Dakar Rally: Meet Dania Akeel, the Saudi lady taking over one of many world’s hardest motor races


Her head cradled in a crash helmet, Dania Akeel’s voice crackles by means of the intercom above the roar of the engine and the push of wind by means of the windowless cabin of her rugged, black UTV.

“We’re so lucky,” Akeel tells CNN Sport. “I mean, look at this place, it’s so beautiful.”

The Saudi grasps the wheel, deftly navigating the car previous rocks and Joshua bushes alongside a winding dust monitor, blasting it previous the rusting shell of a long-abandoned pick-up throughout the dry sand.

“We get to do this for a living, right?” continues 34-year-old Akeel, reflecting on her chosen occupation as she prepares for her second tilt on the notorious Dakar Rally, one of many world’s longest and most demanding endurance races.

CNN is about an hour north of Phoenix, Arizona, driving shotgun in a Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR with one in all cross-country racing’s extra outstanding tales.

Barely over two years in the past, the Jeddah-born athlete had by no means even tried one of these racing. Not solely that, Akeel additionally hails from a rustic during which girls have solely been allowed to drive on public roads since 2018.

‘The Dakar’ started life in 1978 because the Paris-Dakar Rally. It ran yearly from France to Senegal till 2007 however when the 2008 occasion was cancelled attributable to safety issues, the rally was transplanted throughout the Atlantic, and ran by means of South America till 2020, when it moved once more, to Saudi Arabia.

At this time there are 5 main car classes within the rally: automobiles, motorbikes, vehicles, UTVs and quad bikes.

Akeel’s curiosity in motor automobiles goes again a lot farther than the arrival of this world-famous rally in her house nation.

“I had a big interest in cars when I was younger,” she tells CNN. “It wasn’t essentially automobiles, truly, it was something that would that I might drive and that included bicycles.

“You know, I just love movement. I love being outdoors. I just love how it felt to communicate to the machine, to get it to go from A to B.”

Her childhood was spent attempting all types of various modes of transport.

“I started driving things like go karts at a young age, and things like quad bikes,” she explains. “After I was a bit older, I drove two wheeled dust bikes.

“These are just vehicles that would be in private homes, on a farm or things like that, where I had access to these types of machines, and I would just use them for fun with my cousins and my friends on the weekends.”

Her curiosity in motor automobiles solidified when her household moved to the UK, the place she went to highschool and, finally, school.

“I was very lucky to travel frequently with my parents,” she recollects. “We used to go to kart tracks in England and that was really fun.”

Akeel is blazing a trail for other Saudi women in motorsport.

One other door that opened for Akeel within the UK was one at that time firmly closed to her at house – the prospect to drive on the highway – and he or she wasted no time acquiring her driving license, aged 17.

She even admits her alternative of vacation spot for her undergraduate research – the College of London’s picturesque Royal Holloway Faculty, on the English capital’s western outskirts – was influenced by the alternatives it offered to drive.

It was a transfer onto two wheels that set Akeel’s thoughts in the direction of racing.

“When I was 27, I got my motorcycle license, and that was a lot of fun. So, the motorcycle started to direct me towards the racing world.”

After gaining a grasp’s diploma in Worldwide Enterprise, from Hult College, she moved to Dubai and began driving on the Dubai Autodromo racetrack.

“I could see that I was really loving the sport and having a good time and some of the racers encouraged me to join them, to race the in the national series,” says Akeel.

“I went and got the tests and the exams done for the racing license, and then I got a license issued from the Saudi Motor Sports Federation. And that’s how I started racing.”

The impetus to change to cross nation racing got here, fairly actually, as the results of an accident.

In February 2020, at a 600cc Superstock assembly in Bahrain, Akeel misplaced management of her bike and fell.

“I had a ‘low side’ fall, which means I fell onto the track on the side that the bike was leaning toward, which is, you know, the, the lesser and easier fall.”

The six-feet-one-inch-tall Akeel considers herself lucky.

“I was very lucky. I had some broken bones in my pelvis, my spine, but they were all fractures that could heal naturally. So, I considered that to be a very lucky outcome and I was very relieved and very grateful.”

Akeel drives a Can-Am UTV, designed to tackle the varied terrain of cross-country racing.

On the time, the Covid pandemic was starting to precipitate widespread border closures and lockdowns, so Akeel returned house to Jeddah to recuperate.

Whereas resting up she started to contemplate the enchantment of off-road and rally racing, particularly as Saudi Arabia was welcoming the Dakar Rally for the primary time.

“It’s a great event. It’s international. It hosts a lot of people from all over the world, coming in big numbers, and it’s a lot of fun,” she explains.

Akeel started competing within the FIA World Cup for Cross Nation Bajas, a worldwide rally collection impressed by the eponymous races on Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

“(I wanted) to get used to the idea of being in different situations, different terrain, which Dakar gives you, across 9,000 kilometers of Saudi Arabia and it’s actually very diverse,” she says.

“So, after I went to the cross-country Baja World Cup, I had two rounds within the Center East and three in Europe and every of these places was a very totally different manner of driving.

“So, I found, for example, it was muddy in Italy, and there was a lot of gravel and water in Hungary. There were a lot of bumpy, rocky parts in the Middle East with sand, with dunes. So that just got my mind prepared for variety and to be able to engage with the unknown.”

Being prepared for the surprising is a key characteristic of preparation for the Dakar, Akeel says.

“If you have this mentality that anything can happen at any moment and you expect things to constantly evolve, then you can be well prepared mentally,” she explains.

“And then physically, that’s a different story: so, I have my workout routine and I eat well and sleep well.”

Akeel's success has already attracted a number of high profile sponsors.

With girls solely just lately capable of drive on the highway in Saudi Arabia, Akeel is conscious that she may very well be seen as a task mannequin by her countrywomen, however she is philosophical about her personal path and what she may signify to others.

“I was very lucky to get my license when I was 17 and I had a head start on building that response time and those skills and driving skills,” she says.

“I feel it’s essential to look at individuals do it as a result of you then perceive that it’s attainable for you, whoever you’re, to get into the game.

“I imply, I bear in mind after I was becoming a member of the primary race, I didn’t assume twice about … what number of girls had finished this? Had they been from Saudi? Not Saudi? I didn’t assume an excessive amount of about that as a result of the principles say I will be there.

“You know, I have every right to be there. I have my license. I belong here. I have my car, I have my gear, I have my helmet. You know, so I meet all of the requirements. I have a full set of rights of belonging in the sport and that was what I needed.”

The 34-year-old Akeel says 'The Dakar' 'is

In her first try on the Dakar, Akeel completed a creditable eighth in her class within the 2022 race, but it surely might have been even higher.

“We were sixth (in the T3 class), which I was very happy with, being a first timer,” mentioned Akeel. “However on the seventh day I had an issue with the turbo and the automotive had a bit much less energy. I began to make use of the brakes much less and carry momentum by means of the turns. However meaning extra threat.

“(My co-driver) mentioned, ‘you know, if you don’t cease what you’re doing, you’re gonna have an issue’. However I ignored him, and I ended up turning a nook and was caught off guard by a rock and hit the brakes actually rapidly, and the affect broke the entrance of the automotive.

The error value Akeel 4 hours and several other locations.

“I reacted in an emotional way, and I didn’t make the right call,” she admits. “Dakar is a race that forces you to look at yourself and your decisions. And after that, I did change the way I drove.”

Akeel’s story has confirmed engaging to main sponsors, together with the likes of Toyota and Canadian off-road specialist, Can-Am, which supplied her with the all-important automotive.

“Dania isn’t afraid to get in there and compete with the boys in a male-dominated sport,” mentioned Anne-Marie LaBerge, Chief Advertising Officer at BRP, which owns Can-Am, of Akeel.

“She helps to create a path for girls and future generations of younger girls to observe in Saudi Arabia, equally to what Molly Taylor is doing in Australia, Cristina Gutierrez is doing in Spain, and Cory Weller is doing in america.

“These are women creating a path for other women to push their limits and get in the game, whatever the rules are.”

As for the challenges of Dakar itself, Akeel sees it as a studying expertise, but in addition primarily as enjoyable.

“Dakar reminds me of summer camp,” she says. “You realize, daily we get up, we get our gear on and we simply drive for 400 plus kilometers. It’s the best two weeks.

“When I get in the car, it’s me and the co-driver and the car and the track. That’s it. That’s all that exists. Nothing else exists.”