Brenda Wil­liamson may man­age a pri­vate hos­pi­tal, but it’s her time on the race track that re­ally tests her

NZ Life & Leisure - - News - WORDS : V ENE TI A SHE RSON

FOR A WOMAN who can ap­proach hair­pin bends on gravel roads at speeds of up to 180 kilo­me­tres an hour, and likely end up air­borne, Brenda Wil­liamson comes across as re­mark­ably grounded. “You can’t be stressed in a rally car. You must be able to multi-task. You must be at your very best. The driver to­tally re­lies on you to de­liver the re­sults.”

Brenda (53) is a rally co-driver in a 2009 Suzuki Swift, which – if it had not been mod­i­fied to within an oil slick of its life – might be a car she would oth­er­wise drive to the supermarket. The rally driver – and the man be­hind the trans­for­ma­tion of the zippy lit­tle run­about to turbo-charged, su­per-spec rally car – is Jack, her 25-year-old son.

The pair is used to sur­prised looks when they re­veal their re­la­tion­ship. “There are lots of fe­male co-driv­ers – part­ners, sis­ters – but we’re the only mother and son,” says Brenda. When they com­pete in a rally, their roles sup­plant any tra­di­tional mother/son re­la­tion­ship, she says. “We are both there to do a job. As a co-driver, my job is to help him drive the best he can.” Jack agrees, say­ing par­ent/child re­la­tion­ships also blend over time as lifestyles change.

The story be­gan six years ago when Jack told his par­ents Brenda and Steve that he wanted to buy a mo­tor­bike. His pro­posal, he says, was strate­gic. What he re­ally wanted was a rally car. He knew that com­pared with a bike, the car would be an eas­ier sell. They agreed to him buy­ing an old rear-wheel-drive DX Corolla.

As his skill and en­thu­si­asm grew, his par­ents got in­volved. Steve, who farms a 138-hectare sheep and cat­tle prop­erty near Raglan, is Jack’s “work­shop ap­pren­tice” and helps get the car to ral­lies. Brenda, whose day job is fi­nance man­ager and deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive of Brae­mar Hos­pi­tal in Hamil­ton, got into the co-driver seat. The Corolla was traded for the Swift.

“Orig­i­nally it was tem­po­rary,” says Brenda. “It’s hard to find co­drivers who can com­mit to six weeks a year.” But she found she loved it. Ac­cord­ing to her son, she’s also very good.

The co-driver’s job is to nav­i­gate by read­ing a set of short­hand pace notes (the de­tails of the route) to the driver so they know what lies ahead, the de­gree of any turn and any ob­sta­cles. All this at light­ning speed, of­ten on gravel and some­times air­borne as they crest a rise. If the co-driver mis­cues the driver by a frac­tion of a sec­ond, the car will likely crash. The role de­mands a clear and calm head and high con­cen­tra­tion. Too much adrenalin might af­fect con­trol.

Brenda doesn’t watch the road – in fact, from her low-set seat, she can barely see over the dash­board. Her fo­cus is on the pace notes and two com­put­ers in the car. She ap­plies the same skills she uses in her job. “It’s all about plan­ning and prob­lem-solv­ing un­der pres­sure.”

Jack says her weight – 55 kilo­grammes – is also an as­set. But a co­driver also must help with main­te­nance dur­ing the race so fit­ness is es­sen­tial. Brenda walks six to eight kilo­me­tres a day; Jack bikes up to 100 kilo­me­tres and runs 70 kilo­me­tres a week.

Brenda says ral­ly­ing doesn’t scare her, be­cause the safety reg­u­la­tions are so tight. “I feel safer in a rally car than driv­ing into work. In a rally stage, there is no on­com­ing traf­fic.” There have been some near-misses dur­ing races, and a few scrapes with fences. Plus, some best-for­got­ten mo­ments, says Jack, “like at our first rally when she gave me the first in­struc­tion to go left in­stead of right”.

The pair are mak­ing their way up the rally lad­der board of the New Zealand Rally Cham­pi­onship. At the chal­leng­ing Na­tional Rally of Whangarei, they fin­ished first in their class and 14th over­all. Jack has re­cently joined rally star Hay­den Pad­don’s New Zealand team and the Pad­don Rally Foun­da­tion is one of his spon­sors. He is com­plet­ing two en­gi­neer­ing de­grees and sees his fu­ture in mo­tor­sport; ei­ther driv­ing or en­gi­neer­ing. Brenda says she’ll con­tinue to co-drive for him for as long as she can and then, pos­si­bly, co-drive for some­one else. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It keeps you in­vig­o­rated.”

Fast and fu­ri­ous: Brenda and son Jack.

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