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Dakar Rally: Meet Dania Akeel, the Saudi woman taking on one of the world’s toughest motor races


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

“We’re so fortunate,” Akeel tells CNN Sport. “I imply, have a look at this place, it’s so lovely.”

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

“We get to do that for a dwelling, proper?” continues 34-year-old Akeel, reflecting on her chosen career 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, using shotgun in a Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR with one among cross-country racing’s extra outstanding tales.

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

The Arizona desert is an ideal place to train for the Dakar Rally.

‘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 as a consequence of safety considerations, the rally was transplanted throughout the Atlantic, and ran by South America till 2020, when it moved once more, to Saudi Arabia.

In the present day there are 5 main automobile classes within the rally: automobiles, motorbikes, vans, 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 an enormous curiosity in automobiles once I was youthful,” she tells CNN. “It wasn’t essentially automobiles, truly, it was something that would that I may drive and that included bicycles.

“You understand, I simply love motion. I like being outside. I simply love the way it felt to speak to the machine, to get it to go from A to B.”

Her childhood was spent making an attempt every kind of various modes of transport.

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

“These are simply automobiles that may be in non-public houses, on a farm or issues like that, the place I had entry to these kinds of machines, and I might simply use them for enjoyable with my cousins and my buddies on the weekends.”

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

“I used to be very fortunate to journey ceaselessly with my mother and father,” she recollects. “We used to go to kart tracks in England and that was actually enjoyable.”

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 she or he 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 introduced to drive.

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

“After I was 27, I bought my bike license, and that was a variety of enjoyable. So, the bike began to direct me in the direction of the racing world.”

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

“I may see that I used to be actually loving the game and having a very good time and a few of the racers inspired me to hitch them, to race the within the nationwide collection,” says Akeel.

“I went and bought the checks and the exams executed for the racing license, after which I bought a license issued from the Saudi Motor Sports activities Federation. And that’s how I began racing.”

The impetus to modify 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 facet’ fall, which implies I fell onto the observe on the facet that the bike was leaning towards, which is, you recognize, the, the lesser and simpler fall.”

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

“I used to be very fortunate. I had some damaged bones in my pelvis, my backbone, however they had been all fractures that would heal naturally. So, I thought-about that to be a really fortunate end result and I used to be very relieved and really 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 think about the enchantment of off-road and rally racing, particularly as Saudi Arabia was welcoming the Dakar Rally for the primary time.

“It’s an awesome occasion. It’s worldwide. It hosts lots of people from everywhere in the world, coming in huge numbers, and it’s a variety of enjoyable,” she explains.

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

“(I needed) to get used to the thought of being in several conditions, totally different terrain, which Dakar offers you, throughout 9,000 kilometers of Saudi Arabia and it’s truly very various,” she says.

“So, once 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 areas was a totally totally different method of driving.

“So, I discovered, for instance, it was muddy in Italy, and there was a variety of gravel and water in Hungary. There have been a variety of bumpy, rocky components within the Center East with sand, with dunes. In order that simply bought my thoughts ready for selection and to have the ability to have interaction with the unknown.”

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

“When you’ve got this mentality that something can occur at any second and also you count on issues to always evolve, then you definitely might be properly ready mentally,” she explains.

“After which bodily, that’s a special story: so, I’ve my exercise routine and I eat properly and sleep properly.”

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

With ladies solely lately in a position to drive on the highway in Saudi Arabia, Akeel is conscious that she could possibly be seen as a job mannequin by her countrywomen, however she is philosophical about her personal path and what she would possibly symbolize to others.

“I used to be very fortunate to get my license once I was 17 and I had a head begin on constructing that response time and people abilities and driving abilities,” she says.

“I believe it’s essential to look at folks do it as a result of then you definitely perceive that it’s doable for you, whoever you might be, to get into the game.

“I imply, I keep in mind once I was becoming a member of the primary race, I didn’t assume twice about … what number of ladies had executed this? Had they been from Saudi? Not Saudi? I didn’t assume an excessive amount of about that as a result of the foundations say I might be there.

“You understand, I’ve each proper to be there. I’ve my license. I belong right here. I’ve my automobile, I’ve my gear, I’ve my helmet. You understand, so I meet the entire necessities. I’ve a full set of rights of belonging within the sport and that was what I wanted.”

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, nevertheless it may have been even higher.

“We had been sixth (within the T3 class), which I used to be very proud of, being a primary timer,” mentioned Akeel. “However on the seventh day I had an issue with the turbo and the automobile had a bit much less energy. I began to make use of the brakes much less and carry momentum by the turns. However which means extra threat.

“(My co-driver) mentioned, ‘you recognize, when 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 influence broke the entrance of the automobile.

The error value Akeel 4 hours and a number of other locations.

“I reacted in an emotional method, and I didn’t make the appropriate name,” she admits. “Dakar is a race that forces you to have a look at your self and your choices. And after that, I did change the way in which I drove.”

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

“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 ladies 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 ladies making a path for different ladies to push their limits and get within the sport, regardless of the guidelines are.”

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

“Dakar jogs my memory of summer season camp,” she says. “You understand, each day we get up, we get our gear on and we simply drive for 400 plus kilometers. It’s the best two weeks.

“After I get within the automobile, it’s me and the co-driver and the automobile and the observe. That’s it. That’s all that exists. Nothing else exists.”

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