The Kiwi ‘Skippy’ on the verge of motorsport history
On the cusp of making motorsport history in the W Series - the world-first equivalent of Formula One for women - Alexandra Whitley is happy for us to claim her as a Kiwi, reports Suzanne McFadden.
Alexandra Whitley was a spray painter, working in the back of her dad’s welding shop in the Queensland town of Toowoomba, when she decided to take a chance and move to New Zealand.
A seven-time Australian women’s karting champion, Whitley had given up racing and, with it, her dream of driving V8 Supercars. It had become too hard finding the money to carry on, so she turned her focus to her painting business instead.
But, when she heard about a “ladies only test day” at Queensland Raceway, near Brisbane, she told her dad: “If I miss an opportunity, I’ll kick myself.”
So they hired a car for the day, and the teenage Whitley was paired up with a mentor – who happened to be New Zealand speed legend Heather Spurle.
During an outstanding career, Spurle set three New Zealand speed records on the track, and four world water speed records in powerboats. She now lives on the Gold Coast.
Seeing Whitley’s talent, Spurle convinced the 19-year-old that she had a future in motorsport. They tried in vain to get Whitley a start in a series in Australia - again a lack of sponsorship let her down.
A year later, in 2014, Spurle phoned and asked Whitley if she’d like to race in New Zealand. Spurle had a place in the new SsangYong Racing Series, in identical utes, but she’d broken her wrist. She wondered if Whitley would like to take her place.
“It was crazy,” Whitley remembers. “I had to get a passport and a racing licence, and two weeks later I was in Taupo, racing in the SsangYong series. It was my second chance, and I knew I’d better make the most of it.
“So I moved here all I my own. I took myself testing, I worked on the car, I did everything, and it was really, really tough. I was in a new country, I didn’t know anybody. But I managed to stick out the season, pick up sponsorship, and [five years later] here I am.”
Where she’s at, exactly, is Tuakau – on the boundary of Auckland and the Waikato – in a house she's bought with her fiancé, champion driver Peter Bennett, who followed Whitley here from Australia.
Whitley has definitely stamped her mark in her new homeland. In 2017, she became the first woman to drive in the NZV8 Ute series and, at the end of last year, ‘Skippy’ (as she’s been dubbed by her ute-racing rivals) made more history as the first female driver to win a V8 race in New Zealand - on her favourite track, Pukekohe.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the motorsport world to take notice.
Whitley, now 25, was one of 60 women from across the world chosen to trial for the new W Series – the single-seater all-female series to be raced in Formula 3 cars later this year, for a $US1.5 million prize purse.
She was flown to Austria last month to drive at the icy Wachauring circuit in Melk. At the end of a punishing weekend, Whitley was told she’d made the cut to 28 women, who go through to the next stage in Spain next month.
Eighteen women will ultimately be chosen to race the series which starts in May, with four reserve drivers.
In Spain, the women will finally get to drive in the W Series race car – the Tatuus F318 Formula 3.
It's the moment Whitley has been waiting for.
“I’m busting to get in the car. I’ve only ever driven an open-wheeler once before, and coming from a karting background, it’s so exciting,” she says. “They’re very fast, very low to the ground - you really get to feel everything that’s going on.
“It’s going to be very challenging, but I’m ready to take on anything they throw at me.”
She’s already proven she can handle a challenge. Before the weekend in Austria, she’d never driven on snow – let alone seen snow fall.
“I woke up to find I’d be driving in a snowstorm, so it was a bit of the unknown,” she says. “But you just had to quickly learn what the car was doing, adapt to the conditions and perform to your best ability. It was very tricky, but at the same time very fun.”
Whitley was tested on her corner speed and car control in Ford Fiesta ST and Porsche Cayman cars, but the trial wasn’t only on the track. The women were also assessed on their fitness, media and presentation, and put through psychological profiling. Among the judges were past Formula One drivers David Coulthard and Alex Wurz.
Dave Ryan, the New Zealander who’s race director for the W Series, has asked the 28 drivers to lift their strength and fitness before arriving in Almeria, Spain. The single-seaters, he says, are tough to drive.
“But we wouldn’t have selected them if we didn’t firmly believe they had the ability to race them – and race them well,” Ryan says.
Whitley may have a mental edge when it comes to fitness training. From the age of 10, she was a triathlete, who dreamed of becoming an Olympic swimmer. But a foot injury ended her triathlon days and, at 17, she decided to try karting – following her brother and sister into the sport.
“I doubt I would have made it as an Olympic swimmer. I have tiny feet,” she admits.
But she still swims as part of her fitness regime.
While her media and presentations skills were among her strengths in the Austrian test, Whitley admits one of her shortcomings is the mental strength needed in qualifying sessions.
“There are a lot of mind games in racing,” she says. “So I’m working on that through a neuro-linguistic programming coach.”
She’s already seen a “massive improvement” in her qualifying times in the NZV8 Utes. With the last round at Hampton Downs next month, she hopes to finish the season in third or fourth place overall. She’s still the only woman in the field.
Whitley also wants to get a better understanding of driving a Formula 3 before she leaves for Spain.
She’s planning to drive a simulator owned by Auckland-based race team International Motorsport, and trying to raise around $10,000 to do a day’s test drive in a Toyota Race Series car, which is similar to the W Series car.
“The W Series cars have a bit more aero and bigger slicks, so the downforce will be greater. But the TRS cars have the same shells, so they will be very similar in how they handle and perform,” she says.
The steep cost, Whitley explains, is to cover tyres, fuel, engineers, mechanics and the track hire.
“Motorsport has unfortunately become a sport for those who have the most money. So one of the massive bonuses about the W Series is they take away the money and sponsorship worries,” she says.
“Every single round, the drivers will change cars and engineers. So no one can complain ‘your car is better than mine’. Everyone gets an equal opportunity, which is the way motorsport should be.”
While the W Series will again pay for her flights to Europe, she has to cover her food and accommodation costs, and take time off from her job at the Hampton Downs Motorsport Park.
“I do everything from track operations to go-karts and running events. It’s fantastic, because even though you’re a competitor, you don’t always realise what goes on behind the scenes. It’s great to be able to give back to the sport,” she says.
She also hopes that if she is one of the 18 drivers chosen she will become a global ambassador for women in motorsport.
“If I can inspire one other person to live their dream, go racing or play sport, then I know I’ve done my job right,” she says.
“It was a bit surreal to be in a room with 59 other females, because it just doesn’t happen in motorsport. We were all there for the same reason – we’re all racers. We were all racing just as hard and as committed as any gender.
“For me, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Something neither myself nor my family could have ever afforded to do. Formula 3 is a whole other level – like five steps up from what I’m racing now. Learning about the cars and engineers and having the opportunity to improve is amazing.
“And I’m really proud to represent Australia and New Zealand. A lot of people want to claim me right now, but that’s not a bad thing!”
LockerRoom is made possible by contributions from readers like you. Become a supporter to expand our in-depth coverage of women's sport in NZ.