Echo Sport Replay: Daly – The rise of the Green Army and lighting a path into motorsport for women in Ireland
By Stephen Leonard
NICCI Daly has never been one to simply sit around and while away the time.
Although the fallout from the global Covid crises may have seen a normally packed diary for the 32-year-old Edmondstown woman dramatically reduced in content, she is hopeful her life will soon return to its standard frenetic pace.
Nicci Daly and her Ireland international team mates
Indeed the former Dublin senior footballer is at the centre of a major drive to bring about a significant increase in the participation of women and girls in motorsport by way of her ‘Formula Female’ and ‘Go Girls’ initiatives, the latter being run in conjunction with Motorsport Ireland.
Add to that, the fact that the Ireland Senior Hockey international is hopefully poised to play her part in the Green Army’s Olympic Games campaign in Tokyo this year, and it is very easy to see just why time has proven such a precious commodity for the motorsport data engineer.
More than proficient at most sports in which she has competed, Daly is a natural all-rounder, but was ultimately forced to forego a path that would have likely led to All-Ireland success with the Jackies in preference for a journey that took her to a stunning silver medal at the 2018 Hockey World Cup in London and later Olympic qualification.
Having recently returned from a warm-weather camp and five-match series against Spain in Murcia with the Ireland squad, Daly spoke to The Echo about that watershed moment in her career and the subsequent adventure she embarked on as well as her ever-present love for motor racing which has moved her to introduce a wider female audience to the sport.
“In 2009 I played National League with the Dublin football team and I also trained with the Irish hockey team at that stage” recalled the Loreto Hockey Club player.
“I had to just make a decision and I remember meeting with both coaches. Dublin were obviously championship and my hockey coach at the time said ‘We’re looking to qualify for the Olympics and really that was the first time I had heard that.
Analysing data with Juncos Team owner Ricardo Juncos. In an effort to introduce more women to motorsport, Daly has set up the ‘Formula Female’ and ‘Go Girls’ initiatives, the latter being run in conjunction with Motorsport Ireland.
“I didn’t even realise hockey was an Olympic sport and that kind of stuck with me. It was like ‘Oh we’re going to the Olympics’ I was so naive at that time. The way he said it was like ‘Oh we’re going to the Olympics.’ Little did I know it would take ten years to qualify and get there.
“I’m grateful I got the experience of the football and got to that level.
“Obviously it would have been nice to have been a part of Dublin’s success in recent years, but then I wouldn’t have won a World Cup silver medal and I wouldn’t have qualified and hopefully go to an Olympic Games.
“After I committed to hockey we went to the qualifier for the London Olympics in March of 2012 in Belgium. We got to the final and we played Belgium, but we were no match for them. We lost 3-0 and we got hammered off the pitch.
Edmondstown woman Nicci Daly endured her share of heartbreak with the Ireland Senior Women’s Hockey squad before she and her international team mates rose from those dark depths to capture a stunning silver at the 2018 Hockey World Cup and later secure qualification for the Tokyo Olympic Games
“I was such a young player at the time. I didn’t really have an impact in the games. I was just delighted to be there because I was only in the team maybe two years. It didn’t really feel like I’d missed out on going to an Olympics in that year.
“Then we got a new coach in 2013. His name was Darren Smith from New Zealand and he really just changed the way I viewed the game and I really made a step-up in my ability as a player I think.
“But we started terribly [under him]. Our first tournament with him was in January 2013 and we failed to get through the first round of the qualifier for the World Cup and we also got relegated from the European A Division.
“So we really hit rock bottom. It was the worst we’d performed in a long time, but I think it was just the whole transition. He wanted us to be more of an attacking team which meant we exposed ourselves a lot more in defence.
Nicci Daly with the Indy Lights Juncos Racing team at a pit stop in Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama in 2016
“But then 2014 was really the start of our rise I think.
“We went to a tournament called the Champions Challenge II for teams ranked between 8th and 16th in the world and we were ranked 15th so we were the second lowest seeded going into that tournament, the same as what we were going into the World Cup [in 2018]. We got to the final and we finished second again.
“So then the Olympic qualifiers for Rio came around in 2015. We played so well in that tournament, we topped our group and beat teams ranked ahead of us.
“China ended up finishing last in their pool which was totally unexpected given their ranking. We topped ours so we ended up getting China in the crossover. So finishing top was the worst thing that could have happened to us.
“We were the better team against China by full time. When you look at the chances we had, we should have beaten them. But then it went to a shootout.
“It was one v ones and we took it to sudden death and it was the width of the post that we lost by.
“It was devastating because we really felt that that was our time. No other Irish team had played as well as we had or grown as much or progressed as much as we had over those few years.
“We all felt like that was it. We’ll never get to an Olympics, we’ll never get another chance like that again.
“I suppose after that there was a decision, ‘Do I stay on for another cycle?’ I think because everyone else was staying on and we were like ‘No, we can’t let this be the end of the journey’, I stayed on.
“And everything that has happened after that is kind of mad. When you can find that little bit of success it really does drive the team on.
“To be honest, in my ten years of playing, the World Cup in 2018 was the first competition that we got to play in where there was nothing on the line. I mean every major tournament that we went to, we were going to either try and qualify or we were going there not to get relegated, but nothing could happen to us in this tournament.
“There was no expectation on us. This was the World Cup and getting there was the hardest part. Once we got there it was about enjoying it, but also about knowing that we can knock over a few of these teams and we know we will.
“It was just amazing to reach the final. We were getting a medal. All we had to do was stand on the pitch against Netherlands and we’re getting a medal. It was like ‘Is this really happening?’ It was just never expected.
“We didn’t have any understanding of the level of support we were attracting back home because we were all off social media. We just wanted to continue trying to play our best hockey. We had no idea what was going on back home and the reaction when we got back was incredible.
“Our run towards the Olympic qualification double header with Canada was a little bit more low-key I think, because we had one qualifier where we were the highest ranked team and that was purely because we had jumped from 15th to 8th in the world after the World Cup.
“Then we got Canada and we knew they were good. They were getting better and growing as a team.
“We didn’t play pretty hockey over those two games and again it came down to a shootout, but I think we had experience in that shootout and under that kind of pressure and it paid off.
“The Olympics has always been the end goal. The World Cup was amazing, of course it was, but the Olympics is the pinnacle and it always has been and I think qualifying was more a relief. This was what we’ve been working so hard for and we do deserve to be there.
“It wasn’t easy hearing that they were going to be postponed last year, but you just have to be positive and hopeful and keep training.
“Certainly the Olympics has always been a goal of mine, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing in life that I’ve ever wanted to achieve. It’s been part of what I wanted to achieve.
“I’ve never been a traditional athlete in that sense. I’ve always been interested in so many different sports.
“I think I’m ok with the fact that it [hockey] is going to come to an end for me and I’m ready for it to come to an end.
“It’s been a huge part of my life, but there are other things I want to do and there are other things I want to achieve and other things I want to learn, to challenge myself in other areas.
“So I’m excited to hopefully get selected to go to an Olympics and I’m excited to see what’s next.”
Whatever lies in store for Daly after the 2021 Olympic Games, motorsport is sure to constitute a huge part of her life as it has done to this day.
While her late father, Vivion Daly, was a major figure in Irish motorsport with Formula Ford and Formula Opel Championship title wins to his name, her uncle, Derek Daly, raced for years in Formula One and her cousin, Conor Daly, competes in the NTT IndyCar Series in the US.
“My early memories are just spending weekends down in Mondello Park with my dad” recalled Daly.
“It was always a treat for myself and my brother to get the Friday off school to go down with my dad early in the morning.
“We were only kids, but we would have little jobs like holding the pit board for him and writing down his lap times, cleaning the body work and making sure everything was the way he liked it. It was that kind of feeling of being part of his team.
“There was always that bit of a buzz around him. A lot of people came up to him and they recognised the talent that he had. He was the one to beat.
“He was a one-man team essentially. He did have a mechanic who would help him, but he was the engineer, the decision maker.
“It was a time in Mondello when a lot of people went to the events and the grandstands were full. He’d always be towards the front of the grid and in the commentary his name would be mentioned. Then he’d be on the podium, spraying the champagne and there’d be lots of people there and so he was a bit of a role model for us, our hero. We’d be just so proud.
“I was 14 when he passed away and he raced up until the year before that” she said.
It is little wonder then that Daly developed a love for motorsport at a young age that led her to studying Mechanical Engineering in IT Tallaght and later Motorsport Engineering in Cranfield University in the UK.
The former Edmondstown NS and High School student then spent two years in the US working on and off as a data engineer with Juncos Racing in the Indy Lights Championship, travelling all over America.
Returning home to Ireland, Daly was determined to address the serious lack of female participation in all aspects of motorsport.
“There were very few women involved both on and off the track and I just thought I could use my experience to raise awareness of the different opportunities that are out there and highlight it more for young girls who I knew wouldn’t know about it” said Daly.
“So I founded Formula Female in 2018. I wanted to do something in memory of my dad so I actually launched it with a race in Mondello Park and we raised money for the Irish Cancer Society- ‘A Race Against Cancer’.
“I competed in the race and it was the first time I had ever done an actual car race, so that was kind of the launch of it.
“Then, with Motorsport Ireland, I launched the ‘Go Girls Karting and STEM’ initiative in September 2019. That was a joint initiative between Motorsport Ireland and Formula Female.
“It is backed by John Campion’s CJJ Motorsport. John sadly passed away last October. He was a really passionate Irish motorsport enthusiast who funded a lot of motorsport initiatives in Ireland.
“He’s been a great ambassador and supporter for the sport, financially and in every other way, and CJJ Motorsport are the primary sponsor for Formula Female.
“There are a few pillars to Formula Female. ‘Visibility and Participation’ which we consider the ‘Go Girls’ Karting initiative to fall under. The initiative is open to secondary schoolgirls, between the ages of 13 and 16 and we invite them to come out to their local karting facility.
“They take part in a STEM educational workshop where they get to experience the different roles that are involved in motorsport. They get to drive the cars, they get to learn about what it takes to be a driver and the skills that are involved in it.
“We teach them about how Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths play a role within motorsport. They learn about the technology that’s involved in being a data engineer.
“We launched that programme in 2019, but obviously with Covid we haven’t been able to pick that up, but once we get back to Level Two, Three restrictions, we’ll be able to invite schools back in.
“The other side of this is then ‘Opportunity’. So we want to help more women get opportunities within motorsport, whether it is participation as drivers or engineers or mechanics or to work on the social media side.
“The other pillar then is ‘Sustainability’. We do have ties to an electric racing academy where students can build and race their own 100 percent electric racing car. Electric mobility is becoming more popular.
“It’s a practical introduction to motorsport and by bringing it to life it’s a lot more engaging. Our three hashtags are ‘Engage, Educate and Empower’. That’s what we try to do. We had been going great with the ‘Go Girls’ initiative. We had put through over 500 girls in the programme already and we have another 500 to go. The plan that was for a year has now turned into two years because of Covid.
“But the most rewarding part is when they come up at the end and they’re looking for more information. It’s something they never experienced before and they’ve had such a really good time and they want to get more involved in it.
“I’m also mentoring, from an athlete perspective, a young go-karter Alyx Coby.
“I’d love to see her get to the W Series which is a female-only racing series that’s now being supported in the F1 calendar, so they will support the F1 races in eight different locations around the world.
“I think it will be fantastic seeing an Irish female driving and supporting Formula One and it’s nice to share your experience with someone who you see a lot of talent in.
“You can see the future’s bright for them and if there’s anything you can do to help them along the way, then that’s what I want to do.”
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