Celebrating Pride Month With British Racer Abbie Eaton

Eaton is making her open-wheel debut this weekend with the W Series.

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Photo: Mark Thompso (Getty Images)

You might know Abbie Eaton from her appearances on The Grand Tour, but I can guess that there’s quite a bit you don’t know about her. Like the fact that she won a racing championship with her family-owned team, or that she’s competing in her first open-wheel race this weekend with the W Series—where she’ll also be competing against her girlfriend, Jess, for the first time.

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At the start of the month, I had a chance to sit down with Abbie to chat about what her experience in motorsport has been like. I’ll admit that I was really interested in how she responded to being a gay woman in a sport that’s been traditionally composed of straight men. But I learned so much more: how her family has served as her biggest support, how she handles sponsorship and marketing as a nontraditional racing figure, and how she balances her work and her life when everything is so focused on racing.

Elizabeth Blackstock: Thank you for taking the time to talk. I think I mentioned it a little bit in my email, but I’m working with A Girls Guide to Cars, and we want to have more focus on the LGBTQ+ community and talk about it. With your success in racing and your appearances on The Grand Tour, you were the first person I thought of. I’d love to talk about your career, especially the way it intersects with your identity. Could you start with telling me how you got into racing and what it was like growing up in a male-dominated sport?

Abbie Eaton: I first got into racing—well, I was 10 years old when I started myself. But my dad always raced. He got his first bike when he was 16. So I was at racing circuits in my mum’s tummy. It’s all I’ve ever known. Growing up at the race track, to be honest, I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. It never once entered my head that it was a male-dominated thing. It was like, well, guys are just more into cars than girls. But, like, I like cars, so I want to do it.

I remember it taking a couple years of pestering my dad to get my a go-kart. Eventually, he had a sponsorship deal in a championship he was racing, and when that came to an end, he was like, right, I’ve got some time to commit to you now to pass the baton on. That type of thing.

I started karting when I was 10 for about four and a half years. The money we were spending on that, we could actually get our first race car and move into cars when I was about 15. Now, next year will be our 20th year of racing.

EB: Oh, that’s exciting. Congratulations.

AE: Long time, right?

EB: How did you balance school and life and racing? That’s a pretty tough trifecta.

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AE: Racing always came first. It probably shouldn’t have, but it did. My parents said I had to get an education first to fall back on. Yes, you’re good at racing, but you have to think logically about things, and if you haven’t gotten anything left to fall back on, you’re screwed.

I did my GSCEs, took my A-levels—basically the exams you have to do before you go into uni. I remember, I was taking my A-levels, and it was just when my racing was taking off a little bit. I found it really, really hard to focus on and put everything into doing my A-levels because I was like, I need to look at this data, I need to do this for the track, I’m racing this weekend. I remember, one of my races, I had an A-level test on the Friday, so I missed the testing for racing. I just turned up on the Saturday. And I remember, that whole time during testing, I was thinking about being on track.

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I didn’t do too bad in my exams. I did okay. But yeah, I’ve not needed them so far. It was a juggling act, but motorsport is a lifestyle, and if you want to succeed in it and you love it and you’re passionate about it, it literally is in every single part of your life. You’ve just got to embrace it.

EB: With your dad racing, that was engrained in your family. What was it like growing up in that atmosphere where racing was basically what you knew.

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AE: It was just a lot of fun. Even now, looking back on it, I realize what a childhood I had. Friday to Sunday, at the track with my dad and my mum. Without having that, I don’t think I actually ever would have spent that much time with my dad, if I didn’t have motorsport.

When you’re competing professionally and taking it seriously, it teaches you a lot of life lessons. You know, the kart might break and it’s something out of your control, and you have to deal with that loss. You might be winning like Max Verstappen [at Baku]. He was awesome. He controlled the race, it was a done deal, but something out of his control ended his race. And it’s how you deal with those setbacks.

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Equally, you might win, you’ve got to learn how not to gloat. Which, like, as a 10 or 12 year old kid, it’s tough. I loved it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I couldn’t imagine not growing up in that atmosphere.

EB: That sounds amazing. My family loved racing when I was growing up, but we never went to the track. The first race I went to was when I was 18. I can’t even imagine what a great time you had.

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AE: I remember when I was really young—probably preschool—when my dad would go racing, I’d go away with him on the weekend. So we’d go away on Friday, then I’d obviously have school on the Monday. And I’d be like, “mum, no, I’m tired.” So I’d get the morning off on Monday. Oh, Abigail’s sick, she’s poorly today—on Friday while I’m on my way up to Scotland with my dad to go racing.

EB: That’s the dream. So you initially came out on Twitter, I guess kind of unceremoniously? After there were accusations of homophobia directed at the cast members of The Grand Tour. What prompted that decision on your part?

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AE: I’ve never hidden the fact that I was gay, so I never actually came out. I’ve been openly showing photos and referring to my girlfriend and stuff for years and years. I came out when I was 16 or 17. It wasn’t difficult for me to defend them or anything. Actually, I was just being jovial and taking the mick out of the whole situation. And it was all like, “Oh my god, she’s come out on Twitter.” Like, if you actually looked at my social media, I’ve not been hiding anything. I’ve been posting date nights with my girlfriend, blah blah blah. I think the press just like to create a story out of stuff. They can’t help themselves.

Obviously for me, working on The Grand Tour, yes, maybe they pushed boundaries on some of their humor and stuff like that. But I’ve never once been offended by any of their sketches or their jokes. Even with Top Gear, before they went to The Grand Tour. I think the world is always looking to be offended by certain things. Just like Jeremy takes the michael out of James, he takes the michael out of himself. He’s the first to be, “blithering idiot,” “big, middle aged fat man.” It’s a TV program at the end of the day, and it’s there to entertain, and I felt it was unjust the grief they were getting. So I just said, funny that, they’ve got a gay as their driver. And then media freaked out.

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EB: Well I’ll admit that I was one of the people who had no idea—I’m sorry! ...What was it like working on The Grand Tour? I’m sure it was awesome exposure, but it was just a lot of fun watching your appearances.

AE: It was good fun. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work with Clarkson and the boys. I grew up watching them. Sunday night in the UK would always be, sit down with the family and watch Top Gear. To work with them is something really cool. Not only that, but the certain cars I had the opportunity to drive, I would never have been given that opportunity without given the job. I’ve been really lucky and very appreciative of the chance I’ve had.

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EB: You mentioned that you came out fairly young. Would you mind talking about the support network you had that enabled you to share your identity with everyone?

AE: For me, when I was younger, as is probably the norm, I was quite scared about it. I was really worried. I had it in my head that companies… well, being a female in a male-dominated sport, if you’re fast and you’re good looking, you’re more marketable. So I was really worried that, if I came out, sponsors would look at me and be like, “Well, we can’t market her because, ideally, we want the Danica Patrick type stuff from back in the day. All the men want to date her, and blah blah blah. I was really worried about that.

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It took me a while to be comfortable in myself. I think it was more, if I was comfortable in myself, none of that would have mattered. Once I accepted it, then I’m quite thick-skinned and quite strong-willed, so I didn’t care about anything else. I was like, I’m fast enough on the track. If people want to sponsor me and partner with me, then it’s because I’m fast on the track. I can hold myself well, I can talk to people, I can represent their company in a positive way. Fast forward to now, there’s this massive push with diversity and inclusivity and all that. If I was now a 16 year old kid, then I would be much more comfortable to come out.

EB: I was going to ask, the culture has evolved pretty significantly in the past few years. What has it been like to be part of that change?

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AE: I haven’t really acknowledged that I’ve been part of it. I’m there to drive fast and compete and win races. I think it was when I was about to join W Series and Matt Bishop, who was the head of communications at the time, said look, I’m helping this Racing Pride organization. I’d love for you to be involved.

My initial response was, I don’t want to be part of it if I’m being forced to say, oh, there’s all this homophobia and this and that, because I’ve been lucky. I’ve not really experienced that much of it. I haven’t experienced any homophobia, full stop, in motorsport. I didn’t want be associated with stories that I haven’t experienced myself. But I know from other people’s experiences that I’ve just been really lucky.

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I said to Matt, I said, if I can be part of it with my little profile that I have, if me just being authentic and living who I am—if that helps someone, then of course I want to be part of Racing Pride.

EB: I really love the way that the organization has posited itself as a positive and doesn’t unduly focus on the negative. Like, you can do this, too.

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AE: It’s just more educating people. Especially since people are so worried of saying the wrong thing that they don’t say anything at all. So if we can educate people on what’s the right way to converse with someone, or how to do it without making the other person uncomfortable—but also the person speaking, they need to be comfortable and not worry that they’re offending someone. That’s what we’re here to do.

EB: I’ve followed it since it first started, and it’s just been so great to see it evolve. Especially with the push of allyship and going beyond just being specifically the LGBTQ+ communities and expanding to allies. That’s what needs to happen with motorsport, since the community is probably not as hip to some of these concepts as maybe some other parts of society. Especially in America.

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I’ve talked to a few other LGBTQ+ drivers who feel like their experience of motorsport would be totally different if they had been straight or something else. Do you have any special way you feel like your identity intersects with your career? Or has it just not occurred to you? Some drivers feel it’s really important, and some drivers just aren’t really bothered.

AE: I think more the latter. It’s a part of who I am, but I’m not defined by my sexuality or by the fact that I’m a girl in motorsport. I’m all those things, lots of different things, and as long as I’m fast, then that’s all I care about. I know there are other drivers—a friend of mine, like Charlie Martin, for example, she’s a real activist for trans rights, so she uses that alongside her career. They help each other. Her career will help the task she’s got ahead of her, and that’ll make everything better. The two bounce off each other. For me, personally, it’s just who I am. I’m just me.

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EB: I love it. I don’t want to pry too deeply into your personal life, but your partner is also a racer. That’s a very demanding job. How do both of you balance your work and your life when you’re both part of this super demanding sport?

AE: For me, previously, motorsport is very niche. It’s very demanding, as you said. You don’t really understand the workings of it unless you’re in motorsport, so previous relationships I’ve had have ended because they just can’t wrap their head around the fact that it is my life and my life revolves around motorsport.

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Whereas with Jess, she’s doing the exact same thing as me, pretty much. We both get it. We’ll be at different race tracks, and I won’t hear from her most of the day, but because I know she’s doing this and that. Whereas other people I’ve dated that have been out of the industry, they’re like, why aren’t you responding? It’s just understanding and trusting each other. So far, it’s been awesome. We’ve really been enjoying how it’s all working.

You know, we haven’t really had to race against against, which will happen in a few weeks’ time, it’ll be our first race against each other. That’s another dynamic we’ll have to get our heads around. I just want her to succeed and do well, and she wants the same for me. If we can both be at the sharp end of the grid then we’ll both be happy.

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EB: What moment in your career has made you proudest so far?

AE: Probably when I won the MX-5 Supercup Championship because it was the last year that I raced with the family team, and it was a real nail-biter of a year. It was highs and lows all year. My dad basically built the car and engineered it along with my mechanic Chris and was there supporting all the time. My uncle Matt was team manager, and it was all a family-run thing. We ended up winning the championship. It was so nice being able to sign off that kind of era of family-run stuff with something so special. I was the only girl on the grid, and there was 38 in total, I think. So, it was something really cool and special to do. So being able to share that with my family is something I’ll always treasure. If I could bottle up the feeling I had at the end of it, I’d be a millionaire.

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EB: Aside from your family, who were your mentors? Or even just the racers you looked up to when you were growing up?

AE: When I was growing up, I watched F1 in the era where Michael Schumacher was dominant, so I’d always look at him and think I wanted to be as fast and as successful as him. Obviously my dad, from my dad’s racing. As a young kid, you look up and think, wow, he’s invincible, he can do anything. And a lot of the V8 Supercars drivers from Australia. They’re absolutely outstanding drivers. What they do in the car and how they make the car dance is just awesome. Those as well.

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In terms of female drivers, there wasn’t really any I could think of at that top level that I wanted to emulate because they weren’t winning at the time. All I wanted to do was win, so I’d support the drivers that were winning.

EB: My last question is, what are your hopes for the future. Your goals and where you want to be in five years.

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AE: Very, very rich, probably. I’ll have even more trophies in the cabinet.

In the short term, W Series is a brand new challenge for me. I’ve never raced formula cars or single-seaters. My learning curve is very steep this year. I’m viewing the next year as a learning year, then hopefully make it to the next year to go for the title.

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I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve had loads of opportunities in different championships, and I want to keep building on that. I’d really like to go out to America and do some sportscar racing out there. We’ll see how the next few years go. Then we’ll see what seeds I can sow out in the US.

EB: Do you have any bucket list races you want to do above any others?

AE: I want to race at Bathurst in Australia. That’s on my bucket list. And that’s pretty much it. That’s what I want to do. Everything else, I’ll take it or leave it.

DISCUSSION

By
Donkeyshins

Abbie Eaton is a hell of a driver and I’m happy that she’s been able to find a wonderful intersection of career, passion, and personal life.  Good on her.