The motor-racing star who wouldn’t back down
Christina Orr-West has been harassed, shaken and heartbroken in her 25-year racing career. And yet she keeps coming back to the track to make motorsport history. Suzanne McFadden reports.
Most mornings, Christina Orr-West is up before 5am, to milk the 180 cows on the dairy farm in Edgecumbe she grew up on.
She’s back at the shed again in the afternoon, once she’s collected her kids, Lucas and Lainey, from school and kindy.
She’s also on call for the Edgecumbe volunteer fire brigade, where she’s been a firefighter for 14 years now. Next year she will receive the ‘long service and good conduct medal’ for her dedication to the service.
Orr-West, who’s 31, is a pump operator with the brigade, but she’s not yet allowed to drive the fire truck.
Which is really kind of odd, considering Orr-West has been driving since she was five years old, and is recognised as one of the best drivers in New Zealand motorsport.
The trouble has been simply finding time to sit her heavy vehicle licence. “I’m a lot older now, a mum and racing endurance, so you know what? I can do it now. I’m just waiting for a course that isn’t on a weekend when I’m racing,” she says.
Most weekends, Orr-West will be behind the wheel on a track somewhere in New Zealand, racing two vehicles that could not be more poles apart.
She’s among the front-runners driving a ute in this season’s SsangYong Racing Series, and she’s also in contention for the New Zealand Endurance Championship title, driving a Mercedes Benz SLS AMG GT3 with co-driver Brendon Leitch.
If she and 22-year-old Leitch win that championship in Cromwell in a fortnight’s time, Orr-West will become the first Kiwi woman to win a national endurance title, and the first to collect a Motorsport NZ race championship in three decades.
“Everyone gives me a hard time – here I am driving a million-dollar Mercedes in one series, and then I hop in a $10,000 SsangYong ute, that goes as fast as the wind blows,” she says.
“But I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am at the moment. In the ute, I can drive 150 [kmph] touching wing mirrors with someone. But in the Merc, I’m like ‘Don’t you touch my mirrors, don’t even come near me!’”
In the face of adversity
Orr-West has had a fascinating race career that few outside the motorsport world would know about.
She’s raced in a multitude of classes over the past 25 years – from go karts to V8s; in the Australian Bathurst 12 Hour race and the American Indy Lights series.
And it hasn’t been without adversity.
She seriously considered ending her career at the age of 15, after she was involved in a tragic crash on the Pukekohe track, which took the life of her friend and fellow Formula Ford driver Michael McHugh. With the encouragement of her family and the motorsport fraternity, Orr-West was back racing a fortnight later.
She’s wrestled with health problems – soon after Lucas was born, her thyroid shut down, “and my organs started to close down too”. Her weight ballooned to 124kg while she tried to balance the medication.
And she’s had to deal with abuse from other drivers – and their parents – as a successful female in a male-dominated domain.
“I’ve been put through the wringer,” Orr-West says. “I’ve been pulled out of my car and shaken, had punches thrown at me [which missed]. I’ve heard fathers telling their sons ‘Don’t let that bloody girl beat you’... and had mothers tell me ‘You can’t beat my son!’
“When I first started, I had a father at the gate yelling ‘Why are you here, why are you bothering? You should just turn around and go home now’. So I replied: ‘I know your son, and I’m going to mop the floor with him’. And I did.”
Orr-West knew she had every right to be there. She had oodles of talent, and the pedigree: her dad, Will, won a national rally title in 1992, and mum Heather was his co-driver.
Yet it was her god-father, the late Chris Barns, who first put her behind a wheel. Barns, a world jet-sprint champion and rally driver, bought Orr-West a go-kart powered by a lawn-mower engine. “He dumped it in Dad’s lap and said ‘Enjoy!’ And enjoy it, he did not,” she says.
“Dad knew how expensive the sport was, so he’d given me a hockey stick, and a pony.” But, for all his resistance, Will Orr has missed only one of his daughter’s races in 25 years.
When she races in the endurance series, he helps out in the pits.
But father and daughter haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.
“We’ve had some good ding-dongs in our time - I’ve run over his foot multiple times, in general spite. But it never went under the skin,” she says.
“He could always see my potential, even when I was making silly mistakes and frustrating him. Now that I have kids of my own, I understand.”
Some of her favourite memories stem back to racing as a pre-teen in the Formula First (or Vee) class. Such was her ability, she was given special dispensation to drive in the Vees as an 11-year-old - becoming the youngest female in the world competing in a national open-wheel racecar.
She remembers her first podium finish in the Vees at Manfeild, in front of 20,000 people. She started the race in 14th place and worked her way through the field to dip out on victory by just 0.02 seconds.
“The Manfeild crowd was blown away that I was only 12 and a girl. So they stuck me on the back of a ute and drove me around, waving to the crowd,” she says. “I never had a pink or purple car, so they didn’t know I was a girl.
“I had some of my best results in that class, which gave me the stepping stone I needed. Now I watch all the young ones who play Playstation at home, then race on the track, and they scare the crap out of me. They don’t have the fear factor."
She also finished in the top 10 for three seasons in the premier open-wheeled Toyota Racing Series, against the likes of Formula One driver Brendon Hartley and Supercars star Shane van Gisbergen.
She’s been asked if she’d race in single-seater cars again - “I don’t have the body shape for it anymore,” she laughs - but admits she’d never say never.
“Now that I’m a mum, I might find it hard getting the idea past the finish-line with my husband, though. I don’t think he liked my single-seater days – you’re just so vulnerable,” she says.
Remembering to breathe
Orr-West truly felt that vulnerability at 21, when she went to the United States to race three rounds of Indy Lights – a championship that prepares drivers for racing in the illustrious IndyCars.
“When you’re sitting on the grid, a chaplain comes and holds your hands and prays with you. It didn’t fill me with courage! But, with the speeds we were doing, one mistake and you were pretty much in trouble,” she says.
She drove her rookie test at 300 kmph: “After the third lap, they said ‘Can you breathe for us now please?’ I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath and gritting my teeth,” she says. “I loved every minute of it.”
Twice she’s raced in a women’s team in the Bathurst 12 Hour on the legendary Mt Panorama circuit in New South Wales, but she’s quite content driving on New Zealand tarmac these days.
Last season, she teamed up with fellow Kiwi driving star Chelsea Herbert to race an Aston Martin in the South Island endurance series. While Herbert has gone to on to race class one V8s, Orr-West stepped up into a Mercedes with Leitch racing for the ITM Mike Racing team.
She was the only woman in this year’s North and South Island endurance series – a fact she enjoyed.
“I like winding my team-mate up about it, telling him ‘Don’t you ruin this for me, or I won’t make history’,” she laughs. “Honestly I don’t give a hoot about where we come, I’m just enjoying the moment, being out there doing what I love.”
She’s already made her mark this year, becoming the first woman to win the GT-A division, in the North Island series, in which she and Leitch finished second overall. To handle 80-minute stints at the wheel, she's spent more hours in the gym - "my fitness has gone up ten-fold".
Orr-West believes they have the potential to win the three-hour New Zealand endurance championship at the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell.
Although she’s never raced there, it’s Leitch’s home track – where he used to work as an apprentice mechanic. “I think it will also suit the Merc to a tee,” says Orr-West. “It’s the easiest car I’ve driven, now that I’ve worked out its quirks.”
Orr-West can’t see a day on the horizon when she will finish racing. “The moment I stop loving it, I’ll stop. Age certainly isn’t a barrier,” she says, pointing to 77-year-old Kiwi driver Kenny Smith, who raced in his 47th NZ Grand Prix this year.
And will she be encouraging her four-year-old daughter Lainey to follow in her tracks?
“I’ll let her decide. I’ll put the option on the table along with soccer, netball and pony riding. I’ll buy the kids a go-kart soon, and if they don’t want to go in it, I’ll sell it,” she says.
“In the last five years, it’s been so much easier being a woman in motorsport. The times are changing, and so are people’s attitudes.”