An Interview with Carolyn Swan, Rally Co-driver

Words: Francois Steyn | Photos: Team Total and Evan Rothman

Like most forms of motorsport, rallying is dominated by men. There are a few exceptions though, for example Jutta Kleinschmidt who was very successful in the gruelling Dakar Rally, winning it in 2001. In South Africa, one such lady in rallying is Carolyn Swan, daughter of the highly respected motorsport photographer Roger Swan.

Photo credit: Team Total and Evan Rothman

Carolyn has been competing as a co-driver, or navigator, for almost two decades. She joined Team Total, a team of which currently three of the eight members are female, in 1998, and has eight national class titles to her name. She has won every class in which she’s competed (N1, N3, A5 and A6), with the exception of S2000. At the moment Carolyn is co-driver to Jean-Pierre Damseaux, son of multiple, former national rally champion. I caught up with Carolyn to find out more about the tough world of rallying, from a co-driver’s perspective.

Q: How long have you been racing?
A: I started competing as a navigator in 1993, on special stage rallies.

Q: How did your rallying career start?
A: My father, Roger Swan, has been involved in motorsport photography all my life, so that exposed me to the sport from an early age. I began competing as a driver at 21 on sealed odometer rallies, then moved to the navigator seat two years later. This laid the groundwork for getting into a special stage rally car.

Q: Were you ever and are you still sometimes intimidated by the boys?
A: I’m never intimidated ‘by the boys’, however I often feel under-qualified due to my limited mechanical ability. But I am not afraid to get my hands dirty!

Q: You’ve been very successful over the years, how do the guys take it when you beat them?
A: Guys may be unhappy when being beaten by a lady driver, but I don’t think they pay much attention when it’s a female navigator in the winning car.

Photo credit: Team Total and Evan Rothman

Q: How do you manage a day job and get time to race?
A: As a bookkeeper, I have been very lucky over the years to work with people who are connected with the sport. I freelance because I would not take a job that would not allow me to follow my passion for rallying. My clients and employers alike have been supportive of my choices.

Q: Are there unique challenges in the sport because of your gender?
A: The first challenge that springs to mind relates to the delicate subject of what is easier for men to do just about anywhere; toilet facilities are only provided at service parks. In addition, my smaller stature can be unhelpful at times when the car needs to be put back on its wheels, but when the car is in motion it is a definite bonus to be on the lighter side.

Q: Do you do any other racing?
A: Nothing major, just the odd fun event, regularity rally or sprint.

Q: Any bad crashes?
A: I have been very lucky with the crashes. I have been involved in quite a few, but all relatively minor in terms of personal injury. But crashing comes with the territory.

Q: Where do you practice your rallying skills?
A: The only way to practice is to actually do it. I do compete in sprints and regional rallies, which help keep my brain and body attuned to what is needed.

Q: Speed or precision?
A: In my view, the navigator’s role is equally weighted in terms of both speed and precision. The timing of the delivery of the pace notes directly relates to the speed of the car. Calling at the right time, with accurate instructions, is vital to the success of the team.

Q: Do you need to stay fit? If so, how do you manage with such a busy schedule?
A: Fitness obviously helps a great deal and I’m lucky to be strong enough to take the knocks of ordinary rallying. Engines were invented for a reason though and when we have to push the car, like on the last rally, I realise that there’s always room for improvement!

Q: What road car do you drive and do you drive like a maniac on the road as well?
A: I drive a 1991 Toyota Conquest RSi. It is a fantasic car and I love it. I don’t drive like a maniac, but enjoy pushing the limit safely sometimes. I believe that if you get your kicks in a rally car there is no need to drive recklessly on the open road.

Q: Do you have any racing heroes?
A: My favourite rally driver of all time is Markko Martin, and growing up in the sport my favourite local driver was Serge Damseaux. But the hero status would have to belong to my counterparts, the navigators: locally, Cindi Harding and internationally there are so many to choose from, but if I had to pick one it would be Phil Mills.

Q: Do you have any tips for aspiring lady racers?
A: To love the sport and to navigate well are two different things. The decision to be a navigator should be taken seriously. General tips include being organised, calm, unflappable under pressure and once in the car, to be your driver’s biggest fan. Not getting car sick whilst reading is a given! The primary thing you need to succeed in this sport is the desire to do it and, of course, you have to love it. It becomes an addiction.

Q: What is your next big goal in the sport?
A: I would like to win a national event, which I hope is something that will happen in the near future, and competing overseas would also be a challenge. But even without those I am very happy participating at my level and enjoyment is for me the most important thing.


Rallying is a form of motorsport that takes place on public or private roads with modified production or specially built road-legal cars. This motorsport is distinguished by running in a point-to-point format, in which participants and their navigators (or co-drivers) drive between set control points, leaving at regular intervals from one or more start points.

The driver keeps the car on the road and the co-driver’s job is to navigate. This she/he does by reading off a set of pace notes to the driver. It’s her/his job to tell the driver where and how hard to turn, as well as what obstacles to look out for. Navigators might also be required to help with road-side maintenance and changing tyres, or rolling the car back on its wheels after a tumble.