Lara Small – Rolls-Royce engineer, Army reservist and motorcycle racer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 November 2016
Her surname may be Small but Lara, from Oakwood, Derby, has a big future ahead of her. The 30-year-old is proving herself as a leader in not one but two largely male-dominated domains and is now also making a big impression on the race track
Leadership skills learned as an engineer at Rolls-Royce and a Troop Commander in the Royal Engineers Army Reserves have helped Lara to progress her career rapidly. ‘Army Officer Training develops you in a leadership capacity against certain criteria that the Army wants from you, and I think more of my subtle leadership has come from working at Rolls-Royce.
‘The Army has a very clear rank structure of “I say this, you do that”, although with Reserves you can’t be that dominant, because they have volunteered to serve – they don’t always want to be shouted at! I’m learning a lot more about leadership at work. When you work with the same team on a regular basis you get to know their skills and strengths. It’s all, hopefully, making me into a better leader, although sometimes I am aware of not yet being the best. The team are good and will take me to one side and say “Look, we know what you’re trying to do but have you considered this approach,” and it’s really good to be coached in that way.’
Lara was born and raised in the relaxed surroundings of Jersey and the signs of where her future interests might lie were evident when she was young. ‘I remember as a kid toying around with Lego, tinkering, fixing broken toys, making K’Nex, ball-bearing runs and just enjoying the practical side of most problems. I would probably be found trying to fix things, rather than doing anything else.’
She also joined the Air Training Corps at 13, after a talk at school, and then her father bought her first moped two years later. ‘It was a Yamaha Passola, a horrible beige thing, 50cc. It had a box on the back on which I wrote “If I could go faster, I would” and I went around the island on it. I saved up all my pocket money for the next bigger and better thing, a 50cc Malaguti Firefox, and kept going from there.’
Although Lara did acquire a couple of larger, faster bikes, they became an unaffordable luxury when she moved to the University of the West of England in Bristol to study Manufacturing Engineering, but she soon found an interesting way to help fund her studies. ‘I worked for Scooterman, a company where you drive a monkey bike to a client’s car and then pick them up and take them home when they’ve been out drinking so they don’t have to drive. That was a brilliant job, I did that for about three years, it was fantastic, lots of cutting around Bristol city centre and avoiding taxis.’
It was in Bristol that Lara first made contact with Rolls-Royce, completing her year in industry at their site in the city, and also joining the Army’s Officer Training Corps, learning to be a soldier and then to lead others as an officer, with the final stage at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Both males and females faced the same physical elements of the training, including carrying weight across difficult terrain in the field.
‘I was taught to wear a uniform correctly and to use a rifle,’ she says. ‘It was hard work – such hard work that at the time I could barely acknowledge what I was achieving. It was only when looking back that I realised how far I’d come.’
Having completed her degree, Lara moved to Derby and joined Rolls-Royce in 2011, moving to the nuclear division two years later. ‘I have a team of 12 people that I look after. It’s ridiculously busy, but it’s good. We’ve lots of great, strong female leaders where I work. There’s still a gender imbalance, but it’s moving in the right direction.’
Lara was also assigned to a Reservist squadron in Chilwell, but has recently been promoted to Captain, taking charge of a troop in Chesterfield. ‘The Squadron is in Chilwell and the detached troop is in Chesterfield, four troops in total, and I have one of them. I knew my troop in Chilwell a little better, but I needed a change so they moved me up there. We have, if called upon, the ability to search for anything that a terrorist may have left maliciously in the ground or otherwise, to anticipate against potential rioting, hoaxes and the location of unexploded devices.’
We know only too well from news reports in recent years just what a dangerous and important role this is, but Lara has a very supportive boyfriend, Ben, parents and friends.
Having come this far, Lara believes her ambitions in both careers remain realistic, aiming for the role of Chief of Manufacturing Engineering at Rolls-Royce. ‘The role is responsible for about 100 people, a whole facility, looking after manufacturing.’ In the Reserves she hopes to progress to the rank of Major. ‘That would qualify me to be the officer in command of a squadron. They are my next goals, but the next five years are going to be a balance of working even harder at work, the Reserve burden increasing because of my recent promotion, and maintaining friends and family relationships. Then, of course, motorbike racing!’ she laughs.
Lara says, ‘I got my first big bike, a Honda CBR600F, in late 2013 and started doing track days throughout 2014. I realised that it was absolutely brilliant, hard work but really, really good.’ During a novice event at Mallory Park, Lara found she was quicker than other riders on superior machines and with the help of friend Rachel Clarke began competing in 2015.
With sponsorship support from Matt Gilder of Via Moto Honda in Chesterfield, Lara made rapid progress in the Thundersport 500 series, on her Honda CB500, taking enough points to place her second in the 2015 Bike Insurers British Women’s Motorcycle Racers Championship. Lara also secured funding from local lubricant manufacturer Fuchs Silkolene and racewear company Knox Race Clothing.
‘Last year was amazing,’ says Lara. ‘Nothing will beat that feeling of being on the starting grid at Donington, anxiously waiting for the lights to go out, clutch slipping and engine revs high. Only my heartbeat was louder than the 40 other bikes around. I will always remember overtaking on the outside of Craner Curves, it was truly exhilarating.
‘I’ve had the support of some great sponsors and motorcycle racing is an Army recognised sport, so I became part of the British Army Motorcycle Road Racing Team. We have a couple of Reservists on the team, too. The best bit is that Thundersport GB have provided races just for military personnel on any bike. It’s so much fun racing with the RAF, Army and Navy guys.’
Lara is pleased with her continued progress and in 2016 has beaten her times from last year at every circuit. At Donington in March she took two seconds off her previous best to qualify for the championship races and Lara was looking forward to returning to Donington in September.
Given her success in the other male-dominated fields she is part of, how does Lara feel about being one of only a few females in the paddock?
‘It’s not something that bothers me. There are a handful of girls who race and I’d love to see many more. The guys are very supportive off the track, but once those lights go out its every person for themselves – and so it should be! Motorcycle racing is a sport where men and women can compete on the same footing. It’s the bike that does the work and with a fit and capable rider anyone can make it go fast.’