There was one thing, aside from their deep-rooted love of rallying of course, that connected the three A-list panelists at last weekend’s DirtFish Women in Motorsport Summit – and that wasn’t lost on Rhianon Gelsomino.
“It’s interesting, all three of us have something in common,” she said. “Our fathers really got us into the sport.”
‘All three of us’ being Gelsomino, Pernilla Solberg and Michèle Mouton. Quite some trio!
But the point was interesting. Mouton, a World Rally Championship event winner; Solberg, a multiple world champion as a team manager and a class-winning driver in her own right; and Gelsomino, the 2021 American Rally Association co-driver champion, were all inspired to get into motorsport by their dads.
“My dad was a driver in 1970s, so motorsport was really close to us and also in the area we had the Swedish Rally,” Solberg shared.
“We had a lot of stages where I grew up so motorsport was around us naturally. Then my father stopped driving and I got out of it, and started with horses, did something completely different.
“And then when he turned 40, my dad got a car, like a veteran car to drive in the veteran championship in the historic class. And I said ‘I really want to try and be your co-driver, can I join you?’.
“So I did that when I was 15, 16 and just loved it. The kick from the stages, watching him drive. When I was 18 and went for my driver’s license I said ‘you know what, I really would like to take my own license, I want to try and do this on my own’, just to try it to see if I like it’.
“And I loved it, I was hooked. So I sold the horses! That’s how I got into the sport.”
Mouton’s interest in rallying was a slower burner, but again her father was influential in introducing it to her.
“My family were growing roses and jasmine for perfume in the south of France,” Mouton said.
“I was a very active young girl, I started to drive [when] I was 14, I wanted to move the car. For me the car was freedom, independence, travelling around the world. That was the presentation of a car for me.
“And then I had to wait until 18 to get my license, but motorsport I didn’t know, my family was not involved at all and at age 22, during a rock and roll competition – sorry but it’s true! – a friend of mine, the one I was doing the competition with, told me he was going to Corsica for a rally.
“What was rallying? He explained to me, my eyes were so big that he said ‘OK, if you like it so much, come with us’, and I spent all of Corsica Rally in the back of the car looking at the driver and co-driver, what they were doing, I was really excited.
“After the rally he was not matching very well with this co-driver and he said ‘I can see that you like it, why don’t we try to do Monte Carlo together as co-driver with me?’. Well of course I never thought that Monte Carlo was something critical, the first event, you know.
“My father was following us during two or three rallies that I did as a co-driver, and I would have spent all my life as a co-driver if one day my father didn’t say ‘I know you like to drive, I’d prefer to see you driving than to stay co-driver’. So he said ‘I will buy you a car, I will pay for a one year program, there is rallies with women only, so you will do first the rally for women to see the level you have, then you will do the most difficult rally in France – that was the Tour de France, a very long rally with mixing stages and racing circuits – to see the level you have to reach’. Then at the end he said ‘but if you are not good enough, you will stop’.
“I thought ‘hmm, I will show you maybe that I’m good!’. I had a very cool dad who didn’t think at all about gender, not at all, and that was my first team manager and my first sponsor.
“So like this I started motorsport. I just have to add that a few years later, I realized, because thinking about how I started, I realized that my father would have loved to do what he proposed to me, he couldn’t do it anymore, he loved cars.
“And he would have loved to do that, and he proposed to me what he couldn’t do himself, so it was good, very good. Rhianon, it’s your turn!”
I thought ‘hmm, I will show you maybe that I’m good!'. I had a very cool dad who didn’t think at all about gender, not at all, and that was my first team manager and my first sponsorMichèle Mouton
“I come from a motorsport family, my dad started speedways and then he went to rally,” said Gelsomino.
“Two of my brothers are rally drivers, one of my brothers has raced all over the world, over 80 rallies together, so that‘s pretty cool.
“For me I was doing some karting and some autocross, and then my dad said ‘you’re the perfect size for a co-driver!’. I was like ‘what does that even mean?’.
“My dad’s co-driver used to say it’s better to have a fat co-driver going the right way than a skinny co-driver going the wrong way! So I was like a little bit confused because my dad said I was the perfect size. So anyway, I don’t know what that means!
“Then I started to learn, dad put me with fast drivers immediately that he’d been racing [with], and he was like ‘well, I’ll put her in with these people and if she’s good enough then she can keep up, she can start racing with her brothers’.
“It was definitely something that my dad gave me the idea of as well, so I feel very lucky and blessed that I had that opportunity through my family, that’s for sure.”
But the key message from all of those introductions was this from Gelsomino: “I think the three of us were very lucky that we had fathers that never worried that we were young girls growing up, they just said ‘here’s this opportunity, you should try this’.”
It sounds really obvious, but the effect parents can have on their offspring – at any age – is profound. And it isn’t about parents forcing their daughters down a particular route, it’s about showing them that everything is possible, and more pertinently nothing is impossible, says Gelsomino.
“I think it all starts from home,” she said.
“As parents, it’s important that you raise your kids knowing that anything is possible, it doesn’t matter. So don’t raise your little girls thinking that motorsport isn’t an option for them. You know what I mean?
“I was raised knowing that I can do anything I want to do. And I may have been a tomboy – who cares? Like, who cares if I was a tomboy? I was playing in the mud when the other girls might have been putting on make-up, but did it really matter? No.
“My mom and dad never, ever told me I couldn’t do anything, and I’m so grateful for that. And I think it’s really important as parents that people raise their kids to know that you can be whatever you want to be.
“It just takes hard work, it takes sacrifices. And us three were willing to do that. So many people that say, ‘you’re so lucky’ to me, they’re not going to sacrifice.
“We’ve had so many people come and train with us and they’ll say to Alex [Gelsomino, husband and fellow co-driver] and I, ‘oh two professional co-drivers, I could only wish’. And I said: ‘oh, do you want to quit your engineering job that you get paid $100,000 a year to take that risk?’. Because we had to take a risk.
“I was paid well as a PE teacher in Australia, teachers get paid well in Australia. I took a risk to quit that job because of my passion to race.
“So it’s about sacrifices, taking risks, you know, and also as parents raising your kids that it’s OK to do something different. You know what I mean?
“You don’t have to be a nurse, you don’t have to be this or that, you can be whatever you want to be, but you just have to work hard.”
“Yeah, work hard,” she added.
“And from my side, as you said, I mean, to raise a kid, and my parents never showed me any fear or any scaring side of my sport. They always trusted me.
“My mother was asked ‘you are not scared to see your daughter?’. She said: ‘yes, I am scared that she doesn’t pass when I am going to see her at the numbers [sic: time] that I was coming. But I never thought she could have an accident, or she could be hurt’.
“They didn’t give me this feeling of ‘be careful, be careful’, or ‘you are doing a very dangerous sport’. I mean, I got this trust to help me a lot to exactly what you said, to do what you wanted and to use all your ability to push back your limit, your own limit all the time, without having somebody telling you all the time, ‘be careful, it’s dangerous’.”
Solberg added: “My parents were the same, and even my dad was my first co-driver when I started.
“I remember him saying afterwards while he went out of the car, ‘we were coming downhill, and I saw this corner at the bottom and I thought, this will never work!’. He never said anything, and then he said, ‘you took the corner perfectly’.
“And I thought: OK that’s my time now, I’ve done it. And he never… him and mom, they never said anything that it wasn’t possible, we couldn’t do this or that. We had motorbikes, we had motocross bikes, we had horses.
“We did it all, and again, I’m so grateful for what they did and what they showed us that it’s possible. Also looking back at how I… when Oliver [Solberg, son and WRC driver] wanted to start in motorsport, we lived in south of France, in Monaco at that time.
“I took him to go-karts because Petter wanted to train and I’d trained, so we did a lot of go-karting ourselves. And Oliver didn’t… he wanted to go there and play with the other kids.
“[We’d say] ‘Oliver, come and join us’, [and he’d say] ‘no, no, we are playing,’ so OK, I thought maybe he’s not that keen. And I took him to so many different sports.
“It was dancing, theatre, tennis, football, ice hockey. He loved it all. But then again, it came from him that he wanted to keep driving and he wanted to choose that. I said ‘we can’t do all of it, we can’t do football in the summer, ice hockey in the winter. You have to choose a bit more now’.
“And then he said, ‘OK, motorsport, I love it’. I said, ‘but you know, you don’t have to do it because we are doing it’. [And he said] ‘mom, you’re so stupid!’.
“For me it was also good to hear that from him that that was truly his passion. It wasn’t driven from us, but we of course supported him and loved it that he wants to do it.”