Race Car Driver Charlie Martin Inspires From Atop the Podium
Race driver and trans community legend Charlie Martin sits down for a chat with us.
It’s hard to think of many legends of the automotive community who have done more for the trans community than Charlie Martin, a race car driver with a case chock-full of trophies who’s built a career from nothing, all while being an out and proud trans woman who’s used her platform tirelessly.
Her first foray into motorsports was with a £1,500 Peugeot that she bought in her early 20s with nothing more than a dream to race. From those humble beginnings, she has made her way across over half a dozen different race series in dozens of cars on two continents with podiums in nearly every car she’s driven. She is also the first and only openly out trans woman to ever compete in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
[June is Pride Month and The Drive is celebrating it by highlighting queer people who have incontrovertibly helped shape the automotive landscape we live in. This year especially, with so much stress on our collective shoulders, it feels crucial to remind everyone—and ourselves—that we have the right to be proud of who we are.]
I sat down with Martin recently to discuss her racing career, her advocacy, and what she hopes the future holds for the LGBT+ community. We also discussed how she has already helped so many through the power of her pride in herself and her achievements.
Martin’s path as a motorsports enthusiast is similar to most of us who read and work at The Drive: anything with an engine took a hold of her at a young age. Unlike most professional race drivers, though, who start driving karts shortly after they can walk and hail from racing dynasties, Martin had no family history in motorsports and never stepped foot on a circuit until she was 23.
When she finished university in 2006 and had saved up cash from a summer job, she bought her very first race car: a half-finished Peugeot 205 project car. It came with no window glass or interior, but it did include a roll cage and a 16-valve four-cylinder, and those were the parts she needed. From there and with the help of a friend, she taught herself how to work on cars, and slowly got the 205 competition-ready. With her Peugeot drivable, she slapped on an homage livery to the 205 T16 Group B car—one of her favorite cars of all time—and entered amateur hillclimb events in her native Britain to dip her toe into the world of motorsports.
She primarily supported her early career by working any jobs that allowed her the flexibility to also work on her Peugeot and go racing on weekends. After years of ripping the hatch through British country lanes, she moved to France to help foster a more serious career in hillclimb racing, all while working a day job while she waited for sponsorships to come through.
Martin stepped away from racing as she began her physical transition in 2012 out of fear that she could not continue her motorsports career as a trans woman. The break from racing was not to last, however. By 2014, she had not only returned to it but also scored her first hillclimb win, setting a class record at the Saint-Gouéno course from the driver’s seat of a Lotus-clone kit car. She also did this while still splitting her life.
“I was out within that period,” she told me during our interview. “[But] at that point, I wasn't really that out.” Her YouTube history from this time, divided between a racing footage-devoted channel and one documenting her transition, is a perfect illustration of the bifurcated lives that most trans people will understand quite well: one life lived openly, and another still not ready to come out to the broader world.
In the mid-2010s and shortly after her re-entry into the world of motorsports, Martin’s racing career and her life as a trans woman began to blend. Her transition-focused YouTube channel, which she began as a way for her to talk about her experiences and offer advice and insights to the trans community, slowly began to feature race footage and highlight reels. As time went on, however, and racing videos became the majority of her content, she still was not widely out within the motorsports community because she was unsure how it would be received in the racing world.
But after being back into motorsports and documenting her journey, she was ready to be out to the entire world. “It took me a little bit of time,” she explained, “but [by] 2018, I was like, ‘Right, let's just do this.’" That year, she returned to the UK to race in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge for a full season of wheel-to-wheel competition, and with no more worries about sharing her identity, her career went into overdrive.
Looking back, she said, “I know that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now had I not been through the process of transition. It shaped me into a different person who has confidence, self-belief, and everything else.”
With this newfound confidence, Martin immediately got to work by leading by example, partnering with massive advocacy organizations like Stonewall UK, the LGBT+ motorsports group Racing Pride, and the trans-rights foundation Mermaids. Since her coming out, every podium she’s stood on has doubled as a platform for the LGBT+ community, and she has woven her advocacy for queer people into her racing career whenever possible.
A Place at the Podiums
And she’s stood on a lot of podiums since 2018.
In 2019, she moved to the Michelin Le Mans series, piloting a Norma M30 in the LMP3 class, followed in 2020 by a drive in the German VLN Championship. The final event of the VLN series is the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, one of the most grueling events in motorsports, which also marked Martin’s first-ever 24-hour race. As soon as she’d turned a lap, she had already made history as the first trans woman to compete in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Dissatisfied with just that, though, she piloted her BMW M240i touring car to a fourth-in-class finish. Not bad for a first try.
Last year, she drove in the Britcar Championship, piloting a Praga R1 with her teammate Jack Fabby. It was a strong year, even for Martin’s standards.
“We did really well,” she said “We came away with about four or five podiums—” the pair scored four top-threes, including a first-place finish “—out of the six rounds that we drove, including a double podium at the first race.”
But not content with simply racing the Praga, she also piloted entries for the Dutch Super Car Challenge and the German ADAC series, also to fantastic results. “Three different cars, three different series. It was really successful,” she said, noting that “basically, every car I drove last year finished with a podium.”
This year, Martin finds herself behind the wheel of the Dream Racing OSOM-sponsored Super Trofeo Huracán, driving on North American shores for the first time in her career. “It's been a real bucket list thing for me … I've always wanted to race in America,” she told me. “You have some iconic circuits over there.” So far this year, she’s already gotten the chance to go wheel-to-wheel at Laguna Seca, NOLA, and even turned a few laps out at Watkins Glen.
It’s Martin’s first time in a Lamborghini as well, and that alone is exciting to her. In her words, “Anything with a 5.2-liter V10 engine that sounds as good as that is pretty epic.”
On top of her Super Trofeo commitment, she’s also a development driver for MB Motorsports in a BMW 330E M Sport competing in the British Touring Car Championship, although at the moment she admits that her “primary focus is the Super Trofeo drive, which is taking up quite a lot of my time and resources because of the travel involved.”
All of this is to say Martin’s motorsports career has gone far since the days in her first little Peugeot, and her sights are still set just as ambitiously as they were when she was in her 20s. When I first spoke with Martin a few years ago, her goal then was to make it to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When I asked her if that was still true, she said, “Yeah, it's not going to change until I get there.”
The odds are improving with every podium, and she says she “feel[s] like it is getting closer.”
On Transition and Motorsport
Martin’s success in motorsport is undeniable. But what does her advocacy really mean for the LGBT+ community as a whole?
As a personal example of what the world was like before people like Martin, I was an avid NASCAR fan as a child, plunking myself down in front of any nearby television to cheer for Jeff Gordon as often as I could at the arguable peak of the sport in the early 2000s. I adored it, but I can assure you I also remember that there were no women on the grid, in the broadcasting booth, or on the pit crews, and there were certainly no trans women. Representation in my childhood came only in the form of demeaning Jerry Springer specials and Ace Ventura on cable TV. The idea of a trans person being allowed near something so prestigious as a racecar, much less becoming a driver, felt delusional.
Now, simply by seeing Martin’s example, a generation of trans kids will grow up knowing that isn’t the case. Martin’s main goal is to make it even easier for future LGBT+ drivers-to-be to realize their dreams of racing, and that drives the goals of her platform and her visibility directly. “The point is it shouldn't be that difficult for everyone,” she said. “It shouldn't be some kind of endurance test. It should just be like, 'This is who I am. This is what I want to do.'"
Martin was one of the first trans women to come out in the world of motorsports, and so she set out into mostly uncharted territory. Pleasantly, she’s found that the world of racing has been mostly accepting. “Every[one] in motorsport media was really quite supportive,” she told me, and upon coming out, she only lost a few friends over her identity. While the broader internet can be hostile (“Twitter is such a dumpster fire of hatred anyway,” in her words—a sentiment I wholly agree with), she noted that in her own spaces, she’s been able to cultivate a wholesome, supportive atmosphere through hard work (and great driving).
Martin admitted it wasn’t the most straightforward path because of her identity, of course. “I had to overcome a lot of adversity and I'm grateful for that in my own kind of masochistic way,” she said. “But it's made me very tough, persistent, and determined to achieve my goals and to challenge perceptions, prove people wrong, whatever it is, just get out there, get shit done, make it happen, and do that in a way that can help inspire change.”
She also acknowledges that the broader trends of 2022 aren’t all roses and sunshine. In her native UK, she pointed out, “We have a prime minister who's openly said that he doesn't think trans women should be competing in professional sports,” and that conversion therapy (which some UN experts have called equivalent to torture) is still legal for trans people. “For every other part of LGB, it's illegal,” she said, “but for the trans community, it's not. What kind of message does that send out?”
She remains optimistic about the future, though, and that informs her life and advocacy because ultimately, she thinks that the world of motorsports can be for us all. Her example is a very vivid one to people who probably would have otherwise sat on the sidelines for trans folks and our rights, and that is why she shares her life so openly.
“I just want to share that experience in a way that could not only help inspire other people, but it's the people who potentially can be allies,” she explained. “[People] who would be like, ‘Oh God. I never realized people feel like that. Actually, here's someone who's taken control of their life and doing something that they're passionate about.’ Why wouldn't I want to help be an ally to all people that want to live their best life?”
As a trans woman who grew up wondering if there was a place for a person like me in my own passions, all I can say is that her work has done wonders. The last time we spoke was just before I became an automotive writer, and her advocacy, pride in herself, accomplishments, and success were all massive reasons I pursued a career in this industry. With this in mind, I asked her before our call ended if she had any words for her trans fans and our trans readers.
She put it beautifully: “I never thought I'd be able to do what I'm doing now. I guess the message of positivity … is that we can all achieve things [like this]. I grew up feeling very limited about who I am, what I can do, what my life options are. I feel like I've had to make it up as I go in motorsports because there was no one I could look to and be like, ‘Okay, right. That's who you can be, that's what's achievable.’’
She went on: “Know that you're valid, you belong where you feel you belong, never question that. Keep trying to achieve your dreams, keep trying to achieve your goals, and just keep being the best version of you that you know how to be.”
In the meantime, if you want to catch Martin doing what she loves most, Super Trofeo will be headed to Watkins Glen next, where she and her co-driver Jason Keats will be piloting the #54 OSOM Huracan Super Trofeo EVO2. I’ll personally be watching from now right up ‘til I see her on the Mulsanne Straight.
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