Monica asked me if I’d be willing to be interviewed for the ‘Wheel Sisters’ blog. But, to answer all her questions: Here goes!
I am Rowena Purdy, born in 1943 in Northumberland, England, but moved to Cyprus in 1951 and subsequently lived in many lovely parts of the world, mainly in Central and East Africa. I now live in Lincolnshire in a small village, in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I am now a retired RAF aircrew officer and service linguist; having spent close to 40 years serving as both a Regular and a Reserve officer. I went up to Oxford University as a mature student to read for a BA (Hons) degree in Oriental Studies with Chinese.
WHEEL SISTERS: What is your background in motorsport and how did you start?
Rowena: I was first attracted to rallying when I lived in Kenya and had the opportunity to watch the crews on the Coronation and East African Safaris, never dreaming that I’d actually start rallying myself many years later and in a different part of the world. My first road rally was in Malta in 1969 driving a 1969 FIAT 125 whilst serving in the RAF. Since then I have competed in over 100 rallies in all parts of the United Kingdom and Eire as well as a number of European countries: Belgium; Switzerland; Germany; Luxembourg; France; Italy and Spain. When serving in Hong Kong, I competed in the Rothman’s National Hong Kong Rally Championship as part of the three car team entered by the Honda importer and which won the overall team championship. My driver and I won the overall Championship in our Honda 1200 and this resulted in both my driver and I being offered a former factory FIAT 131 Abarth for the SE Asia Rally Championship by FIAT (Hong Kong); but as the RAF had just posted me back to the UK, I was unable to fulfil my role!
Although I’ve been predominantly a road rally competitor, and still am as I now compete on Historic Road Rallies, I have also been fortunate to co-drive on a number of stage rallies as a co-driver, the high spot being chosen to lead the RAF Rally Team of Land Rovers on the 1979 International Mintex Rally winning the IRDC Award and the Musgrove Trophy. More recently I came second in the RAF Motorsport Association’s Rally Championship, but first overall road rally driver.
WHEEL SISTERS: In what other motorsports disciplines have you been involved?
Rowena: My main interest has always been the rally side of the motorsport, but not the only one. I’ve also competed on track days, hill climbs, sprints and even ‘go-karts’. On the non-competitive side of motorsport, I have been an organizer of both race and rally events; I was, for a short time, on the Hong Kong Motorsports Committee and due to take the role of FIA representative for Hong Kong Motorsport – until I had to return to England. I am also a registered marshal.
Whilst competing in Hong Kong, I was also asked by Commercial Radio (Hong Kong) to provide follow up reports on all the local (and some International) rallies, this led me to also broadcasting nightly update reports for the Macau Grand Prix as well as the trackside live commentary for the whole GP weekend – motorcycles and cars. One of the great aspects of motorsport are the opportunities it can offer; I have also managed to present rally reports on radio and television as well as writing articles and reports for a number of local, national and international news media.
Last year I decided to enter the Formula Woman Challenge (www.formulawoman.co.uk), with two aims: one as a member of the Women’s Institute, to inspire the more mature women in attempting to push themselves further, not necessarily in motorsport but also in other life challenges; the other as a transgender competitor, I also hoped that I could inspire other LGBTQ+ people to come to join me. . I found I could push myself further than I thought possible and have re-entered this year, but with a more active mind set…more gym sessions and work-outs!
WHEEL SISTERS: What has had the biggest impact on improving your driving skills?
Rowena: As a contender in the Formula Woman Challenge I had the opportunity to spend time at the i-Zone Driver Performance Centre at Silverstone where I was able to have my driving skills improved by the instructors and mentors immeasurably, driving a number of high powered race cars around the Donnington Park Circuit on its simulators. It was such a good experience, I did it twice.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your transgender experiences in motorsport?
Rowena: Most of my competitive history is as a male competitor, but after struggling for most of my life with my hidden gender issues there came a time when mental issues were becoming harder to disguise and a trip to London and sessions with a psychotherapist started me on my eventual transition. This path was not an easy one and I was always rather concerned about how I would be accepted by family, friends and colleagues, especially in my rallying circles; as an official of the Porsche Club Great Britain, I had to announce this change to 12,000 members – all at once.. But I was accepted totally and without question, something I find very positive about the motorsport community. It has been my experience that motorsport has always been totally inclusive; I suspect that few members of the global motorsport community will be aware that the first transgender competitor was a racing driver: Roberta Cowell (a former RAF World War 2 Spitfire pilot, who transitioned in 1951) about whom I remember reading as a schoolboy when I lived in Cyprus.
WHEEL SISTERS: How are you inspiring the LGBTQ+ community to get involved in motorsport?
Rowena: I am currently a member of Motorsport UK’s LGBTQ+ sub-committee as one of two transgender competitors. The sub-committee is part of Motorsport UK’s Equality, Diversity and inclusivity Committee whose overarching aim is to improve the diversity of motorsport. The aim of the sub-committee is to inspire other members of the wider LGBTQ+ community to come and join us by promoting the idea that motorsport is for all. On a personal level, I have both my own website (www.rowena-racing.info) and face book presence (www.facebook.com/rowena-racing) both of which mention my motorsport competitions and background. I’ve also been featured in a number of news media and podcasts as a transgender rally competitor.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your goals over the next year or so?
Rowena: One difference between racing drivers and rally drivers is that the latter also require navigators or co-drivers to read maps or pace notes and without them drivers are unable to compete. This is where I am now – my navigator is unavailable for our next two events, so I am taking the opportunity to have a few modifications done to my classic (1966) Porsche 912 to be ready for the start of the next Championship season starting in March. But this also gives me many opportunities to don my orange overalls and get out to marshal.
Even as I enter my eighth decade, I still have the passion to compete, but now more for the enjoyment that competition provides; I frequently explain that all my trophies are now stored in my attic and I do not need any more! I am also very happy to train / instruct a novice navigator/co-driver, something which I have already done a couple of times! But as with everything, I continue to learn new techniques myself.