As part of International Women’s Day, Hagerty is giving a platform to women driving change. Catch the other stories in this series and read about the most significant women to have influenced the automotive scene, and what can be done to encourage more women of all ages into the automotive space.
Podium-winning kart racer, award-winning community hero, anti-bullying campaigner and budding entrepreneur who is funding her motorsport career by upcycling old pistons and tyres. Thirteen-year-old Catherine Potter is an impressive young woman.
For three years the Durham-born teenager has been tearing round the racetracks of Britain, fighting for her place on the podium, and for recognition that she has the right to be there just as much as the boys.
“Apparently a girl shouldn’t be at the top,” says Catherine, who is so fast that she has been accused of cheating. Her dignified response is to keep it clean and carry on winning. “People think I can’t do it because I’m a girl. Well, if they are going to keep saying it, I’ll just go out there and keep beating them. I’ve got talent and they can’t change that, but I can try and change how they think.”
It was on Catherine’s tenth birthday that she first got behind the wheel of a kart, and it wasn’t long after that she entered her first competitive event. “The best way to learn is to go straight into a race,” she says. “Even if you come last.” Her trophy collection is evidence that this rarely happens.
Conscious that her success on the track was putting financial pressure on her parents – “when I started getting better, I realised it was getting quite expensive for my mum and dad” – Catherine’s youngest sister, Elizabeth, 7, helped her come up with a solution: to repurpose old racing tyres into clocks and sell them to the local community.
They gave their project a name, Retyred by Catherine, and set to work in the back garden of the family home in Bowburn. “The clocks were really popular,” says Catherine, who has two other siblings, Rebecca, 11, and Thomas, 9, a fellow kart racing champ. “I was making quite a bit of money to pay for my racing but then everything got cancelled because of coronavirus. I was upset, but I thought we’ve got to do something good during lockdown.”
Catherine’s “something good” was to find a way that upcycling initiative could help her community through the pandemic.
Her idea, enabled by the generous donation of more than 100 tyres from a local race track, was to make swan-shaped garden planters that could be donated to the elderly and self-isolating as well as hospices, care homes and hospitals.
Catherine’s family rallied together, each taking on a role in the production line – from shaping to painting and planting – and as support for her endeavour grew, and the tyre planter designs became more elaborate, Catherine was able to sell some and use the proceeds to pay for community projects.
“We made a bench for the youth centre and raised enough money to put hanging baskets all the way round a local care home,” she says. “I cried a couple of times because people really appreciated what we were doing and some were quite lonely so it cheered them up. There was one old man, he loved his garden, but he was too ill to leave his room so we made him a planter painted as a strawberry so that the carers could take into his room and he could water it.” Catherine’s ongoing efforts have been recognised by the community, with Durham City Police awarding her a “Community Heroes” accolade. As one local resident comments, little things mean a lot.
With kart racing scheduled to return in the Easter holidays, Catherine is working even harder to top up her savings to fund the season ahead and supplement the shortfall in sponsorship opportunities as a result of the pandemic.
As a goodwill gesture, a local business owner is providing a steady supply of scrap parts from his workshops so that Catherine can expand her range of recycled products. With a distinctive industrial steampunk aesthetic, new creations include pistons that have been repurposed as phone holders and sculptured to look like skulls with cavernous eye sockets and tiny rows of teeth.
“I’m also experimenting by fusing sprockets, gear chains, nuts and bolts together to create heart-shaped wall hangings and free-standing sculptures,” says Catherine, whose pieces are becoming more intricate, in part, thanks thanks to the donation of a MIG welder by a Facebook competition winner, and some tutorage from the popular YouTuber, Barbie the welder.
So far, Catherine’s inventiveness has paid for the second-hand chassis in which she will make her junior class Rotax Mini Max debut, but, sharing the good fortune, she’s brought her brother Thomas a new set of tyres.
With aspirations to make it into the top three this season, Catherine feels empowered to continue her battle against bullying both on, and off the track. “In the past, I kept getting bashed off and called names,” she says. One incident was so severe that she was treated for shock after her kart was totally destroyed. Post-rebuild she had to run with a metal bumper to better protect her when she was rammed.
“She was in a bad way, in an ambulance, the safety equipment saved her,” says David Potter, Catherine’s father, who puts the mental and physical welfare of his daughter above all else. “I thought right, no more karting, she’s too precious to me, but she just gets back out there and fights, and fights, and fights. If it’s a good result it’s a hug, if it’s a bad result it’s a bigger hug. The ramming and bullying has been stamped out so now the kids can just go and enjoy racing together.”
Securing first place at the 2020 Teeside 200cc Sprint Series Cadet Championship is the win that Catherine considers her most memorable to date – she was the first girl to ever take the title, and she did it in memory of Charley Law, a 12-year-old girl who took her own life because of bullying.
“I wanted to help her parents raise awareness of their campaign, so I covered my whole cadet kart with anti-bullying stickers and had a photo of Charley on the front panel,” she says. “We crossed the line together and I won in her name.”
Although Catherine feels able to use phrases she heard in the past such as “my boy shouldn’t be beaten by a girl,” as motivation to win, she is aware that others may not deal with bullying in the same way.
By spreading the anti-bullying message amongst her peers – “some people don’t really listen to what the parents say; when it’s someone their age they might listen more” – and supporting the campaign being led by Charley’s parents to have the law changed which would make it a legal requirement for young people to get mental health support more quickly and effectively, she hopes to make a difference.
Juggling motorsport with school, Catherine is hoping to take an extra GCSE in Business Studies. “I like to make sure my work is done, and to a good standard, because if the racing or the business collapses, then I’ve still got my education.” Her ultimate dream is to compete in cars, and she’d like to make a clock for her hero Guy Martin, but keen to lift others as she climbs, she makes time to coach new starters and give her younger brother, Thomas, a few pointers. “She’s like a mother duck leading her ducklings,” says David.
When discussing her achievements Catherine talks with an admirable degree of modesty. She is the type of person that inspires you to be brave and chase your dreams, but to find ways to be a better human whilst you’re doing it. She attributes her accomplishments to one thing: determination.
She is an example to us all. She is the girl who can, the girl who does, and the girl that goes above and beyond.
Keep up to speed with Catherine Potter; visit her website for the latest information.