Charlie Martin: bringing the rainbow to motorsport

11 min reading time
Charlie Martin has written herself into the history books as the first transgender race driver to contest the legendary 24 Hours of Nürburgring. For her though, this is merely one milestone on the road towards greater diversity in motorsport – and towards a start at Le Mans. We met this courageous driver track-side to talk about new ways of thinking, daring moves – both on and off the track – and about the decision that changed her life forever.

11 November 2020

Activate push notifications

Innovative mobility, exciting trends for the future and high RPMs: Subscribe now to get notified of new content.

Subscription successful.

Subscription failed.

If you need help follow the link for support.

How does this sound?

You can also listen to this article via Changing Lanes, the official BMW podcast. 

Apart from this and other narrated articles, Changing Lanes offers you fresh new episodes every week, packed with exclusive insights on tech, lifestyle, design, cars, and more – brought to you by hosts Sara and Jonathan. 

Find and subscribe to Changing Lanes on all major podcasting platforms.

It is early morning at the Nürburgring: the smell of gas wafts from the pit lanes, the buzz of tools blends with the roar of an engine. The paddock teems with hundreds of mechanics and crew members busy at work. Charlie Martin blocks it all out: she is sitting between racing cars and stacks of tires in front of her garage with her eyes closed. The Briton is enjoying the warm sunshine on her face as she mentally drives the track, her body moving with every imagined maneuver and bend of the circuit. She does not yet know what the weather has in store for her, her BMW M240i Racing and the Nordschleife today. But this is a race driver who is quite accustomed to adversity. Proving herself as a woman in a male-dominated sport is what drives her. It is a challenge made all the more different by the fact that, in 1981 in the English city of Leicester, Charlie Martin was born a boy.

Finding your personal racing line

Like many boys (and girls) growing up in the 1980s, Charlie Martin was fascinated by the hit movie “Top Gun” and dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. He soon realized that his grades in math and physics were not good enough, meaning that a career in aviation would never get off the ground, and so the plan was abandoned. However, that ‘need for speed’ already had the young boy in its thrall. So, when his best friend’s father, a racing driver, brought the two boys along with him to the track one day, Charlie was hooked. From then on, he took every opportunity to go to the track and be around the cars and crews. He replayed major races on his computer, biding his time until the day he himself could get behind the wheel. He quickly discovered that he was fast. Very fast! And rather good. At 19, he visited Le Mans for the first time and the die was cast. He remained in France and earned his first motorsport stripes – not on circuits but on hill climbs. Yet for all of that time and over all of those years, there was something else going on beneath the surface. From the age of seven, Charlie knew that he identified as female. The older he got the more he questioned whether the course he had taken in life was the right one. Until one day, it became blindingly obvious to him that he was living his life in the wrong body. Following conversations with other transgender people, he came to the decision to transition.

Charlie Martin was under no illusions that this decision would have far-reaching consequences for his life. He even gave up his passion – temporarily. “I came out as a trans woman in 2012 and that was, if I am honest, the start of a really terrifying, tough time for me. At the beginning of that year I took a difficult decision: I gave up racing. I was convinced that I would never be accepted in the drivers’ paddock ... I truly believed that everyone in this sport, which I loved so much and which gave me this unbelievable sense of belonging, would turn their back on me. I reached out to some of my best friends from the driving scene by email, and one of them never spoke to me again. My first visit back to the paddock was terrifying, I was shaking. But a small group of friends supported me in ways that I will never forget as long as I live. Still, a lot of people hung back, probably because they felt uncomfortable. It took a long time for that to change.”

Fear turns to courage

Despite it all, this is a decision that Charlie Martin would make again in a heartbeat. “It was a mixture of so many different emotions. I was at a real low point in my life when I finally found the courage to make the decision, from which I had spent my whole life running. I was at this point of no return. But it was also clear to me that if I took this most difficult of steps in the right direction, nothing would ever be able to stop me again! I experienced a feeling of calm and relief because I had finally accepted myself. It was still a time filled with a lot of uncertainty because it was a journey into the unknown. But when you really believe in your heart that the decision is right for you, then fear turns to courage.” Charlie Martin burns with ambition and is fighting her way, little by little, back up the rankings in the motorsport scene.

Understanding the why

The greatest hurdle to overcome in returning to racing was not stereotypes or prejudice but insecurity, says Martin, as she buttons up her race suit. “At the beginning, I noticed that many people in the paddock who would have known me from before, were hanging back and I was really nervous back then. I often read this behavior as being passive-aggressive, even though it was really just an unusual situation. The vast majority of these people still hadn’t met someone who was transgender. As soon as I started a conversation and people started to understand my reasons, things went more smoothly. I realized that people’s reactions stemmed not from prejudice, just from a lack of information and fear of saying the wrong thing. But you really shouldn’t make your life unnecessarily difficult. I would prefer that someone just ask a question, regardless of how silly it might sound, as long as it is well-intentioned. Because how are we ever going to tear down those barriers otherwise?”

Time and again though Charlie Martin did experience real support. “There were some people who believed in me and who helped me to believe in myself.” This had a huge impact on her and contributed to her building self-esteem. Only one thing saddens the 39-year old: that her parents were not around to experience it all with her. Martin’s parents both died of cancer, her father when she was just a child and her mother when she was 23. “She gave me £400 towards my first race car. It means a lot to me that she was there to experience the start of what is now my great passion in life: motorsport.” Finance is always an issue when trying to break into motorsport and Martin counts it among her first personal victories that she managed to do it largely on her own.

Time for an overtaking maneuver

When Charlie Martin switched from hill climbs to circuit races, her first car was a MINI. She raced in the Ginetta GT5 Challenge, drove a Norma M30 LMP3 in the Michelin Le Mans Cup and then joined the team that would ultimately help her to tackle her motorsports mission, to race in the “24 Hr Nürburgring” in a BMW M240i Racing. “When I started with Adrenalin Motorsports, I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be this elephant in the room,” explains Martin. “On the first test day I invited my team boss to a meeting and told him my story. The reaction was impressive and reassuring. Your personality and your love of motorsport is what matters here. That is what shows who you are and who you want to be – and that’s why we are a team.” For Martin’s competitors the start was apparently not as smooth. “Over the years, I often felt that some drivers were risking really crazy maneuvers just to ensure that they didn’t finish in the rankings behind a transgender woman.”

When you walk into the pit lane on race day, you hear the engines roaring into life and feel your heart thumping in your chest ... you feel so alive, there is quite simply nothing to compare to that moment when the car is pushed onto the track.
Charlie Martin

Motorsport continues to be a male-dominated industry. What does she think can be changed or indeed must change if motor racing is to be more diverse? “I want to advance the cause of equality in this sport,” says Charlie Martin forming a triangle with both her hands. “Motorsport is like a pyramid with Formula 1 at its peak. You need a higher percentage of women coming in at the bottom if you want to see more professional female drivers at the top, and so it's about creating role models to show young girls what is possible. That way they grow up feeling empowered and able to do any career they like, it's about breaking down gender stereotypes and challenging perceptions, like the idea that motorsport has to be an exclusively male sport.”

But what draws her personally to this sport? Charlie Martin flings open her arms and turns to the pit lane, which is a hive of activity, and exclaims: “This! Right here! I love being part of a community of petrol heads, who do what they do out of a shared passion for the sport. It’s like a big family. When you walk into the pit lane on race day, you hear the engines roaring into life and feel your heart thumping in your chest ... you feel so alive, there is quite simply nothing to compare to that moment when the car is pushed onto the track. You are sitting in the car on the track with your foot on the accelerator and you know that now you have to give it your all – when I am fully focused in this moment nothing else in life matters. And I love that.”

When we have ambassadors for the sport who stand up for their values with passion and conviction and spread the message that we all need to be proactive in our own lives, then we can bring about real change in society.
Charlie Martin

Social media as a platform

Martin uses a break in the photo shoot to make a short video. She always has her smartphone to hand, allowing her social media followers to follow her story. Yes, there are trolls ready to spread their hate anonymously, but she doesn’t let it get to her – in as much as she can. “I have built up a thick skin over the years. People sometimes argue and say why do you need to make a point out of being transgender? If you're fast that's all that matters, you don't need to bring LGBTQ into motorsport. But the point they're missing is that if everyone role model who inspired you in the sport looked the same as you, then you've never questioned whether it was ever possible to succeed as your true self, this is why representation is so important. I never saw a single transgender person who was visible in any sport or career growing up, that has a huge impact on your entire belief system of what is possible in life. It's hard to argue with people about these things on Twitter though and I don't have time or the inclination, I'd rather just positive stories and speak with my actions.”

Charlie Martin still has certain reservations about the labels, ‘pioneer’ and ‘role model’. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to get my head around as, to me, I am simply making my way through life just like anyone else. But I am proud of what I have achieved. When I started speaking on YouTube about my transition, the aim was to inspire others to act, to search for what I had already found. Over the years I have received so much positive feedback; so many messages from people who, having watched my vlogs, found the courage to transition themselves. To know that I have contributed even just a little bit to the happiness of other people means a great deal to me.”

Stand up for your own values

Martin believes however that a much broader discussion needs to be had in motorsport about diversity, inclusivity and representation, a discussion that goes beyond just her. “Whether it’s about recruiting new motorsport talent or simply just showing that the drivers’ paddock is an inclusive environment: the governing bodies, the championship organizers and the brands must show initiative here.” Martin points to her bright shoelaces in the now instantly recognizable LGBT rainbow colors. “If you look at campaigns like “Rainbow Laces” by Team Pride: they immediately send a clear message and are supported by multiple organizations. The media too can contribute to celebrating and promoting diversity. With my story, I hope to inspire others to following in my footsteps.”

How do you change how society thinks? For Charlie Martin the key is to challenge existing mindsets. “People are often afraid of change and of the unknown. But that’s what it’s all about – change starts with small personal steps. My own experiences have taught me that most people are more open than I had previously thought. The most effective method is to create empathy, compassion. When we have ambassadors for the sport who stand up for their values with passion and conviction and spread the message that we all need to be proactive in our own lives, then we can bring about real change in society.”

Staying true to the person you want to be

“Go? Go!” The start signal comes over the radio, Martin’s team rolls the BMW M240i Racing, start number 242, out of the garage. There’s an electric energy palpable in the air, this is serious; the qualification run for the 24-hour endurance race on the Nürburgring is about to start. Due to the pandemic, the race has been postponed to the end of September, meaning that it is getting darker earlier, and the night will last longer. Dark storm clouds are moving in over the course. She reaches for her helmet with the “Go Charlie” logo emblazoned across the back. Martin’s motto in life is to simply do what you do and keep looking forward. And it is this attitude that she wants to convey to others. Does she have a message for spectators and fans? “Yes. Believe in possibility, believe in your power to create your own future and you will be able to realize your dreams. Secondly: Stay true to yourself and your vision of the person you want to be, don’t compromise yourself to be what society expects of you. And just because something hasn’t been done before does not mean that it is impossible. It just means that no one has been successful yet and that you could be the one to prove everyone wrong.”

Chasing a personal best

Night has fallen on the Nürburgring. The rain is sheeting down, the wet asphalt glitters with the reflection of white and red lights. Visibility is limited, brakes and tires are having to work hard, the drivers are grimly focused. But Charlie Martin isn’t slowing down. When the last qualification round has ended and the team rolls the car back into the garage, she has taken 78th place in the starting grid and 6th in her class. The mechanics are celebrating and even the driver looks happy. However, those who know her a bit better quickly notice that her ambition is showing. “I was a little bit frustrated because I was held up by a code 60 on my flying lap. I always feel I could have done better – that is both a blessing and a curse.” And her motivation.

As challenging as change can be, for Charlie Martin it is essential. “No matter how old you are – you can always question your perceptions and beliefs and learn something new. It helps us not to repeat mistakes. I have experienced great change in my life and was forced to accept it – even when I sometimes really didn’t want to. But what I do want is to always be able to look in the mirror and say that I have done my best to tackle the challenges that life has set me.”

The future is bright

When Charlie Martin crosses the finish line in the pouring rain, she has narrowly missed out on a podium finish. However, fourth in her class is a success that she was not expecting in what proved to be a chaotic race with numerous interruptions. She whips out her smartphone to share the news and the moment with her followers. But her ultimate dream is one she has been working toward for years. “I want to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the 97-year history of the endurance classic, no transgender driver has ever taken to the start line. To be the first LGBT driver to contest the most famous race in the world would be a huge step forward for diversity in motorsport.” Success on the Nürburgring was just a key milestone to reaching this dream.

One thing is certain: Charlie Martin is a force to be reckoned with and she will take Le Mans by storm – on the track and off it.

Listen to Charlie Martin on the #NEXTGen Panel Talk “What’s your reason not to change.”

Photos: Marc Wittkowski; Author: Markus Löblein