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 via the intercom above the roar of the engine and the frenzy of wind via the windowless cabin of her rugged, black UTV.
“We’re so fortunate,” Akeel tells CNN Sport. “I imply, take a look at this place, it’s so stunning.”
The Saudi grasps the wheel, deftly navigating the automobile previous rocks and Joshua bushes alongside a winding filth observe, blasting it previous the rusting shell of a long-abandoned pick-up throughout the dry sand.
“We get to do that for a residing, proper?” 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 exceptional tales.
Barely over two years in the past, the Jeddah-born athlete had by no means even tried the sort of 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 on account of safety issues, the rally was transplanted throughout the Atlantic, and ran via South America till 2020, when it moved once more, to Saudi Arabia.
As we speak there are 5 main automobile classes within the rally: vehicles, motorbikes, vans, UTVs and quad bikes.
Akeel’s curiosity in motor autos goes again a lot farther than the arrival of this world-famous rally in her dwelling nation.
“I had an enormous curiosity in vehicles after I was youthful,” she tells CNN. “It wasn’t essentially vehicles, really, it was something that might that I may drive and that included bicycles.
“You recognize, I simply love motion. I really 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 attempting all types of various modes of transport.
“I began driving issues like go karts at a younger age, and issues like quad bikes,” she explains. “Once I was a bit older, I drove two wheeled filth bikes.
“These are simply autos that will be in non-public properties, on a farm or issues like that, the place I had entry to all these machines, and I might simply use them for enjoyable with my cousins and my mates on the weekends.”
Her curiosity in motor autos solidified when her household moved to the UK, the place she went to highschool and, ultimately, school.
“I used to be very fortunate to journey incessantly with my dad and mom,” she recollects. “We used to go to kart tracks in England and that was actually enjoyable.”
One other door that opened for Akeel within the UK was one at that time firmly closed to her at dwelling – the possibility to drive on the street – 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 offered to drive.
It was a transfer onto two wheels that set Akeel’s thoughts in direction of racing.
“Once I was 27, I acquired my bike license, and that was a variety of enjoyable. So, the bike began to direct me in direction of 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 may see that I used to be actually loving the game and having an excellent time and among the racers inspired me to hitch them, to race the within the nationwide collection,” says Akeel.
“I went and acquired the exams and the exams executed for the racing license, after which I acquired a license issued from the Saudi Motor Sports activities Federation. And that’s how I began 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 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 have been all fractures that might heal naturally. So, I thought-about that to be a really fortunate consequence and I used to be very relieved and really grateful.”
On the time, the Covid pandemic was starting to precipitate widespread border closures and lockdowns, so Akeel returned dwelling 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 important occasion. It’s worldwide. It hosts lots of people from all around 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 worldwide rally collection impressed by the eponymous races on Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
“(I needed) to get used to the thought of being in numerous conditions, totally different terrain, which Dakar offers you, throughout 9,000 kilometers of Saudi Arabia and it’s really very numerous,” 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 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 elements within the Center East with sand, with dunes. In order that simply acquired my thoughts ready for selection and to have the ability to interact with the unknown.”
Being prepared for the surprising is a key function of preparation for the Dakar, Akeel says.
“If in case you have this mentality that something can occur at any second and also you anticipate issues to continually 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.”
With girls solely not too long ago capable of drive on the street in Saudi Arabia, Akeel is conscious that she might be seen as a task mannequin by her countrywomen, however she is philosophical about her personal path and what she may characterize to others.
“I used to be very fortunate to get my license after 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 vital to observe folks do it as a result of then you definitely perceive that it’s attainable for you, whoever you’re, to get into the game.
“I imply, I keep in mind after I was becoming a member of the primary race, I didn’t suppose twice about … what number of girls had executed this? Had they been from Saudi? Not Saudi? I didn’t suppose an excessive amount of about that as a result of the principles say I might be there.
“You recognize, 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 recognize, so I meet all the necessities. I’ve a full set of rights of belonging within the sport and that was what I wanted.”
In her first try on the Dakar, Akeel completed a creditable eighth in her class within the 2022 race, but it surely may have been even higher.
“We have been sixth (within the T3 class), which I used to be very pleased with, 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 via the turns. However meaning extra threat.
“(My co-driver) mentioned, ‘you recognize, if you happen to 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 engaging to main sponsors, together with the likes of Toyota and Canadian off-road specialist, Can-Am, which supplied 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 ladies 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 the US.
“These are girls making a path for different girls 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 time camp,” she says. “You recognize, day-after-day we get up, we get our gear on and we simply drive for 400 plus kilometers. It’s the best two weeks.
“Once 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.”