For this week’s Sunday Social we spoke with Maria Costello, who was the first female solo racer to stand on the podium at the Isle of Man when she took third place in the Ultra Lightweight category at the 2005 Manx Grand Prix.
In her time competing on the island she has won eight Manx Grand Prix silver replicas, as well as one TT bronze replica. In 2009 Maria was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
You’ve been on the racing scene quite a while now. How did you first get into bikes?
“I used a bike to get to work on over 20 years ago. It was a mode of transport.”
How did you progress into racing?
“I got knocked off by a driver with dodgy eyesight and I bought a race bike with the compensation money.”
Did you think it was safer than road riding?
“No I just wanted to go racing, I still had a road bike.”
Do you ride on the road much today?
“No not now, but that’s for different reasons.”
Did you always want to go towards road racing?
“No not always. It wasn’t until I had one as a mode of transport that I started thinking about it. Happen. In fact I promised my mum I’d never go road racing. She said ‘you’ll never go to the Isle of Man place will you?’ I had an inkling about it because I knew of Steve Hislop but it wasn’t on my radar but in my first year of racing I got asked to join Sandra Barnett. Her and her husband wanted to put an all-female team together.
"If you look through your archives there’ll be a three-page spread on it from a million years ago! Basically they put an all-female team together of Bridget McManus, myself and Sandra Barnett. Sandra went to the TT and we did the Manx Grand Prix. My parents came to the launch of that and I hadn’t told my mum I was doing the Manx, so when Peter got up and talked about us doing that she walked out. She wasn’t best pleased I was going road racing!”
Did she ever come round to it?
“She’s had 20 years of it so I’d say she’s kind of come round to it.”
It didn’t take her 20 years did it?
“Probably. It has been a difficult journey for her as a mum having her daughter do an unusual sport. I think the MBE helped them understand that I hadn’t been wasting my time. They didn’t think it could be a career. I guess when royalty recognised it they perhaps thought it was ok and I’d not been wasting my time.”
After the Manx you went to the North West and did quite well.
“Yeah, I was third in the 400 class. It was a mixed class race I think.”
Was that the point you thought you could crack on with the road racing?
“I think I was already thinking that. Three laps in at the Isle of Man and I knew I liked it.”
What is it that you like about road racing compared to track riding?
“It’s the feeling you get from racing on a real road but more than that it’s the people, I’ve never met more welcoming people. I did fall in love with it, despite the injuries and I find it suits me and I enjoy it more than maybe short circuits. It was more affordable and I had more opportunities in road racing.”
How has the perception of women changed in motorcycling? Do you feel it’s getting better?
“There’s more women, but it would be great to see more. I’ve seen more come in to the sport and they are competitive and proving that we can compete on equal terms. But I’d like to see more, I wonder, can you name 10, I bet you can’t.”
Do you feel there’s less prejudice?
“Racing’s hard to get into for anybody. It’s maybe harder for parents to put their young daughter into motorcycling, they might not see it as a career or a hobby even, so there’s less girls coming onto two wheels, at an early age. There are more, definitely there’s more, so it’s changing. It’s hard for everybody to get sponsorship, maybe it’s slightly easier if you’re female, I can only say that hard work and success pays off no matter what your gender is. I’d like it to get to the point where there are so many women on the grid that it’s not any different and it is more equal in all of those aspects. We’re a long way off from that. There are a lot more women competing in all disciplines but we’re still a minority.”
Do you think there’s anything we could change now to make it easier for women to get into racing?
“I think what needs to happen – and what is happening – is that we need to highlight what women do in the sport, and showcase how successful women are in the sport. We should use those women as positive role models and then the young girls will realise they can be motorcycle racers. It was kind of like that for me – I was already 19 when I saw Sandra Barnett racing at Mallory Park. And I thought ‘if she can do it, then I can try.’ I think it has to be visible, it has to be seen, and that’s going to play a big part in parents seeing girls and women that can do it and to show it as an option through other girls that maybe haven’t thought about it before. We need to push that more than the guys because it just happens for them. It’s socially acceptable that guys go racing so we just need to make it more so for women.”
You do quite a lot of work with your women only track days.
“Yeah, there’s lots of different things going on. I’m fiercely protective of the fact that women compete on equal terms in motorcycle racing, and that’s why it’s great to be part of the FIM Women in Motorcycling Commission. Obviously, there are female races in other disciplines but I know we are capable of being successful against the guys on equal terms. I also think there is a place for ‘women only’ grass roots training, which is where my track days come in. I don’t want to see women only races on the track but I do think there should be more support for women at entry levels, in fact all levels.”
Kiara Fontanessi’s just won the Women’s Motocross world title for the fifth time, but you’d prefer to see her race against men?
“I’d like to have a conversation with her to find out if she does want to compete against the guys. I don’t know if she does. The majority of girls that are competing are more than happy to compete against guys on equal terms. I don’t think there are not enough of us to make a ‘women only’ race that’s credible, you know, rather than it just be a bit of a sideshow.
"The European Junior Cup had a women’s class within the class, so the girls could still compete on equal terms against the guys, but then also gain points in their own championship and highlight how they were doing and in tern gain more visibility and generate more interest and inspire more women to participate. I think that works. Training in ‘women only’ groups is good to bring on women as it provides that more welcoming environment, less ego. The atmosphere on a women only track day is very different. That’s why it works, really, because those women gain more confidence on their motorcycle and can then go and ride out in groups or with their partners, which they didn’t feel confident to do prior to that. My trackdays aren’t necessarily about going racing, they are about gaining confidence although some of the ladies have gone on to race on both two and three wheels. Ultimately, you’ve got to be a certain person to go racing, that’s just across the board.”
Would you like to see something in the vein of the Distinguished Gentleman's Ride to get women on two wheels more exposure?
“Well that’s something that women can get involved in anyway, but yes, why don’t we have something for women’s health. It would be great to do something like that, let’s start it up, maybe with the cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel!”
Have you seen any of the women on your track days progress into racing?
“Yes, Donna has gone on to get her licence and is racing in an endurance team, another, Kerry has gone onto become a successful sidecar passenger. That’s not the goal of my track days, I want it to be for complete novices to use the track as a controlled environment to gain more confidence on their motorbike. So it’s not all about going fast, but we cater for all levels or rider on every type of motorcycle.”
Have you seen an increase of the number of women in motorcycling overall since you started?
“That’s 20 years so yeah. The increase isn’t big enough, though. I think it’s way more visible with social media, and you can see what women are doing a lot easier. I’m always trying to keep an eye on what’s going on in that respect, I try and share as much as possible on my Woman on a Motorcycle FB page.”
What’s the plan for the next few years?
“It’s that time of year when it’s all up in the air and I’m excited about the plans coming together for 2018. I’ve loved my rookie year on my sidecar as part of the JG Speedfit/Cool Milk team but I adore solo racing and I’ll be planning on doing as much as possible next season.”
You also did some film work as a rider double, how was that?
“I’d done a bit of TV stuff on a mountain bike for a TV series, and the stunt girl there was asked to do this particular job but she didn’t have a bike licence so she got in contact with me. It was bloody brilliant. It was only riding around on a scooter but it was really good fun and the crew were amazing. There was one day they closed the roads in London and the producer said ‘right, we’re going to put the camera on the ground and we need you to pass it as fast and as close as possible.’ That’s exactly what I did and they said between laughing ‘OK, you got this but that’s too fast for us, this isn’t the TT, Maria”. It would be cool to do some more stuff like that!”
You used to do a bit of work for us not too long ago as well, I remember you taking part in a 125cc sportsbike group test for MCN about a decade ago!
“Yeah, how did you remember that? I used to do loads of stuff for the magazines, it also tied in with when I worked for a motorcycle clothing and accessory company, I loved doing that too.”
Do you ever find riding on the road that you have to reign yourself in a bit?
“No, I get to do real road racing elsewhere, road riding is a different enjoyment.”
Do you miss it?
“Yes, I’d like to do more road tests. Does Emma (Franklin, MCN Consumer Editor) still work there? She was quite against my women only track days I think. Some women are, maybe it’s something if you’d asked me about early in my career I would have been against it as well, but now I see that a lot of women can benefit from it and there’s lots of positives to come out of it, the feedback is really overwhelming, that’s why I continue them as I get a lot of requests for it.
"I really wanted Emma to come on one of my track days to see how it worked. I understand that it’s not for everyone. I possibly wouldn’t have gone on one because it wouldn’t have been to my benefit but it works for lots of women. The wonderful feedback I get at the end of the day and the smiles, you know, you can see how their confidence has grown and they’ve just had a great day.”
Do you come across that opinion fairly regularly? That some women don’t want women only track days?
“It’s not massive and I get it, I understand it. They’re coming from this place where they feel accepted and they don’t need that female environment, you know, they can ride a bike, they’re confident. So I get that but it’s just a shame they can’t see past that and that it works for others.
"Guys were against it as well. They didn’t think it was necessary. But how do they know?! They’re not a woman who struggles with confidence and whose bike sits in the garage all the time because they’re too scared to ride it. Don’t get me wrong, though, there’s loads of guys that support it. A lot of the women that come along bring their partners and they always think it’s amazing. I’m glad I persevered because the pluses absolutely outweigh the minuses.”
How are the track days going to evolve?
“It would be great to get them bigger. This year was a real struggle to get anything to happen, partly because I was busy with the extra sidecar racing as well, but eventually I got something sorted thanks to a sponsor of mine – Hel Performance. I really wanted to make one happen and it was great, even though we had less than a month to promote it but it was practically full and we had one of the best days.”
Would you like to expand into off-road days or something like that?
“Yes, I’d love to. I’m shocking on dirt, but super keen to learn myself. I know some great women off-road riders and it would be great to get them involved and have them coaching. Trials, dirt track, it would be great to do it all. Maybe I’ll find a way to get some of that happening.”
Were you aware of Camp VC earlier in the summer, an all-female camping weekend?
“No, I wasn’t, but it has a place, that’s for sure. You know, it wasn’t possible to do these things before – there weren’t enough women or there maybe weren’t women that could coach others. But now these things can happen and that’s great.”