Perched upon the side of the A6105, on the edge of the Scottish Borders town of Duns, lies a local car dealer: Aitken-Walker Cars.
And that’s precisely where I found myself last Tuesday, but not because I was in the market for a new car. Instead, I was there to see one of the most inspirational figures ever to compete in the World Rally Championship.
It isn’t quite the setting you’d expect to find a world champion, but Louise Aitken-Walker isn’t your average world champion.
Rubbing shoulders with Ayrton Senna at the FIA’s annual prizegiving in 1990, Aitken-Walker acts as the ultimate proof that gender is absolutely no obstacle to motorsport success.
Despite growing up in this very same town, this was the first time I’d met her, at least properly. Husband Graham Walker – proud as punch – set up the interview and has already shown me a professionally-produced documentary, narrated by the legendary Tony Mason, made to preserve his wife’s rallying achievements, and all the memorabilia around the showroom when I arrive.
I’m caught gazing at some of the paintings, press cuttings and awards when Aitken-Walker introduces herself to me. I turn around, and within seconds she says: “Have we met before?”
We had – back when I worked as a press officer for the Scottish Rally Championship and her daughter Gina was competing, we had a brief conversation at the signing-on desk for the Scottish Rally. I’m a bit stunned that she recognizes me.
“I’m good with faces,” she assures me before we each pull up a chair and begin what can only be described as a conversation, not an interview.
That's the type of person I am. If I want to do anything, I want to win it.Louise Aitken-Walker
Perhaps Louise and I have a lot in common. We both love rallying, that’s a good start. One of her sisters, Judith, used to be a lifeguard at the local swimming pool I frequented as a child. She worked alongside my mom there, as well as at a play area and cafe just outside the town.
But it’s remarkable that she felt so relatable. Sometimes when drivers reach the summit of their world, their humility can get lost in the crossfire. Not Aitken-Walker. She’s just been mucking out her horses, living a normal life before buckling up for a trip down memory lane.
“It was great for me, they were great days for me,” she smiles. “If I was to forget all that it would be sad, but I remember some of the laughs we’ve had and some of the fun and antics that we got up to, you can’t do that anymore in sport. It’s all gone.”
Aitken-Walker’s journey began in 1979 when Ford ran a ‘find a lady driver’ competition, and her brothers put her forward for it – much to her surprise.
“When they entered me for that competition I just kind of sat up and thought ‘oh, this is not such a bad idea after all,'” she recalls.
“My parents had six girls and two boys. The two boys were motor mad and we were horse mad. And me being the youngest of the six girls, it was just automatic that I would go on to ponies, ponies, ponies.
“That was my love at the start, and I’ve tripped up on into motorsport – which is a nice thing to do but God it was hard going sometimes; good and bad. I’m glad that I stuck at it. But that’s the type of person I am. If I want to do anything, even with a pony, I want to win it.
“You know, some people are just bred for that, they’re just so enthusiastic about it. I wouldn’t go out of the way to bend the rules or anything like that, I’ll do it as fair as possible, but everybody wants to win. I suppose that’s with coming from such a big family. You were the youngest and you wanted to prove that you were as good as them.”
That’s a mantra that would fuel Aitken-Walker’s entire rallying career. Some male noses were put out of joint as she quickly took to rallying and began upsetting the perceived status quo – none more so than on the 1983 Peter Russek Manuals Rally.
“[That was a] massive, massive moment. If you’d ask anybody who was to win the rally, they would put me in the top 20. But bear in mind I had just won the Group 1 championship and I thought I could walk on water. But at that level, sometimes you have to be like that, your mind has to be like that, or you’ll get nowhere.
There's nothing more satisfying than being the underdog and coming up tops. That's what competition is all about.Louise Aitken-Walker
“I said to my boss ‘please let me have this car, please let me have a shot.’ And I said if I don’t win I’ll pay for everything. Well, I couldn’t. I worked for him at the time, I nannied for him at the time, he thought ‘hmm, well, maybe’ but the amount of publicity that he got out of that was amazing.
“And I just was there in the right time, the right place and everything went right that day. There were a lot of folk that just kept their mouth shut that day, but there’s nothing more satisfying than being the underdog and coming up tops. That’s what competition is all about.”
An underdog is a good way to describe Aitken-Walker’s career in the ’80s.
Whether it be giant-killing in a little Peugeot 205, regularly beating her team-mates in the more powerful 309, being thrust into the rough and tumble of the British Touring Car Championship with Vauxhall and finishing a hugely impressive fourth or her eventual success in the Ladies’ World Cup in 1990 with next-to-no WRC experience (which you can read about in-depth very soon on DirtFish), she was always up against it in one way or another.
But it’s impossible to ignore the impact she’s had on rallying. Just like Michèle Mouton had, Aitken-Walker proved that you can be whatever you want to be, even if it seems impossible. She certainly inspires me, and I’m very sure I’m not alone on that front.
“I would like to think, it would be very nice [to think that I have left a legacy] but I don’t see it that that was my job. I wanted to tell everybody, women especially, that if you get the bit between your teeth it’s possible to do whatever you want to do but I don’t know if I influenced people or not, I just never thought about it really,” Aitken-Walker says.
“I just got on with the job, life was too complicated as it was and PR, I found it quite difficult at the start and I was trying to teach myself – but I just wanted to drive.
“I just wanted to get in that car, shut the door and woosh, off we go. I was no hassle to anybody else!”