Sapna Gurukar is better recognized as India’s first female off-road racer. For Sapna, the sport brings thrill which she missed during the entire tenure of her corporate life. “Off-roading is more than racing. It’s a skill challenge and that’s what enthrals me. It’s not so much about the machine as it is about you,” Sapna is a two-time national winner of a popular Adventure Off-Roading Trophy. She started as a professional in 2012.
The off-roading junkie from Bangalore now lives in Sakleshpur, a hill station near Bangalore. “I always loved to ride bikes. Learnt driving a four-wheeler much later. I initially didn’t find it as much fun as riding a bike, but somehow considered it more as a utilitarian option,” says the Motorsport enthusiast.
“I exchanged my corporate life for a real life, and it feels peaceful, even when I am on tricky roads, attempting to harness the power of a heavy machinery, or fording the river. It makes me nervous, of course, but I am at peace knowing I am doing what I love!” she claims.
What started as a fun outing with friends changed for Sapna since she joined regional clubs and started participating in competitions. Some edited excerpts from an interview with her.
How was the love for racing born? What inspired you to choose Motorsport, why not any other field?
My husband, Chandan was initiated into off-roading by some of his friends. I enjoyed accompanying him on some of the events. During one such event, an organiser mentioned that there weren’t any women in the sport. My husband encouraged me to join, his motivation and the support is what helped me to get into this field.
Despite having constraints of the society, what drives you towards the sport?
Constraints of society are self-imposed. If we stop and think about everyone who has an opinion, it’s unlikely that we will ever live our lives. Once I overcame this barrier in my mind, I was able to look beyond and progress.
What responsibilities do you take up daily and how do you maintain the status?
I run a homestay with my husband in Sakleshpur. Apart from that, I freelance as a team building expert and speaker. It’s all fun stuff and de-stressing.
I drive a stock vehicle without a power steering. Sometimes, it’s tough to transport this to other venues. It’s also an expensive sport. None of these have been deterrents to my enthusiasm, but sometimes it’s a question of practicality.
Share your strategies for the race and insights.
Having a good navigator is key. Except for the finals where all drivers pair up. I always have my husband, Chandan as my navigator. We know the hand signals, and the communication is excellent. I always do a walk-through of the course, memorizing all the nuances and challenges. This helps me to plan and work out where I am likely to lose time, face challenges or change tactics. A lot of this needs to be dynamic because the course does get worse by the time a few vehicles have competed. New ruts are formed, some stones get displaced and so on.
As with anything competitive, it’s always about you and yourself. Optimism, self-belief and the ability to learn from other’s mistakes always help.
India’s first female off-road racer. After seeing other racers and teams, what do you think India lacks in terms of appreciating all kinds of sports?
There’s a lack of coverage for these kinds of sports. It’s word of mouth and enthusiasts who help to spread the word. A good set of sponsors would help to take this to the next level. Regulations, Infrastructure and a recognition of the sport will definitely help to promote it. However, it must be said that most people in the sport today are doing this out of passion. Commercialisation and coverage can be a double-edged sword. It can lead to popularity but a dip in the passionate enthusiasts.
What are your core passion and long-term vision?
I love driving around in a new country, off-roading is just one more ancillary passion borne out of the desire to drive and travel. Biking has come back to my life in a big way. I ride an RE Thunderbird and love going on rides and short camps. Having a term vision prevents one from seeing opportunities that are right in front of you. I keep my options open.
What has been your most touching or amazing moment?
It is a male-dominated sport. There have been many instances when guys were not able to conquer an obstacle and I’ve done it. At such times, the look on everyone’s face, that is the most amazing. The most touching was last year during the finals in Iggatpuri when I conquered an obstacle that was really tough and many did not even attempt it. I heard the loudest cheers and claps from the crowd.
All my competitors in that event where men and in spite of the defeat, they were all cheering me. That is the best part of this sport. Everyone is encouraging.
What are your biggest challenges coming in your way?
The automatic stereotyping of women drivers. It used to rile me earlier, now I let my driving speak for itself.
Why do they say women are bad drivers?
Women are wired differently than men. We multitask. But we’re not the best in gauging distances and measurements. Not all of us. So, we don’t usually care about whether something is eleven feet away or ten feet. One reason is that we may not always check mirrors when switching lanes. This is one of the key issues I see on the road.
But that’s the part that everyone knows about. There’s a deeper reason. And that is we get bullied by men on the road every day.
Whether we’re on bikes or in cars, there are always a bunch of guys who will do their best to either scare you, crowd you, or push you. After a few instances, anyone would be under-confident. I’m happy to take them on, though. A taste of their own medicine.
If a bully tries to crowd me on the road, I do the same back to them. Their expressions are priceless. As with all bullies, they are the most insecure.
How do we encourage more women to take up the sport?
Generate interest, make it lucrative and provide a recognition. Even now, the prizes for men and women are starkly different. It’s almost like a consolation prize. I hope that changes soon.
How has the concept of off-roading empowered women drivers?
As it’s a sport that tests your skill rather than an outright race, you know that you stand a chance against anyone. It’s a morale booster and confidence generator. Women don’t really need to be empowered. They need to be willing to let go of excuses and try new things.
If you’re a decent driver and have strong willpower, then you can take up anything. Off-roading is just one of the sports.
Your take on gender discrimination in Motorsport in our country.
It’s always there. Definitely, there’s a lot more respect for women who take up these sports and there’s genuine admiration. Within the community, there’s very little discrimination, as such, and the cynic in me thinks it’s because no one would want to lose to a woman. It’s still a long way to go. When parents and spouses begin to encourage sports in general, I think we would have arrived. As I said earlier, it was only the encouragement I received that allowed me to foray into this world.
The cynic in me thinks it’s because no one would want to lose to a woman. It’s still a long way to go. When parents and spouses begin to encourage sports in general, I think we would have arrived.
What are the chances for girls to take up racing? Do they get as much exposure and enthusiasm as they deserve?
Very high chances. Enthusiasm is under your control. Exposure is not. If you enjoy it, why should you worry about the exposure?
How racing, in general, has liberated women in the area? Do women now seek to take up riding professionally?
More than racing, I would think that the achievement of any type helps to liberate. Not just women either. I know some introverts who have taken this up and find themselves totally liberated.
Taking up a sport like this professionally is a long way off. Sponsorships, more events, more exposure and better infrastructure is bound to create the opportunities. You definitely cannot make a “living” out of a sport like this, at the moment. Unlikely to change for some time either.
The usual racing tracks are considered a masculine area. Do you think this norm is changing?
Yes and no. It’s not so much as the stereotype as much as the skills. I mentioned earlier that women are wired differently. That holds true. A lot of stamina, physical strength and un-emotional drive is also required. This is something that most women – in comparison to men – are ill-equipped for.
But having said that, there are always exceptions. We only need 5-6 women to start jumping in and that’s bound to create a domino effect.
Tips for women off-roaders
Don’t get lured by the need to “do-up” your vehicle. That will undermine your skills. Develop your core skills on a basic machine. Once you’ve got that honed to a high level, then work on your machine. If you think the machine helps you be a better off-roader, you’re wrong.
“Excess of anything is draining. So be cognizant of this and don’t try to overdo anything.”