Charlie Martin hurtles around the racetrack, her gloved hands gripping the steering wheel with only blond hair visible from the top of the driver’s seat. She zooms underneath banners emblazoned with the logo of the 24 Hours of Le Mans motorsport race, her focus unbroken. Eventually slowing to a halt after a 30-minute run, Martin unbuckles her seatbelt. It’s not a helmet that she takes off, but a VR headset; not a racing car that she lifts herself out of, but a state-of-the art simulator at Cranfield Simulation, an aerospace facility about two hours north of London.
The simulator is just one of the many ways Martin, 37, is preparing for the biggest race of her career so far — and the chance to make history. She plans to be the first transgender driver to ever compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France — one of the world’s most prestigious motorsport races. Her journey begins June 15, where she will compete in the Road to Le Mans race as part of the Michelin Le Mans Cup, marking the start of a three-year program setting her on the road toward the 24 Hours race, and towards making LGBT history. Her story is a rare one in a sport not known for its diversity, and comes at a time when many transgender people are facing a rising backlash for their participation in different sports.
In recent months, several high-profile athletes including tennis champion Martina Navratilova, Olympic medallist Kelly Holmes and long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe have questioned the “fairness” of transgender women competing in elite sport. In 2017, researchers at Loughborough University found that a majority of international sporting policies including the International Olympic Committee and the Rugby Football Union were unfairly discriminating against transgender people, particularly transgender women. And in the U.S., transgender student athletes have faced vitriol and even legal attempts to prevent them from competing in sport.
“There’s no argument about the positive effects of sport, like belonging to a team, and the health benefits,” says Martin, who first fell in love with motorsport when she was eight years old. “To deny that to people is incredibly damaging. I don’t think some of the people who are pushing this argument really understand the impact of what they are doing.”
Growing up in Leicestershire in the English Midlands, Martin first wanted to be a fighter pilot, before shifting her attention to focus on cars and racing. “It’s been the biggest passion in my life,” she tells TIME, sitting among several car models after her first training session of the day at Cranfield. Since buying her own racing car at the age of 23 (“a Peugeot 205,” she recalls), Martin has spent the majority of her life being in and around cars and motorsport.
Now she’s setting her sights on one of the sport’s most legendary races: the 24 hours of Le Mans. Called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency,” the race runs over the course of 24 hours around a punishing 8.5 mile long track in the northern French town of Le Mans. For many drivers, competing at the 96-year-old annual event is the pinnacle of their racing career.
“If someone had told me 10 years ago that I was going to attempt to race the 24 hours of Le Mans, I’d say forget it. If someone had told me 10 years ago I was going to transition and be my true self and race, I’d say what planet are you living on?” Martin says. “But now, it feels very real. It feels very possible.”
Martin remains determined to pursue her goal, to compete in the main Le Mans event in 2022. But first, she will compete in this year’s support race, the Road to Le Mans as part of the Michelin Le Mans Cup, which takes place on the same track as the main race in front of an international audience from June 13 to June 15.
There are several challenges when it comes to endurance racing. Martin’s upcoming race consists of two one-hour long races, with a driver change in the middle. Training the mind to concentrate on keeping up pace and consistency for one solid hour is difficult, as is dealing with difficulties like slower cars, blind spots and traffic.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” she says. Coming to train each week in the simulator for a couple of hours at a time is the closest thing she can get to practicing in the real car, which is based in Luxembourg. Currently, Martin is part of a family racing team with two brothers, David and Gary Hauser, based in eastern Luxembourg. The team also has a 50/50 gender split, with men and women making up the drivers, engineers and mechanics all contributing to the race. And although her training is largely solitary, the draw of the sport for Martin is the teamwork. “Here, the whole team has to work together in endurance. It’s an incredible feeling to be working hard for the same goal.”
As well as the physical and mental test of training for the race, Martin has come up against financial obstacles too. Because of delays in negotiations with backers, Martin has been forced to crowdfund before heading to Le Mans — a source of stress no driver wants to face in the weeks leading up to the race of their life. (She is hoping to raise $63,000).
But the biggest challenge she’s overcome so far is the decision to transition, she says. Having known she was trans since childhood, Martin experienced severe depression and was suicidal by the end of 2011, after racing for around six years. “I would look at myself in the mirror each day, and I just didn’t know who I was any more. I had lost all sense of connection with my identity.”
Following the experiences of YouTube vloggers who were documenting their own transitions online, Martin was inspired to begin her own transition and decided to put her motorsport career on hold during 2012. She considered leaving the sport entirely, fearing that people might make fun of her and that the activity she loved the most might become the thing she hated.
“For me, transition was the hardest thing I could ever attempt. I had no idea if it was going to go well or badly,” she says. Yet when the British racing community welcomed her back upon her return that September, and when she made a full return to the sport by racing in France in 2015, she felt overwhelmed by the support. “Coming out the other side and feeling that I’m alive, I’m happy, I found what I needed. That’s an incredibly empowering feeling and it made me feel like: What next?” Boosted by this new sense of confidence, she began pushing herself further in the car, improving her performance and earning spots on the podium at races.
However, Martin knows that her experience of being a trans woman with the support of her sporting community is not universal. “The discrimination towards the trans community right now is really tragic, and really damaging,” Martin says. “I think it creates a toxic environment for people; this isn’t just about trans professional athletes. This is about anyone who likes sport, whether they’re a fan, someone who plays football with a local team, someone who wants to go to their local pool or gym.”
The current atmosphere has fueled Martin’s ambition to increase trans visibility in sport and society to empower others. “We should be free to be who we want to be in our life, and do what we want to do. Nobody should limit their vision of what’s possible in life just because of how they were born.”