Life in the fast lane with Leyland's Formula Woman finding the drive to do things her way
Olivia Waters loves cars. She loves the look of cars, the way they feel and sound. The way they can push you back in your seat. She loves cars so much, she had a car before she could even drive. That's how much Olivia Waters loves cars.
Almost as soon as she could speak, Leyland-born Olivia could name the make and model of each car that passed her house on the main road. Her uncle worked in a car dealership and would bring a procession of different vehicles home. "I used to call him Noddy because he had a yellow MG convertible," says Olivia. "I've been into cars for as long as I can remember.
"I've always been a tomboy and I had boxes and boxes of toy cars as a kid," she adds. "I'd line them up and stage little car meets before I even knew what car meets were. It was the way they looked... I've always just wanted to drive and race cars. It's weird, I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but you won't get me on a roller-coaster. It has to be a car."
As she got older and into her teens, Olivia got into Volkswagens, watching endless hours of YouTube videos of people modifying their cars, and started going to car shows. "I felt like I'd found my people," she says of her time at events such as ‘Ultimate Dubs’, ‘Edition 38’, and ‘CumbriaVag’. "They really got me fired up and wanting more.
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"Car meets on Preston multi-storey when I was about 14 were honestly amazing - it was like going to Tokyo Drift," she adds. "Every show just had a really chilled vibe: everybody would be cleaning their cars and that smell of cleaning products still takes me back now. And people in the car scene are the most selfless people ever. Anyone will help anyone else out."
She was so desperate for her own car that her parents bought her one for her 16th birthday. "I'd spend every weekend on the driveway washing it and modifying it with friends," explains Olivia, who got driving lessons for her 17th. "It was all ready to go for when I passed my test! I remember being sat there itching for my insurance to start so I could get on the road.
"Passing was the best thing ever," she continues. "I just drove around - often to McDonalds! - and I'd want to give all my friends lifts everywhere. It must've cost a fortune in petrol but you've got to invest in your passions! I felt like I found myself."
In 2014, Olivia went to university to study teaching, but soon became embroiled in a toxic relationship which sapped her of her motivation and passion for her lifelong hobby. For the first time in her life, cars took a back seat. By 21, she finally managed to escape the situation and fled home as a single mother relying on benefits to support her and her son Archie.
"I lost myself for a time," Olivia, now 25, explains. "I was in a very abusive relationship and I lost my love of cars because I lost my confidence. I lost control so I didn't trust myself to drive or do anything really. I got pregnant when I was 19 so I couldn't enjoy the uni life because I wasn't there. I was concealing bruises and it drained me.
"When my little boy was nearly one, I decided to go back and finish my degree," adds Olivia. "No one was going to stop me; I wanted to prove to my son that, no matter what gets in your way, you never give up. I also bought one of my dream cars from when I was like 15 - a Volkswagen Golf Mk5. It may sound silly, but it was amazing.
"I bought it for myself and, even though it was worth nothing to somebody else, it meant everything to me," she says. "I started to get little bits of my love for cars back, things like getting my headlights tinted and doing other modifications. It's not a fast car but it was the fastest car I'd ever had and to feel that push back into the seat gave me a buzz.
"I felt like I was in control again."
Starting to feel like herself once more, Olivia was invited by a close friend to go to ‘Ultimate Street Car’ at Santa Pod Raceway. Initially hesitant - "the inner me wanted to go, but I was really anxious because it was outside my comfort zone," Olivia says - she nevertheless went along. She calls it 'the best decision' she's ever made.
"My best friend took me down in his Subaru and I absolutely loved it," says Olivia, who by now had started to feel her passion for cars return. "It was so nice to be back in that community only this time with my little boy, too. And he's absolutely obsessed with Subarus now!"
Sun shining, the atmosphere thick with revving engines, Olivia - by now working a full-time job in the domestic abuse sector helping other women - says being at the event gave her goosebumps. She started to attend more meets, making annual pilgrimages to Santa Pod. As she puts it, she had 'started to heal'.
The disaster struck.
"It all happened so suddenly," says Olivia. Her father, just 44 at the time, suffered a sudden, life-changing stroke as a result of a bleed on the brain. "We'd gone to the pub and got home and it was all fine but then he just dropped to the floor. Our whole life was turned upside down; mum was saying her final goodbyes to him in hospital.
"He went from life to death within seconds but, luckily, he had surgery and they managed to sort him out," adds Olivia, who says that - as a result of her own trauma - she shut down her own feelings and focused on helping others. "He was in so much turmoil in intensive care, so I just quit my job to help the family and support my mum and brothers, who are 16 and nine."
With her father now back at home and improving, the whole incident has given Olivia a sense of perspective. "It taught me that life is too short to conform and gave me a new perspective; it taught me to just do what I want to do and to not hold back," she says. "If you get an opportunity, take it because you never ever know when life's gonna change."
For Olivia, taking opportunities has been what the past nine months has been all about. Having quit her job, she started her own business and married her now-wife two months ago. She also applied for a shot at every petrolhead's ultimate dream: the chance to race.
Formula Woman is an upcoming TV series which involves women with little or no racing experience competing to win a spot in the seventh round of the 2022 GT Cup Championship driving a McLaren GT4 race car. When Olivia saw a link to apply on social media, she hesitated at first.
"I was umming and ahing about it for ages - I'm not your typical build for a racing car driver being about five-foot-one, and I was scared of rejection," she explains. "It comes back to control and self-confidence, which still plays on me all these years later. But, in the end, I just went for it."
Track assessments for aspiring participants start in September, with 16 finalists then to be selected over winter for a final 'shoot-out' which will leave six winners who will then receive training and coaching next year in sponsored Formula Woman McLarens.
As Olivia says, it's a far cry from beating someone from the traffic lights whilst singing along to cheesy noughties tunes.
"It's going to be really lovely to be around other women who are pushing themselves, so I'm hoping it's going to be really empowering," she says. "It comes back to everything that's happened with my dad: I want to push myself out of my comfort zone. It's time to start living life now, because I've had it bad.
"Driving a racing car around a track shouldn't make me anxious compared to everything else," she adds. "I've let my inner two-year-old me come out - imagine if all those years ago I'd have known I would have a chance at racing around a track! I want to do it for me because I've spent years hiding away.
"But I can't live in fear anymore and what better way to prove that to myself than by going on the telly! I've put my walls up so much that I don't think I realise sometimes what I've been through, but I'm doing everything I want to do now. And I want to empower other women to realise there's a whole other world out there.
"I want to live my life."