Along with finishing in the top 10 at the 2022 Dakar Rally, the longest cross country endurance rally in the world, she was crowned champion of the 2021 T3 Desert Baja Rally World Cup. In June 2023, she also became the first Saudi woman to join Red Bull’s elite group of International Champions.
These amazing feats are made all the more incredible by the fact that women were not allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia until 2018.
Away from the racetrack, she is a successful motivational speaker, presenter and author. Her published book, Freefall, reflects on an on-track accident she suffered in 2020 and her switch from two wheels to four.
Speaking to Livehealthy, the inspirational sporting figure discusses what life is really like in Saudi Arabia, the rising numbers of women in motorsport, and why driving has taught her valuable life lessons.
How did you get into rally racing?
I love driving. I’ll drive anything, anywhere. When I was growing up in Jeddah, I loved driving quad bikes every weekend. But I didn’t think of doing it as a profession because I didn’t realize it was a career.
I studied in Saudi until I was 14. Then I moved to the UK to do my GCSEs, A-levels and go to university. During that time, I got my driving license and I got used to driving on public roads. I think the fact that I was able to drive from an earlier age than most Saudi women is one big reason why I was one of the first to start racing.
When I was about 30, I moved to Dubai for work. There I discovered Superbike racing, which is on two wheels. I loved it and I took part in the Ducati Cup and the National Cup in Bahrain.
I moved back to Saudi in 2019, and there I discovered rally racing. I drive what they call a side-by-side car or a dune buggy. Teams can customize their cars with different parts and make their own prototypes. It’s a fun category and you get to see so much variety.
Did your motorcycle accident in 2020 encourage you to switch to rally racing?
It wasn’t a bad accident and I didn’t need surgery. I just needed a couple of months to heal my bones and recover naturally. So, I count myself lucky. It wasn’t a big crash. It was in Bahrain, and I just leaned the bike too far on a corner and then didn’t have the power to pick it back up. I slid onto the track, and I hurt my pelvis area.
It happened at the time of the pandemic. I couldn’t travel, so when I had recovered I investigated racing opportunities in Saudi Arabia. We host some of the biggest rally events in the world, including the Dakar Rally. So naturally I went towards cross-country racing in the desert as opposed to being on the track.
I crashed my bike, I ended up back home, and back home we race off-road. It was as simple as that. I think in time Saudi will have track racing, but at the time that was the situation.
Are there many women in rally racing?
Motorsport is so special because you have men and women racing together. It’s an engine sport, so you’re not competing with just your body. It doesn’t need to be segregated. It’s a nice environment and a lovely community. I see women from all over the world participating in it.
Women are in the minority. But the numbers are growing. One woman I know has decided to race in a big truck, in the T5 group, with a female navigator and a female mechanic. I think that’s very interesting.
I don’t believe in saying that some activities are for boys, and some are for girls. I liked to play with Barbies with my sister. I love to go to the spa and go shopping with my mum. I think that you can have a nice manicure and race cross country.
Do you race full-time?
When I was racing bikes, I did it part-time. But when I moved into cross country, I picked it up full-time because between working with the sponsors, finding funding, going to the events and sorting out the logistics took up a lot of time. You could do it alongside having a job, but I wanted to focus on it completely. Some people just do it as a hobby, and some do it to make money. I have been getting a lot of support and I’m very grateful for that.
What are the big challenges when you are racing?
Cross country is an endurance race, so you have to remain in control of your emotions. The most important thing is to stay in the moment and focus on the kilometer at hand. If you start thinking about the end of the race, you won’t enjoy it as much because you’ll be less present. Your performance will suffer too. When you are in the moment, you perform much better because you are totally engaged, and every part of your energy is focused. Focus is a very big part of the game.
Patience is equally important. You must be patient not only in terms of reaching the finish, but also in terms of being patient with yourself. If you make a mistake, you need to let it go and accept it. If you carry that mistake with you, you’ll make your time worse.
You need to be patient with the terrain too. You can face a lot of rocky areas and parts that are tricky to navigate. In these cases, it’s much more effective to take it a bit slower. That way you move more smoothly than somebody who is rushing and feels uncomfortable. Patience and focus are huge assets.
Does driving have many parallels with real life?
The things that you learn in racing can be implemented in many areas of life. You develop character. Those who win consistently and frequently are always feel very present. When I talk to them it seems like they have all the time in the world to speak to me. They have an aura that is calm, steady, and solid. They have the same attitude in the car and outside.
Does physical fitness help?
Yes. A big part of driving is being able to process a lot of information very quickly and make decisions fast. When you are physically fit, you have more mental clarity.
But when your cardiovascular system isn’t working so well, things get more muddled. You can’t process things as quickly because you are not getting enough oxygen to your brain. But when you’re in good shape, you can see things more clearly. You have more time to make decisions, and this makes you a faster driver.
If things seem to be going slower, it’s usually because I’m going faster. But if things seem rushed, chances are I’m not going very fast. If you feel like you can’t process what’s happening, you’ve got to slow down. It’s not safe. You must stay calm and be aware of your speed.
Slow is a weird word to use in racing, but when you are really experienced, going fast feels slow because you can see all this information, take it in and enjoy it.
What is your relationship with your navigator like?
My navigator sadly passed away recently. He was in an accident in a race.
The relationship you have with your navigator is very important. My navigator taught me a lot about trust and about having a good time. He was such a good navigator, a good mechanic and a great teammate. He knew how to get from A to B, and he was skilled at prioritizing. If we had a lot of media or PR to do, he would tell me to just focus on the race and think about the media later.
If I felt under pressure or scared, he would tell me to have a good time and take it easy. He put the biggest emphasis on enjoying every moment. When you have fun, you do well. Maybe it’s a cliche, but you have to enjoy the journey. When you have a good time, you tend to do well. In our last race together, we did extremely well. Then the second day our car broke down. It was tough to take because we were on the way to leading the World Cup. But it is what it is. These things happen.
The level of trust I had in him was so big that when he gave me directions, I wouldn’t even think about what he was saying, I just did it. I trusted him so much. We worked as one system. Which is a great feeling. I really feel so much for his family now
Is the danger part of the allure of racing?
I’m not attracted to danger. I think people tend to associate driving with adrenaline junkies. But I’m not in it for an adrenaline rush.
I feel very stimulated when I drive, and that’s what I like about it. I don’t like that it’s dangerous. I like the way that I’m so consumed, focused and engaged. I don’t feel like that when I do a lot of things. But I do when I drive. If I feel vulnerable or I don’t know what will happen next, it means I’ve messed up.
I stay within the parameters that I’m comfortable with. Those parameters change because the more experience you have, the faster you can go. You don’t need to take risks, and you don’t need to drive dangerously. If you feel like you’re in danger, you’ve probably gone over the limit.
Are there many misconceptions about what life in Saudi Arabia is really like?
Different Saudis have different lives depending on their family culture and their choices. There’s no correct way of being a Saudi. We all live how we want to live. I personally want to drive but my sister, who’s from the same household, chooses not to. When people meet me, I like to think that they gain a more evolved version of what Saudi is.
There’s more to Saudi than people think. There’s more variety, and different ways of living.
I think you find variety in any country. But if there is a more prominent image of it, there’s usually a reason for it.
Do a lot of Saudi women drive now?
Not every woman I know drives, but a lot of them do. It was really freeing when the law changed. We all got so excited. I had access to a car before, and somebody would take me from A to B, but it’s different when you don’t have to ask someone else to take you. You couldn’t just jump in the car whenever you fancied it. But now we can.
It’s a good feeling. A lot of ladies drive now, but not all of them. Some of them aren’t interested and that’s fine. But either way it was a very impactful change.
Does racing ever stop being exciting?
Every time I get in the car, I love it. It doesn’t get old because you’re always in the moment. I was away for a couple of weeks recently, and I really missed my car.
If anyone wants to get into racing, I encourage them to get in touch with their local federation for motorsport as they usually have programs you can participate in. That’s how I got involved in the sport.
For more information about Dania Akeel, visit daniaakeel.com.