Updated: Mar 14, 2022
With the advent of the commercial motorcar in the late 1890's, many innovative 'events' were created to advertise and promote the motorcar and the fast growing network of road. In India one of the first documented cross country events dates back to 1906! Closer home, in 2011 India hosted its first ever F1 event, bringing motorsport into the forefront in India once again.
A sport that believes in no gender discrimination and empowers both genders to compete together on the road, it has witnessed many women ahead of their time. Inspire Crew on our quest to find inspiring Indian women in extreme sports had the opportunity to be in conversation with Ms. Navaz Bhathena Sandhu about her Motorsport experience, spanning much of her life. Daughter to Darayus Bhathena & Katie Bhathena, Navaz mentioned, “My parents were part of the community that raced at famous WW2 abandoned airstrips, converted over the weekend for some serious racing with a dose of adrenaline rush, combined with huge spectator support”.
Lohegaon near Pune, Barrackpore near Kolkata and Sholavaram near Chennai soon became the attraction towns for the Motorsport lovers to come set their souls free on the track. With parents setting up an easy track, Navaz definitely had the love for Rallying and Racing coming even though she never had the passion for it as a child. “Marshalling and helping out with the Motorsport events since the age of ten, I was quite sure I wanted to make my mark elsewhere”, says Navaz; until she received her driving license at the age of 18 when her elder brother Farad, who was already gaining popularity in this discipline insisted she should at least give it a try before giving it all up. A track in Kalyan near Mumbai, created in the slush due to the monsoons is where Farad managed to make Navaz fall in love with something she was born to do. Thus began her journey into competitive motor-sport.
Talking of racing / rallying cars, the cars that come to mind are either the Mitsubishi Lancer or Maruti Suzuki Baleno or Gypsy or even Maruti 1000 that were homologated by the brands themselves to suit the purpose. But this Star driver began rallying in her very own Fiat Premier Padmini that her parents won at the All India Rally back in 1972. Navaz, her brothers and her parents have all rallied and raced in the same car for a significant time. Loaded with Nostalgia, the Fiat Padmini today still sits on their premise as an antique, often giving her audience a chance to reminiscence the many racing tales attached to her.
Motorsport being a very expensive sport, she recalls one of her fair learnings from her parents; “I always kept an account of the expenses incurred in the sport and returned them to my parents in due course of time, until I was fully sponsored by team MRF. Having a car wasn’t common at all, leave alone the idea of having a spare one just to bang around while you perfect the art”. This rested a sense of responsibility on her shoulder which kept her grounded and also refined her focus further to bring out the best in her. Call it fate, call it natural or even call it genes, once Navaz adventured into this discipline of Extreme Sport she aced in the performance that drew in attention and also got her a sponsorship, that took her places.
Precocious and often nicknamed as the fastest woman on track, “It was never the victories that I was chasing”, she says. Winning the overall Sportscraft Summer Rally in 1990, in Mumbai is what sprinted Navaz to fame. In her 10 years as an active racer, she has won many rallies in her category and quite a few races too, whose names and timelines she finds difficult to remember. For someone who was in the sport for the adrenaline, not keeping a count of your wins is a fair point. We hear you.
Lucky enough to never encounter any major accident extreme sports often bring on the table, she does accept the one time when things could’ve gone wrong; “We were rallying in the mountains of Maharashtra at late hours. My navigator got sick and started to throw up. She was in no state to give me any clear instructions on the road ahead, I could only drive by sight”. Speeding through the dark mountains, Navaz missed the steep right bend, the car flew off the road, and as intense a leap it felt in those split seconds they landed on an open field only feeling blessed for that shallow drop.
“We took a moment just to register, breathe and absorb the trembles in silence. Glanced at each other to make sure we were holding up well. Surprised at the engine’s healthy roar as soon as I keyed in, we adjusted ourselves on the seat and in a matter of ten minutes we were back on road to compete.”
Navaz hung up her racing shoes in the year 2000 as she was content with how far she had come with a passion she thought she never had. Her spirit for Motorsport though still hasn’t died out and today she represents India at the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) for Women in Motorsport.
A sport with equal rights, Inspire Crew tried to understand from Navaz why the participation still sees a very low count amongst women in this extreme category. She told us, “It is not the case only in India. It is the case on a global level. The sport does come across as male-centric, but who’s to stop you if your passion for it knows no boundaries?” She continued to say, “Though, I do understand, in India, it’s rare to find a parent who would spare a car to their child to just bump and crash and find a career in it. Parents in our country are definitely more protective of their daughters and the kind of risks extreme sports involve; gives them more reasons to discourage their girls from pursuing it. I just lucked out to be born to a Motorsporting duo”.
Also, the motorsport community as expressed by Navaz does lack the recognition and support from the Indian Government. Gaurav Gill is India’s first driver to win the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in 2013. For three years in a row, his name has been nominated by the Federation for the ‘Arjuna Award’ given by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Sadly, it has been declined on the grounds that Rallying is not a National Sport. To encourage more women to endeavour Rallying, Times of India has been organising the ‘Women’s Drive’ over the past nine years. This is rather a great platform to start with for the dreamers seeking the opportunity in reality.
Acknowledging the initiative taken by Inspire Crew, Navaz explained how important it is for the young athletes in Extreme Sports to be motivated. While the country focuses on National Sports a great section of talented athletes are getting lost in the shadows of the mainstream. In conversation with Inspire Crew, Navaz concluded, “Ambitions are necessary to lead a disciplined and focused life. But why chase a medal or a victory, when the chase never tasted like freedom? Remember to live, to have fun and to do it for yourself first. Fame is never the target; it is only to be grateful for.”