Weekdays, she’s busy keeping a cash-strapped charity for lone parents on track.
Come Saturdays in the spring, though, Shelli Cooper, boss of Sheffield charity SCOOP Aid, will be roaring round a racetrack at 140mph, striving to keep a flimsy fibreglass sidecar from going on the skids.
Both are balancing acts; without Shelli to keep things on an even keel, charity and 1,000cc machine could crash and burn.
Shelli was enticed into the dice-with-death sport of classic sidecar racing by partner Nick Robinson, a successful former racer. Three years on, she still can’t quite believe he succeeded into turning her into his sidecar sidekick.
Says Shelli: “Like most people ‘sidecars’ to me meant Wallace and Gromit. My great-grandad and my grandad both had motor bike and sidecars; we have the obligatory photographs of the whole family piled on, including the dog.”
Nick had raced Classic Sidecars and then Formula 1 sidecars professionally in his younger days, she explains. “He took me to a race meeting one day. He wanted to show me what he was talking about when he told me his tales of derring do.
“He pointed out a 1970s purpose-built racing outfit in the paddock. It looked like a very low motorbike with a tea tray on the side. The whole thing was only three inches off the floor. I couldn’t believe anybody would be daft enough to get on it, especially when someone demonstrated the positions you had to adopt in order to stop the machine from turning over on the corners. I just thought: that’s not humanly possible.
“Half an hour later we were trackside, watching these bizarre machines and their acrobatic teams of two racing hell for leather down the back straight at 145 miles per hour, overtaking within inches. It was tremendously exciting. But I still thought they were all nutters and that there was no way I was ever going to do it.”
Just a year and an engagement ring later, Nick – who broke his back in a race back in 1993 and was told he may never walk properly again – had persuaded her they should buy a 1972 classic racing machine and enter the Classic Racing Motorcycle Club’s sidecar championship. She became his human ballast in a race just six months later, having had only two afternoons of practise.
“Learning is very difficult; there’s no where to go for lessons and the sidecar cannot be used on a road. I had to go by Nick’s instructions and my own instincts.
“I was terrified,” she remembers. “You’re not strapped in. While it’s speeding into corners at 140mph the passenger has to crawl so that your weight is over the rider, the bike, even the track to keep the craft stable at all times. Passengers lean over the back of the driver through right hand bends but for left-handers they have to slide their bottoms out in front of the chair wheel and down onto the Tarmac.
“There’s just a series of handles to grip onto for grim death and the sidecars often bump into each other; it’s like high speed dodgems out there. But I loved it from the start and we finished 7th in our first year.”
Shelli says there are two rules she races by: “Remember to breathe – I nearly passed out after my first race – and never let go,” she grins. “If you aren’t gripping a handle, you simply fly off.”
All she has for protection are custom-made leathers layered three-ply in strategic places – anything more would hamper her movement and actually endanger her and Nick. Though she does have what she calls her bum-slider, a rock-hard leather pad that grazes against the track surface, rather than her bottom – and she has suffered nothing more than bruises in three years.
After just three seasons, the Sheffield pair are very nearly champions. Last year they came third in the European Vintage Cup and this year, they’re gunning for gold with the backing of their sponsor, motor-racing photographer Roger Collett.
Shelli’s taking to the sport like a duck to water was based in part on her love of two-wheeled speed. She became a biker at the age of 40. “I’d just split from my son’s father and become a lone parent. It was the classic new life, new beginning thing; my 40th birthday present to myself was my motorcycle test,” she grins.
It was biking that had brought her and Nick together; they met in a group who had converged on Bakewell eight years ago.
“Sidecar racing is the most fantastic sport both to participate in and to watch,” she enthuses. “The machines race extremely closely. Being three times as wide as a race bike they often head into corners two and three abreast, breaking so late that you think they’ll never get round the bend. And the machines slide as the drivers drift the back ends round to get the best exit speed from the corner. As Nick says, ‘It’s not ballroom dancing’.”
Despite the fact that countless husbands and wives fall out every time they get in a car together, women make great racing sidecar passengers.
Explains Shelli’s partner Nick, who works in the oil and gas industry: “They are usually more lithe and agile, and smaller than men. Some 40 per cent of classic sidecar passengers are women – wives, girlfriends, even daughters with their dads. And while one half of a couple might criticise the other at the wheel of their car, there’s no room for that in this sport.”
But, adds Nick, it is the trust a couple have in each other that makes for a winning team.
“Racing together means a couple must put total trust in each other. Shelli trusts me to get our positioning on the track right and I trust her to ensure we don’t flip over on the corners.”
Says Shelli: “We never row on racedays. For a start there’s too much to think about, but also you’re not husband and wife; your are as one, you’re a team.
“And on the bike, if one of you makes a mistake the other works hard to correct it. It makes for a great partnership on and off the track.”
Having belief in your abilities
Confidence is key when Shelli balances on that speeding teatray.
“I’d freeze with fear otherwise – and Nick and I would be on our arses,” says Shelli.
It has taught her just how vital it is that her employers, Sheffield’s lone parent supporter Scoop Aid, continue to be able to boost the confidence of its clients.
Low self-esteem freezes people in their tracks,” says Shelli. “It’s something we see again and again and work hard to rectify.
Scoop Aid’s work is in jeopardy, though. It is currently on a knife-edge, facing one of the most difficult periods in its history.
Shelli, who joined Scoop 13 years ago as an advice worker, took the helm as executive officer in October just as the charity’s Lottery funding ran out.
It had been forced to lose three staff in one week and now fundraising has begun in earnest so that Scoop Aid can continue to give single parents the training and confidence they need to get into paid work – and change their family life for the better.
Shelli became a lone parent herself after starting the job. “I split with my partner and suddenly found out what it felt like to be coping alone with a young son, 365 days a year,” she says. “I was lucky; I had a job and colleagues to share my day with. But that made me acutely aware of the hardships faced by those parents who don’t have jobs.”
The charity was formed 36 years ago when lone parent groups met for a picnic in Endcliffe Park and formed the Sheffield Committee Of One Parents.
It acts as an information, advice and advocacy point and in the last three years alone, has supported over 1,500 individual lone parents, almost 40 per cent of which went into further education with a view to finding work.
“Many were struggling with depression, low confidence and self-esteem. A third were battling with debt and were finding into employment difficult as they had no qualifications. Over 60 per cent had not done paid work for over threeyears.
To get help from Scoop Aid, call 0114 2537672, Mon-Fri 10am-2pm or email firstname.lastname@example.org