I first met Jess Soodeen in Azkoitia’s noisy(-est) bar Dean one night, where she’s become a regular face. Shouting into her ear, I wanted to know what brought her to a small town like Azkoitia. (Answer: a one-year Masters in Motorsport Engineering with local race car team, Epsilon Euskadi). My second question was, what on earth was keeping her here: “I love it!” she declared. And it wasn’t the drink talking – she’d just come off stage after gigging in the town’s main square with local veteran group Dirección Obligatoria.
For those who don’t know, Azkoitia is a Basque town of around 10,000 inhabitants situated within the Urola Valley near the heart of Gipuzkoa. By their own admission Basques take a while opening up to outsiders and in few places is this more evident than in Azkoitia.
But Jess is unphased: “I walk down the street and people say hello to me,” she says cheerily.
Aside from her integration into Dirección Obligatoria, Jess confesses to having three ‘cuadrillas’ (notoriously tight-knit friendship groups, typical in the Basque Country) and since her time spent in Azkoitia learning Spanish, has also managed a fair amount of ‘Azkoitiarra’ (a local dialect of the Basque language Euskera).
It is perhaps no coincidence that most Basque Country Live interviewees commonly share a culturally diverse background, and Jess is no exception, starting with her surname: ‘Basically, a few centuries back a man who they named Soodeen jumped on a boat in Calcutta bound for Trinidad,’ she explains. At another time and place, meanwhile, a man named O’Leary (an ancestor of her mother) made a similar journey to the island the Irish called Talamh an Éisc, “land of the fish”, or Newfoundland, a large land mass off the east coast of Canada with strong historic ties to the Basque Country, based on whaling and cod fishing: “When I found out about the course in the Basque Country I said ‘I’m going there’; I grew up hearing about the Basques.”
And so to Euskadi…
Jess jumped on a plane bound for Valencia armed barely with a word of Spanish. But then, with a career spent both working and racing on the motortrack, she has had to be ballsy. It is an environment that requires tough decisions and quick thinking: “As a woman in the field, you have to earn respect and the fact that I’m not only a motorcycle racer, but also the mechanic of my own bike… these things work in my favour”.
Jess’s interest in motors goes back to 1999 when a group of mates “rigged it” for her to win bike lessons. She started racing in 2003 and by 2004 was only riding circuits. In 2005 she bought a Yamaha TZ 125 GP bike all the way from New Zealand and began tinkering. A degree in mechanical and a masters in motorsports engineering is, says Jess, “fine and dandy,” but it was hands on recognition that she needed, which is why she rebuilt her own motor: “I bought the bike to learn mechanics and this way gain respect for my ambitions as a circuit engineer”. So why the switch to cars? “When I found the course in the Basque Country I realised that having education in cars as well would benefit my motorsports career in general in Europe.”
Not that that was the only factor that drew her our way: “I was fascinated by the Basque Country because of its history with Newfoundland,” says Jess. “I researched Azkoitia before I came; I had a picture of the indoor market on my computer screen for six months before I got here.
“Between the ages of 9 and 10 I lived in Libya. The rest of the time I lived in Calgary (a city of just over a million inhabitants) but all my summers were spent in Newfoundland.” Though essentially a city girl, Jess confesses to being something of a provincial soul. Something to do with all those long summers?
“Absolutely. The largest town in Newfoundland (capital San Juan de Terranova) has 100,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of Vitoria.” To give you an idea of the depth of the history between Euskadi and Newfoundland, thirteen of the Canadian island ports have Basque names, including Baya Ederra (Beautiful Bay) Port aux Basques and Balea Baya ,Whale Bay. (Basque whalers were recently cleared of having caused the extinction of the species off Newfoundland’s famous Labrador Bay).
With all these things in mind, you get the sense that Jess has discovered her spiritual home, the addition of Epsilon Euskadi (recently moved to Vitoria-Gasteiz), satisfying another important part of her ambition – working in motorsports – a dream she’s close to fulfilling:
“After completing my masters in 2008 I stayed one year more as an internship student doing race engineering with Epsilon Euskadi. Then they offered me a contract to start work this year. On 23rd December I found out they couldn’t give me the job.” (Current Government policy is to give preference to home-grown candidates where possible).
“Obviously because of the current employment situation I understand why they did it, but it was a massive blow.”
Despite this setback, she remains positive and intensely fond of her adopted hometown. On the job front, things are looking up as well: “With the contacts that I managed to make during my time spent at the circuits I have managed to find some contract work with another team based in Switzerland, racing in German, French, and Italian circuits. It’s still not full time work, but my dream of a house in the mountains and only working in circuits is on its way.”