We caught up with Captain Doctor Sneha Sharma, as soon as she told us about her first international win recently at the Malaysia Speed Festival 2019, where she clocked a best time of 2:57.4 to classify for the Advanced category, an achievement in itself given the mix of top international racers. Sneha is a racing champion and a commercial Pilot, aged 28 as of March 2019. She was born in Kolkata with an ancestry from Himachal, and has grown up in Mumbai. While she currently resides in Chennai, she tell us more about her life and her story around racing.
"I started when I was young, I was the odd one out, the younger child, who would always get the cycle with three wheels, but not the ones with two wheels. I loved cycling, when I was older I fought for a sports cycle, the ones with gears, not the lady bird one with pink ribbons hanging on it’s side..."
When and how did your love for motor sports begin?
So back when I was 13, I would be riding my cycle on the streets, riding fast, for fun & pleasure. Sometimes these bike guys would try to race me, I don't know why but they did it, so in the traffic it's possible to win if you have skills and can control your cycle properly. When this would happen, I would be like hell no, I don't pick up battles I finish them. I would win sometimes, they would dis me or say nice riding, that's when I knew there's something about races.
I didn't have a lot of friends growing up, and I didn't like sitting in cafes or watching movies, I always wanted to do something different, we heard there is Go-karting in town and we went. The moment I sat in the car I decided this rush felt amazing, and this is how I want to feel for the rest of my life, so after that I spent all my time, off days and school holidays on the race track. I would save up my lunch money/ pocket money, etc and go do the 4 laps, they were for 120 bucks back then, I remember, and in fact when I started to kart I also clocked the fastest lap time of the day. I was 15 around that time, I saw two really fast racers on the track one day, I didn't know that they were racing drivers, but they were driving in sync and driving really fast, I was smitten by the control. By then I knew the track mechanics, they were my friends in a way, so I asked them who these two were, I was told these were national karting racing drivers, I was like blown away and said even I want to do this, but I didn't have access, I told the mechanic to train me with whatever little bit they knew and with that I started participating with a lot of events organised on the race track.
Tell us about your training rituals and your story of getting geared physically, mentally and emotionally towards your future dream;
At the age of 16 I was approx 90 kgs, and that’s quite heavy for my height, I lost 30 kgs of weight all by myself, I used to climb 14 floors, and climb wherever I found stairs. I also started eating better, for racing and for myself. It helped, because you become strong with your will when you go through these things. The local track mechanics taught me skills like breaking, cornering, accelerating etc. I started working part time with a team where I used to manage the team, do the accounts, train people and also work on the car with the mechanics and at the end of the day even load trucks say until 2 am in the morning on the race track and the next day I would have to drive. I train my mind to function in uncomfortable situations, if there's a song on TV which I don't like it, I listen to it and say I can tolerate it. I meditate, practise yoga, read. There's a lot of homework that goes into racing. People think it's just going driving but it’s studying the lines, the tracks, communicating with the engineer, and a lot more.
Tell us more about the progression of your passion, the competitions and races. How did you fund the initial set of practices and races?
Since I worked at the track, I used to be on podium for a lot of these races, most often I would race but otherwise, not so often. Then there was this big race, it was organised by Times of India, and I finished top two. I personally think that I won that category amongst a lot of professionally trained drivers. When I did the first year of karting I was the only girl to qualify for the KCT category and along with that I got a lot of podium finishes in other categories. At the age of 17 I won my first Rupee road-track race and then I left for the USA for my flying studies. It was difficult time and I had to put down my helmet. I didn't know if i'll get to race any more, but when I did come back I picked the most affordable category and resumed.
I also had a knee injury which kept me out of racing for a year and half. After two years in my comeback race I was the fastest woman in my category and got the outstanding woman driver award, by FMSCI which is the national governing authority, handed to me by Sir John Todd who is the world motor sport head of F.I.A. I went to W Series where I was one of the top 50 riders of the world who went for a final shoot out for a Formula 3 racing championship. I got the title for regional ambassador. I’m racing in Malaysia this year, I’m the only Indian on the grid. In this first season, I finished second in round one. Till date I've driven for these championships, MIA karting championship, JK tyre FMSCI national racing championship, Malaysia Proton Saga Cup, VW Polo Cup and the Malaysia Speed Festival that's where I got my 2nd position. I'm looking forward to drive the Formula BMW this year.
Moving from karting to formula; how did the shift come through?
While racing I caught the eye of a lot of people, the national team told me I should do the national karting championship, and I later found out karting is the basics for all formula driving around the world. It was a tough call, I was 16, a science student, and had already started with my pilot studies. At the age of 17, I left for the USA, my father, he was pro flying and pro education but did not like my racing. In fact my parents took loans to fund my training. I knew I had to fulfil my responsibilities of my studies since I come from a middle class family, so I’d carry my books along. Somehow I found my way and enrolled in the national championship.
For me it was never go karting, salon racing and formula. By the time I got there I was happy to be there. I would be the only girl in the category. Normally boys don't get so troubled when they loose to another boy, but sometime you also hear things being said, like women can't drive or I’ll take you out the next corner, or I'll take you out and hit you off, stuff like you don't belong here, you're wasting your money. They said all these things to me and I would get so pissed off, I would sometimes cry in the washroom but never let them see me, because I always believe and want everyone to believe that 'never let them see you sweat, let your performance speak for itself'. I always channelled this energy inside and move the frustration towards driving. Also another thing is women are always asked to be liked and we like to be likeable and we are supposed to be wanted to be liked. I prefer being respected than being liked. Even if it means to let them know what they're doing is incorrect. I think that's one thing and another thing is I also believe women should not pick up a profession that's made for a woman but they should pick a profession they like and make their own place in it.
What did you do before racing, in terms of sports and interests?
I used to enjoy music, I learned to play the piano & keyboard, I was in the school band, I used to also play the flute. I was a girl guide in scouts and guides, I used to sail with my dad around the world, when we were young we used to sail two months every year, get to go to different places, not for long but the experience was awesome being in the middle of nowhere.
Parents and family; what was it like for them to see you pursuing your passion?
My dad wasn't very happy about what I was doing, he found it to be a distraction to studies. I would sometimes hide my helmet outside the wall of my house, jump the wall and go race, I would tell my parents I'm going to my friends house. It was tough in the beginning, but later on they realised they can take the girl out of racing but not the racing out of the girl, so they came around, now they support me in all ways that they can, although my mom passed on last year, so it’s been a little difficult, but my dad is okay, he's good now, he understands, since I also fulfilled my responsibilities along side racing, so they were fine.
Tell us a little more about your career & other achievements;
The most funny thing is, I got my racing license first then my commercial and private flying licence, then my doctorate, following which I got my command. At age 20 I got through Indigo Airlines, and I got my command last year on the Airbus 320. I received an honorary doctorate in 2018. I moved to Chennai for a year, I was a first officer, turned captain in 2018. Went through a long training, after the promotion they shift you out for a year, so currently I’m in Chennai. I've done stunt videos with Renault for women's day, I've done TV shows with MTV and Jockey, again racing cars. I was a celebrity guest with Chef Kunal Kapoor's My Yellow Table showing on the Good Times channel. I got a call from big boss last year, but I refused since it’s not a good call for me. Other than that I invest my time in social upliftment. I received the National Youth Award by the Bharat Seva Samvad this year, I also received the World Women Conference - Super Achiever Award. It’s supposed to be a big deal, and the Young Environmentalist Award.
Racing future plans, what are you preparing for next?
I want to make it to Formula 1 one day, lets see how that goes, I’ve at least made my international debut, we have a team in India, so let's see.
Funding, sponsors and support; can you tell us how you managed to grow your passion?
I invested a lot of my own salary into developing as a racing driver. Then while racing one day I got approached by JK Tyres. People do support me, my sponsors, JK & DV Motorsports in Malaysia, Indigo my airlines have been very supportive, they have policies for women, now I'm on a contract where I fly 20 days a month and the rest of the days are for my racing, people are not bad, but we have to change the ratio, we need to change the ration from more bad to less bad.
Tell us about your coach/ guide/ mentor over the years?
It’s all me, by myself and it’s good, it’s been very difficult, it’s been good along the way. Since I was young, I was never had friends who did what I did. I seek mentor ship and support form all the famous people like Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Twain and all these amazing people, their quotations should keep the fire going and it helped, also my followers are very supportive. My inspiration has been Ayrton Senna.
Tell us about the women’s racing scene in India?
I think a lot more women are coming in, and I'm happy that the popularity is coming up. I also represent the FMSCI when I go places, I speak on behalf of women in Motorsports, I feel a woman should be able to do what she wants to do, whether it's racing, flying, cooking, raising a child, whatever it is, it's her right.
What about society and people in general, seeing a woman kill it on the track might not digest easy?
It's my desire to make it that keeps me going beyond all this talk, to make it in life, I found my purpose, and that means a lot. The fact that I've been deprived in life and that I have to do it all by myself, you know people say there's no elevator to success or whatever, I had to take a bloody ladder, and it made me strong along the way. Life is limited and short however you take it and I want to make it. I've been told so many things for so long, first when I was racing I was told these girls come to make a show, once a guy told my team owner not to waste money on a girls practise, so all these things being said. But now, it's all good, I also want to prove them otherwise. It's not just my life I'm leading anymore, I want the world to know a woman can do a lot of things. When I wanted to race, I was told I can't, when I wanted to fly I was told you won't get a job, not from my family but a lot of people around, when I started doing both, I was told I’m too ambitious. In India being ambitious tends to be an abuse to women. Why on earth? I mean ambition is a good thing, and women should not just be financially independent, they should be mentally, emotionally and physically independent too. Weakness is not beauty, people tend to think weakness is beauty in India which doesn't sit well with me.
What is the fastest lap clocked so far and your favourite track to drive?
270 km/hr in a Mercedes Young Star Drive, where I was the only girl able to raise that point in India, it was at the Buddha International Circuit, which is also one of my favourite tracks. Another of my favourites is the track in Melk, Austria.
-What do you think of the work inspire crew is doing?
I think you guys are doing a great job, in bringing light to these stories. A platform, it's a really good thing.
Picture courtesy: Sneha Sharma
[I.C] We love speaking to women who have achieved their dreams and extend inspiration to more women and men to follow their passions and break through their own limitations. Here is one great conversation with Sneha Sharma and her story. We are glad we have the opportunity to speak to such amazing women through Inspire Crew, stay tuned with us for more stories and more badassery!
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