Saudi Arabia's first female race driver Reema Juffali on what fuelled her passion for the tracks

rituraj@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 29, 2021

Reema Juffali, the first female racing driver from Saudi Arabia. (Supplied pictures)



Being in a league of her own, the young race car driver tells us what it takes to realise our aspirations

When Reema Juffali used to do go-karting while on family holidays, getting behind the wheel of a race car was not an idea that gave wings to her dreams. She enjoyed go-karting, but it was just another thing that she would do on a family holiday. “It wasn’t anything to do with any dreams and aspirations to be a racing driver,” Juffali smiles.

And yet, Juffali’s story is now the stuff of dreams. Her journey as the first Saudi female race driver is turning out to be an epoch-making one as she is now also the only female driver in British F3 Championship.

For someone coming from Saudi Arabia where restrictions on female drivers were lifted only three years ago, Juffali’s foray into a male-dominated sport is sure to stir the soul.

In an interview with wknd., 29-year-old Juffali, who drives for Douglas Motorsport in F3, says she wants to prove that “gender is not something that should stand in the way” of anyone.

Were you in love with cars from your childhood days? Was there a motorsport enthusiast in the family?

Honestly, I really didn’t know anyone around me who was into motorsports. For me, it was not something that I was exposed to while growing up. I was very much into sports and cars from a young age, but not on the sporting or the motorsports side of things. It wasn’t until I went to university in the States that I started exploring the world of sports and Formula One. And obviously, it was very exciting to know that there was a lot more to cars than what meets the eye. That’s kind of maybe the first seed that was planted.

And then the journey eventually began for you as a racing driver…

You know, with time, I started to explore the sport a bit more. I had the opportunity to visit tracks. I found myself going back to the tracks and then I had a racing school experience, and that was maybe the first time I was in a proper race car. I got my racing licence a few years later and decided to join an amateur race in the UAE (2018). Yeah, that was how it came about. But it was a slow and steady progression.

Once you realised you wanted to be a racing driver, what was the reaction in your family?

In our region, having support from family, encouragement, motivation is very crucial. And for me, it worked in my favour because I wasn’t this 18-year-old saying, ‘I want to be a racing driver.’ I had finished college, I was working and I was already established. But they had the trust that I was not making a crazy decision. And they were happy to encourage me to pursue my dream and passion for the sport.

Loving cars is one thing. But becoming a racing driver is quite another. What has it taught you not just as a racing driver, but also as an individual?

There’s lots of processing, lots of doubts, lots of excitement, lots of uncertainties, you know, I was everywhere because it meant so much to me and I wanted to be good at it. And also, it was new and I was coming (into it) a lot later in life than a lot of people would. So, I had to learn quickly. One of the biggest things I learnt was managing my expectations, being able to be realistic with myself about what’s achievable. So there are many things this sport has taught me. A lot of it is character building.

Your achievements are so unique coming from Saudi Arabia. You said your family encouraged you to chase your dreams. What about your friends in Saudi Arabia? Are they showing more interest in motorsports now?

Yes, a lot of my childhood friends have become racing fans and now follow the sport because of me. I think it’s very exciting. Actually, recently, two of my childhood friends came and attended my race. They were very proud, very excited. I actually performed very well and had a very good result. So for them to see that you know... they were so happy to be a part of it. And I think not just my friends, the supporters of mine from back home (Saudi Arabia), it feels like my win is their win. It’s very nice to have that support. And yeah I am very grateful for that.

What was the response from the male drivers when they saw you in the paddock?

It’s been very positive and encouraging. When I did well, I was congratulated by my fellow competitors. So, it’s nice to be able to show that not just with my team, my friends and my family, but also the people I am competing against. So, it’s a nice thing about having a level of respect from the racing drivers who are competitors. It’s something that’s really nice in the sport. At the end of the day, when you do something right, people will recognise you for it. I am glad that I was able to do that really.

How does it feel to be the only female driver in F3?

Yeah, I feel very fortunate to be able to be in this position, being the only female. Sometimes, I don’t really think about me being the only female, I am reminded of it when I am walking in the paddock in my race suit and people have a glance because I am a woman who is racing. Unfortunately, there are still not enough women in the sport. But I personally don’t think about it too much. I just want to be quicker than them, faster than them. I don’t think about the gender side of things.

But you are definitely bringing about a change…

It’s again not something that I anticipated or thought about. But growing up in Saudi, I didn’t have many Arab role models in the public sphere that I could relate to. The people that I looked up to in my sport were all from abroad, whether they were Americans or Europeans. We don’t see a very big difference in that, female athletes, whether they are in motorsports or tennis, it’s nice to see Arab women out there, setting an example for other girls in the Arab world. But I think as a sport in general, the fact that it’s male dominant makes it more of an encouragement to prove them wrong. And at the end of the day, you put your helmet on, and we are all the same, no one knows whether you are a female or a male, you are driving to your ability. I think the more I can perform, the more I can prove that gender is not something that should stand in the way.

But only a handful of female drivers have made it to F1 in its 71-year history. Do you have F1 ambitions?

For me, what really brought me to the sport was watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans and seeing this high-level championship and racing where men, women of all ages race. So that was my goal and continues to be my goal. F1 is not for everyone and I think it’s unfortunate they haven’t seen (many) women in F1 yet. Hopefully, we will do someday. But for me, I think the goal will still be the 24 Hours of Le Mans and being a winner there. It will be the biggest win for me and a great achievement.

Are you conscious of your role as an inspiring figure?

These responsibilities — being the first Saudi female (race driver), having a positive impact — I have been very humbled by them. I think it’s even more of a motivation for me to continue on this road and establish my talent. It’s not something that I think about all the time, but when I am reminded of it, it’s a very fortunate place to be in. Hopefully, in the future, I can do more and encourage more people to pursue their passion whether in racing or elsewhere.

What will be your message to young Arab girls who look up to you now?

I think there are so many things I can say and so much I can share, but at the end of the day, it really comes down to putting yourself out there and trying different things, for yourself. For me at least, racing seemed so impossible, seemed so far away. The more steps I took towards it, the more attainable, the more realistic it became, and felt closer. My advice to them would be, ‘you really won’t know if you don’t try, but also have that self-belief’. If you do not get a ride or it doesn’t work out, you just find something else because I think there is definitely something out there for everyone and it’s important to find that.

rituraj@khaleejtimes.com

author

Rituraj Borkakoty

A big fan of the Argentina national football team, Rituraj generally writes on sports. But he deeply cherishes the time he spent with his favourite musician from Assam, India, for an interview. And he loves to bring human interest stories to Khaleej Times readers.