TEENAGER Ellen Donnelly is hooked on racing karts. So much so that the Castlemartyr youth hopes to one day make a career in racing and eventually become a professional driver like her idols — Tatiana Calderon, Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton.
“All my life I’ve loved cars and speed,” she said. “I was always watching car shows and I always knew all the badges on cars, and sometimes I could even tell what kind of car it was when it started up.
“I think everyone in my family always kind of knew that I would have something to do with cars or mechanics, but I don’t think anyone thought I’d be driving something this young because none of us even knew about karting.”
In fact, she’s the first in her family to have an interest in the sport.
In May last year, Ellen, who was just 14, started out in ‘fun-karts’ at tracks like Watergrasshill kart track, Kiltorcan race-track in Ballyhale and an indoor track in Waterford — but she soon developed a need for speed.
Mum Therese said: “She had pestered me for a long time to get information about the faster karts on the bigger tracks, after stumbling across a Motorsports Ireland karting event in Watergrasshill one Sunday.”
Therese found it hard to source information about the sport, so she asked around and even wrote to chef Rachel Allen, whose son Lucca is involved in the sport.
Then Ellen travelled to Athboy in Meath to test a kart with Norris Carey Motorsports — NCM Team — run by Noel Carey and Ken Daly.
“It was the best thing that I’ve ever done, it was like nothing I’ve ever felt before; the speed was like nothing I had ever felt before,” Ellen said.
“I did my first race only after being in a kart — that wasn’t even mine — twice and it was a great experience, even though I had no idea what I was doing! But that was probably the best thing as I had to learn really fast.”
Ellen picked up two trophies at the Leinster kart Summer championships, races where she was thrilled to just finish.
Her next challenge was the Leinster Winter Championships, having already competed in the Summer Championships.
NCM said that she was ready for the Motorsport Ireland Championship in 2020.
“Karting is the first step of any Motorsport so if I do good in karting I will be on my way to having a career in Motorsport,” said Ellen.
“The dream 100% is to become a Formula 1 driver— we can all dream big but racing super cars would be amazing too.”
Racing is not the most common of hobbies among teenagers, but it’s one Ellen and her mum are encouraging other girls her age to consider.
Therese said: “Nicci Daly from FormulaFemale.org is promoting the next generation of females into motorsport and she has been very helpful.
“Sometimes you just need to show the boys that they don’t run the place and girls can be just as good as them and better than them.”
“It’s also just such a good sport in general, but you need to really like it because it’s a quite expensive sport and you need to have the determination if you really want to make it.”
A CHALLENGING SPORT
When Ellen tells people she races, they usually think she’s talking about go-karts.
“Most people usually don’t get what I mean when I say I race; they automatically think go- karts as anyone would and don’t realise how fast and serious the sport actually is until they see a race, and they are amazed.”
The teen races an Alonso Kart with an iame X30 engine, which is a 125cc 2 stroke water-cooled engine.
“X30 is one of the hardest classes in karting in Ireland. The age group is from 13 to 16; it is very fast and could go up to 110 kph.
“I have learnt a lot about different parts and tools that are needed for the kart and I am looking up a lot too about tyre pressures and different types of chains and sprockets, which is all new to me.
“You have to be sharp and be able to make quick decisions and be on your toes at all times, in case someone in front of you brakes.
“You (also) need to know what way you’re going because if you go into them, it more than likely means you’re out of the race.”
You need to be very fit too.
“It’s an intense sport and very physical — it might look easy, but when you’re pushing to the limits behind the wheel, it’s not easy at all.
“I could name everything physical you have to require but there are a lot of mental things too, like you have to be confident in yourself — which I’m kind of learning to be, and karting has really helped.
“And you need to be able to clear your mind because once you get into your kart you should not be thinking about anything. You need your mind to be clear, to be able to focus.
”Even if you know you’re not going to win a race, you always have to get out there and be the best you can be, not the person in front of you.”
Ellen is not the only Corkonian making headlines in Irish motorsport. she says fellow Corkonian Kayleigh Cole, who competes at a senior level, had a great 2019 also. And the support is welcome.
“Also on NCM there are three other girls, Laura, Eimear and Amira, who all had another amazing year and are all so helpful with me starting out.
“All the people are so nice, they all treat you like family.
“I had no idea what I was doing and everyone at NCM is always up for all my questions and they always believe in me!”
Now Ellen is looking ahead to a Motorsport Ireland Championship 2020 race.
“This is the top competition in Ireland and as this is the case it gets more expensive to compete at this level,” Therese said.
“We have already secured some sponsorship — two local companies have already gotten on board and we really appreciate that.
“One has sponsored our new tyres for next season, another has contributed to race entry fees — everything counts, a lot of tyres are required!”
Racing has also meant making sacrifices for the teenager. Instead of shopping for new clothes, any spare money goes into the motorsport budget.
And, according to her parents Therese and Martin, homework and study comes before everything associated with racing.
Ellen admires many F1 drivers.
“Tatiana Calderon because she races in F2, against an all male grid and she isn’t letting that stop her one bit and I really look up to her.
“Lewis Hamilton because he has broken so many records in racing but also because he uses his platform to try to better the world.
“Ayrton Senna because he was such a real racer; he didn’t take anything from anyone, he never got too cocky, he was always able to judge a gap and he always went for it.
“And, with all his money, in his years, Brazil was in a very bad way and he always went back to help the poor.
“Also, Nicki Lauda. because you can’t mention any F1 legends without saying his name — he had the mind of a true scientist, he always knew what was wrong with the car, or how to make it faster, and it always worked.
“He had one of the biggest accidents in Formula 1 ever and was told he was going to die because his injuries were too serious, but he fought through it and had the greatest come-back ever.”
Injury is something Therese worries about, for her daughter, she even finds it hard to keep her eyes open when supporting Ellen from the sidelines.
She added: “I’m very proud, it’s very satisfying to see Ellen out on the track — whether its racing or on a test day.
“She knows she has a long way to go, but her determination is unbelievable. Ellen just comes alive when we are on or about the track.
“It’s nerve-wracking, as, in a race there are quite a few racing at speed, but I have improved, I can keep my eyes open now for all the race!
“But I probably will have my fingerprints embedded in the fence at the Athboy Track!”
Ellen said: “I have met so many great people this year and every one of them has been so helpful towards me in my first year.
“I have made some of the best friends ever because we all have that one thing in common which is karting and it is so nice to be able to bond with someone over something you love, I have met people that I could call family.
“Speaking of family, I would be nowhere without my family, my mom, who does everything for me and is always one step ahead of me, and my dad. We are both gym crazy which has definitely helped me this year because the kart is so physically demanding you need to be so fit for it.”