Inside Revolution: A Lifetime in Motorsport with Val Thompson

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

Val Thompson is an inspiration for anyone who wants to get the most out of motorsport. The Loughborough Motor Club Committee member has been a lifelong rally fan and over the last four decades she has experienced the discipline in more ways than you might think possible. 

Thompson began to get an interest in motorsport from watching rallying on television, and she did not attend her first live event until she was 20 years old. In 1982, she headed up to Yorkshire to watch the 1982 Mintex International Rally and she recalls: “The first car I saw through the stage was Hannu Mikkola in the Audi Quattro…” 

The ‘flying Finn’ was renowned for his car control and at that time he was trying to tame one of the first Quattros to grace a Rally stage. The four-wheel-drive monster had been introduced on the world stage just a year before and would later become one of the most legendary cars of its generation, arguably ever. 

The vision of Mikkola steaming through the Yorkshire forests was immediately unforgettable and Thompson adds: “Glowing red brakes, the smell of hot mud, that was it. From that moment, I was absolutely hooked. I had the fortune to meet Hannu later in life and I just said to him ‘thank you very much, because seeing you has given me a lifelong passion.’” 

Thompson left that forest in Yorkshire with a keen interest, and a desire to get more involved in the sport but concedes that at the time she “never knew how to” until she and her now ex-husband became friends with a near neighbour, who had built his own Ford Escort competition car and directed them to their local Club. 

“I wanted to learn more about the sport, so we joined Eastwood Motor Club and that just opened the door for me,” says Thompson. “I started marshalling and a while later we moved over to Lincolnshire, which at the time was quite a hotbed of rallying. Through contacts we had made, we got involved on the service side of rallying. 

“We would go out into the service area on the events to help with changing tyres and things, and that gave us another completely different perspective. We ended up meeting some lovely people and my ex-husband started competing. Then we moved back to Leicestershire, found Loughborough Car Club and they have been an absolute inspiration.” 

First Steps

Marshalling proved to be the perfect route into the sport for Thompson. At the time, she was not confident in her ability to get inside the cockpit, but the ability to socialise with people at the club and get a taste of the action at the side of a rally stage gave her that ‘insider’ feeling that is not possible as a spectator.

“The Club was really good at introducing us to people and when we talked to them it really opened a lot of doors to some great opportunities,” she says. “They were very, very active in marshalling and the Chief Marshal would just round up people and we would all go out to help on all sorts of rallies.

“During the season, we would be busy all the time having weekends away marshalling all over the country. It was a great group. We had some great laughs, it was absolutely brilliant, and the more fun you had, the more you wanted to do it!”

Clearly never one to stand still, Thompson soon found ways to progress up the ranks in the world of marshalling. Having started on flags on different corners, she got involved in running time controls and then managing the start and finish of stages, building her experience, and becoming increasingly engaged with the competitors.

“I really loved that because although I was learning there was always someone there to help,” she adds. “I was never thrown in at the deep end, there was always someone to talk it through with. By that time, I already had quite a good idea, but to actually be involved was still a massive learning process”.

Although Thompson did eventually go on to tackle rally events from inside the cockpit both as driver and co-driver – more on that later – she continues with her marshalling still and has built her skills and qualifications up to international level, getting involved on the world stage in the World Rally Championship Rally GB in all its different guises.

She continues to enjoy getting out on the marshal posts, but acknowledging the fact that even just standing on the side of a rally stage can be a physically exerting experience, she is now pursuing a new route to keep herself involved in the sport, training to become a Motorsport UK Steward.

“Once I can no longer get in and out of a rally car safely, I still want be involved, so that is what I am doing now,” she says. “I have done one event so far, basically shadowing another Steward and learning the ropes slowly, looking at what happens and starting to write reports.

“It is all very, very new to me at the minute but it is a side that has always interested me and it draws on my experience from both marshalling and competing. I can come at it from both sides, and that really helps.

“It is just about giving something back and finding another different way to get involved in the sport. What I particularly like is that I am now looking into different disciplines like Circuits, Karting, Hill Climbs and Sprints. I want to do it across the board so I can find out more about other disciplines and see what other people do.”

The Competitor

It was more than sixteen years after that first fast-flashing vision of Mikkola’s Audi Quattro that Thompson found herself inside the cockpit, competing on an event for the first time – and to do so, she threw herself right in at the deep end, by entering the legendary Jim Clark Memorial Rally in Scotland.

Her early lack of confidence was cleared by a change in her personal life and the belief of a marshal friend, Neil Dodd, who she had met out on the stages. Dodd had decided to enter the National Tarmac Championship but was short of a co-driver and all it took for Thompson to enter the next phase of her motorsport journey was a bit of practice.

“I had always fancied a go at co-driving, but I had deliberately chosen not to do it so when Neil came to me and said, ‘come on, you can do this.’ I said ‘no’ at first, because I thought I was no good,” she admits. “He had co-driven as well as driven and he was sure I could do it, so I sat and talked it through with him and he was a massive help to me.

“There were a lot of co-drivers in the Club, so I rang some of them and one or two realised I was very new to this and promptly came and helped me. I decided to go for it, I did a few practice sessions with Neil in a road car, reading notes, then we went and did it! It was sink or swim. That was in 1998 and I’ve never looked back – in fact, I eventually married him!”

The closed road event through the Scottish Borders was so challenging it secured British Rally Championship status the following year. It was not the easiest event for a rookie co-driver, but the pair made it all the way to the finish in their Peugeot 205 GTi. In an event that saw almost 40 percent of the field retire, that was pretty good going.

It is no surprise, then, that her debut event was one of her three most memorable moments in a rally car, and another on that list is her first outing in the Roger Albert Clark, another gruelling event that involves five days of rugged rallying and aims to recreate the iconic RAC Rallies of the era when Thompson’s passion for the sport began.

This time she was alongside David Kynaston in a Triumph TR7 V8 and she recalls: “That event was absolutely awesome. Rallying pushes you around a bit, and people do not realise that. It was really hard work, and I was absolutely exhausted once we had finished it, but I loved it and it was seriously memorable.

“I have done it twice since and each time I have really had to step it up and make sure I was absolutely at the top of my game. It is not just preparation of the notes, I have had to be physically and mentally fit as well, so I keep myself fit, going to the gym. And as you get older, it gets harder, but if I am going to do something, I have got to do it at 150 per cent!”

In the last 15 years, Thompson and Dodd have gravitated towards closed road rallying and although there are hopes that these types of events are beginning to grow again in the UK, their prevalence in Continental Europe has seen the pair regularly travel to Belgium for their in-car adventures.

“I just love tarmac, I absolutely love it, and when we go over to Belgium there is a great camaraderie and friendship,” she explains. “Quite a few British competitors go over there, and the Belgians make you so welcome. It is a great laugh, and it just shows that rallying cuts across any language barrier.”

Thompson has even got behind the wheel once or twice, but she still prefers her original role and adds: “I got frustrated because my husband was reading the notes and I was starting to pick up his mistakes! In the end I decided to stick to co-driving, but I will drive again at some point – an airfield event, not forest stages – just to say I can still do it!”

The Organiser

Motorsport, like any sport or business, relies on the experience of people like Thompson, who have spent a life learning through their involvement. To that end, she has always been keen to be a part of her Club Committee, helping it continue to run successfully and also simply because she enjoys that side of the sport too.

Her involvement started earlier than most, however, and she recalls: “It was only two or three years before I got into the Committee. I am an organiser by nature, and I think that was spotted by [Club Director] Richard Egger early on. I can see his point. If you have got someone who is good at organising, give them something to organise!

“There is nothing better than doing a good job, I enjoy doing that! I have always been involved and I am now Membership Secretary and Secretary at Loughborough. I really enjoy the Committee meetings, helping to run the club on a day-to-day basis and talking to and encouraging members.”

As an organiser, however, Thompson has demonstrated that you do not need to restrict yourself to just supporting your own Club and events. Recently, she has spread her organising net across the entire country, having been in high demand due to her love – and immense knowledge – of closed road rallying.

Recent changes to the Highways regulations have opened up the opportunity for more Clubs to explore the opportunities to put on closed road rally events in their area. Thompson reveals that she is now “involved in most of them” trying to impart some of the best practices she has learned from her time competing in them overseas.

“It is a growing thing, and if we can build that side of the sport up again, it brings more competition back into the UK,” she explains. “I am the Entry Secretary on the Clacton Road Rally, I was Entry Secretary on the Snetterton Circuit Rally, I was CRO for Clacton, East Riding, and I will be on the new South Yorkshire closed road Rally in December, so I am fairly active!

“If I can help to build up closed road rallying in the UK, get the events to a good standard and get competitors to understand it, that would be fantastic. It is completely different, a different mindset. You are very much in the public eye, so you have to be aware, be careful and promote the sport.

“Aside from the Jim Clark, I am yet to compete on a closed road rally in the UK, so one day I hope I will get to do one over here. I am hoping it grows. They are seriously hard work to put on, and we are never going to have as many as they have in Belgium, but I do not think we need that many. We just need a few quality events, and I think it is heading that way.”

Back at Loughborough, much of Thompson’s current work is on Competitor Liaison, and that has connected her to the next generation coming through the sport. She works hard to offer the same experience as she had in her early years, spending time with newcomers at the Club and at events to help them understand what opportunities are out there.

Through that, however, she has seen how attitudes are changing, and she explains: “I get to talk to a lot of competitors and when I meet the younger ones I always say ‘if you want any help, ask me, I am here to help you get through and finish the event’ but nowadays a lot of people seem to do a few events and think they know it all!

“I have been doing this for 25 years now and there is always something that will happen that I genuinely have no idea about, so you have always got to be wary. I love it when younger people come and pump me for information, but currently those moments are in the minority because a lot of people just go back to the Internet.

“But rallying is the one sport where competitors will help each other, no matter what. I am still nothing like as experienced as some of the other guys, and I will still go and ask a question if there is something I am not sure about. I am getting people asking me now, which is great, and I am more than happy to share tips.”

There is no denying that the world has changed, not just in motorsport but across the board. Social media has steered many people to connect more online, rather than in person, but that does not mean there is not the same appetite for getting involved, it simply means a new way is required to engage with the new generation.

Many Clubs are starting to get involved in running Demo events to showcase what they do outside of their existing boundaries. Clubs can also benefit from even just having a presence at bigger UK motorsport events, where crowds of fans attend but, like Thompson back at the start, do not know how to get more involved.

“I do think that motorsport as a whole could benefit from a bit of flag waving at events where people are there in numbers,” she agrees. “I think that would actually help a lot. It is just about making people aware of what is out there, but also Clubs then need to make it easy for people to get up and out and take part.

“In the summer, for example, at Loughborough we run grass Autotests. We normally get about 35-40 entries, which is pretty good, and the stipulation is that you have to drive your car there. It is not a competition car, it is a normal road going car, so anyone can just come and have a go.

“Over the years, those events have been really successful and very popular and we are just launching them again for this year, doing seven in total. I know other Clubs may not have the membership, manpower or location to put events like that on, but if you can find a way to do it, I think it can just open up that door.

“That is why also I love the closed road rallies – because they are a great showcase for the sport. It doesn’t have to be Hannu Mikkola you are watching, it just has to be someone doing something interesting with a car and it can spark someone’s interest.

“When I first saw that car, I would never have dreamed where it would lead me 40 years down the line. What I am doing now, the people I have met and the friends that I have made, that is the one biggest thing that I would take out it: a lifelong friendship.

“And the more chance we have of putting motorsport within general life, the more people we can attract. Even if after one event we get just one person joining us, then that event has peaked somebody’s interest. And that, to me, is a success.”

If you would like to emulate any of Val’s motorsport adventures, Motorsport UK can help. Visit the Get Started page here. Here you will find information on how to become each type of official and marshal, plus a ‘What type of volunteer are you?’ quiz that can steer you towards the right role for you – the one that should give you the most enjoyment.

Discover more from Revolution