Trans auto racer Charlie Martin on her love for “Top Gun,” being a role model & nearly dying behind the wheel

Trans auto racer Charlie Martin on her love for “Top Gun,” being a role model & nearly dying behind the wheel

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It took only one weekend to hook Charlie Martin on auto racing. The trailblazing driver attended her first race with her best friend and his father as a pre-teen, and instantly fell in love with the buzz and adrenaline around the track.

From then on, she became obsessed with the sport, biding her time until she could sit behind the wheel herself. A British native, Martin passed her first driving test at 17, and started her legendary run in motorsports at age-24. She purchased a beat-up Peugeot from her friend’s dad, a car that “wasn’t even road legal,” as she told Pink News.

But just as Martin was finding her path, she was dealing with personal turmoil and tragedy. Her father passed away when she was 11 years old, and her mom died when when she was 23–seven years before she decided to transition.

“It was incredibly scary,” she said.

When Martin publicly came out as transgender at 30, she stepped temporarily away from the sport she loved. Though she spent almost the entirety of her adult life behind the wheel, she was certain her fellow drivers would shun her.

“I was convinced that I would never be accepted in the drivers’ paddock,” she said in an interview with BMW. “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.”

Nearly 12 years later, Martin is glad to say she was wrong. The road wasn’t easy: she did lose friendships, and remains one of the few out LGBTQ+ pro racers in the entire world.

But through it all, she’s continued to break barriers. Two years after transitioning, she became the first out transgender person to compete in the The Nürburgring 24 Hours, a legendary endurance race that takes place in Germany. Drivers remain behind the wheel for 24 whole hours, and the winner is whoever travels the longest distance.

Now, her goal is to make history as the first out trans competitor in Le Mans, an iconic 24-hour race that’s held in France. If past is prologue, it’s only a matter of time before Martin crosses that threshold, too.

With race season starting next month, Queerty recently caught up with Martin to chat about her life as a trailblazer, burgeoning modeling career and, perhaps most importantly, her wonderful girlfriend. Here’s what she had to say…

QUEERTY: What piqued your interest in auto racing?

CHARLIE MARTIN: I originally wanted to be a fighter pilot, thanks to Top Gun, but [my passion] morphed into motorsport thanks to Greg Bibby, the father of a best friend who raced vintage cars. I was around nine when I first went away for a race weekend with them, camping and spending the whole weekend in the paddock bump starting old cars. I just loved the buzz of being in amongst it all, the noise and also the feeling of a community where everyone knew each other. It was very friendly. That and the PlayStation. I was hooked on games like Gran Turismo!

You’re a trailblazer in your sport. What does that mean to you?

It’s not something I ever set out to be, but it means a lot to know that me being visible in motorsport can help create more awareness and acceptance, and hopefully pave the way for others to follow in my footsteps. Apart from the cost of competing, my biggest obstacle was a lack of relatable role models–either female or LGBTQ+– to show what was possible, so I view the role of a trailblazer as just that: inspiring others by showing what is possible.

How is auto racing in terms of inclusion, and how can it improve?

In the U.K. we’re making some good progress thanks to a few things. The governing body, Motorsport UK, set up an [equality, diversity and inclusion] committee and works with various communities in the sport to effect positive change. Organizations like Racing Pride have helped bring LGBTQ+ people together, too, and this in turn has empowered greater visibility. People within the community are seeing that support is out there.

There’s a lot to do still, but it feels like we’re making important steps forward. It’s also powerful seeing elite drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel standing up for LGBTQ+ rights in Formula One. We simply need more of all the above on a global scale, and more proactive ally action to drive acceptance.

What’s the scariest moment you’ve had behind the wheel?

Last year, I had a close call at Valencia, when the car ahead of me braked for turn one at around 160 mph and went straight into the barriers, rolling about five times before coming to a halt on its roof. The car in front of him dropped oil in the braking zone, and there was no way he could have known. It was like an explosion with bits of bodywork and wheels flying everywhere… the worst crash I’ve ever seen! Had I been 100 meters further ahead, it would have been me. The driver was fine thankfully, but the car was totaled.

You do a lot of modeling, and look gorgeous in your shoots! What do you like most about getting in front of the camera?

Thank you! It’s fun, if a little nerve wracking at times, being in front of the camera. I guess I’m more used to being in a race suit! It’s funny to admit that I feel more comfortable driving bumper to bumper at twice the speed limit than in front of a lens!

I recently signed to SUPA Model Management, which is passionate about greater diversity and representation in the fashion industry, and it definitely helps having a great team working alongside me. SUPA connected me with the amazing stylist Sinead McKeefry, who’s dressed me in some gorgeous outfits. She’s helped to build my confidence and sense of style, which makes going on a shoot really enjoyable, too.

I see on Instagram that you have a beautiful girlfriend! How did you meet?

Aww, she’s gorgeous, isn’t she?! We met two years ago on a queer night out at a club. It was funny, as I think literally everyone there felt super awkward. It was most people’s first time in a big venue post-pandemic. She spotted me, wandered over and kissed me, a pretty brazen move that won me over. I love romantic gestures! I was moving to Brighton and I’d been there about five minutes when this all happened, I believe sometimes fate has a plan for you.

What do you like to do together?

She’s a personal trainer and boxes, too. We love the outdoors and love sporty activities like working out, cycling, climbing, trail running, hiking, you name it. I taught her to surf, which was a challenge, as she couldn’t swim when we met. I told her to just hang onto the board as it floats and you’ll be fine–sorry babe! But she loves it now, and we’ve met an amazing community through the Queer Surf Club. We just booked a snowboarding trip to the Alps, which I’m so excited for!

What are your favorite activities away from the track?

I love good food and cooking, weekends away, being in nature, shopping, spending time with family and friends, relaxing together in front of Netflix. Trail running is probably my favorite thing to do on my own, and it’s where I do my best thinking, I love meditation, too. I bought a stand-up paddle board last year, a we’re both early risers. Getting out on the sea first thing in the morning, cruising along as the city wakes up and people rush to work… it’s the most zen way to start your day.

What’s next for you this year?

We’re just starting testing for the race season, which starts in mid-April. This year, I’m returning to compete in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe with my teammate Jason Keats. This is a huge year for me, as we’re supporting the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. It’s as close as you can get to driving in the main race and a pivotal step for me. It was 2017 when I made it my ambition to make LGBTQ+ history as the first transgender driver at Le Mans. It’s one of the oldest and most iconic races in motorsport. Over 300,000 people attend each year.

Getting to drive there during Pride Month proves I’m getting closer to my goal, and helping to inspire hope and acceptance on a global scale at a time when trans people are being kicked out of sport.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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