Meet Yara Shalaby – Egypt’s only female cross country rally racer. She has won several local and international races over the past four years and was crowned the Egyptian National Champion in 2016 – all the while being a mother and holding down her daily job. She is committed to be the FIA (Federation of International Automobiles) Egyptian ambassador of rallying and a member of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission. Yara taking racing to a new level and her vision is to form the first all-female cross country rally team that will compete to win the FIA World championship. She dreams of forming a training school that teaches girls and women to be rally drivers, mechanics and all-round unstoppable forces of nature.
How did your interest in racing develop?
Rock climbing, parachuting, rush, adrenaline – I always try all kinds of sports. I tried driving in the desert for the first time five years ago with friends and they didn’t do it the normal way that I was used to. Almost nothing is impossible not to cross in the desert – with the right technique and the right speed you can do anything. So I wanted to know more about it. I kept on driving and went into different areas in the desert every weekend. Then people started telling me how good I am and how well I know my way around and they suggested I try to join the coming desert race. I learned all about it: I learned how to get my car ready to race, all the safety equipment needed, the gadgets, and how to qualify.
I joined my first race in April 2013 but I didn’t do well. I was teased being the only woman to enter the rally. People were saying “girls don’t even know how to drive on roads, you will get lost in the desert” and that’s exactly what happened. We were lost and we couldn’t find the finish line; they had to send some of the organisers to find us. That was the first day/stage. The second day/stage in the rally I focussed on not getting lost and just finding my way and I made it to the finish line. That was a great accomplishment for me. The next race was a few months later in which I did very well. I was ranked second over men that had been competing and racing for ten or fifteen years before. That’s when I grabbed the attention of one of the big teams back then and they asked me to join their team.
I applied for a loan to upgrade my car and I joined the team. I raced with them for a year joining all the local rallies and the “Pharaons International Rally” that was held in Egypt. It was one of the biggest rallies back then and it was one of the toughest. I did well – I was ranked first in the national category. That’s when I gained some confidence and I decided to form my own team with most the members as women as I had been approached by many women before. I created a team called the “Gazelle Rally Team”. My co-pilot is a girl, the assistant team is a girl as well the mechanic who is still learning and gaining the experience.
Do you foresee sometime in the future having a women-only rally team?
Not necessarily but yes. I can still rely on men in my team but when I find a good calibre candidate who is interested I prefer to give her the chance to learn and expose her to a real rally and invite her to join our team. But if I cannot find someone then I’ll choose a man because I need members that I can rely on regardless of their gender.
If you had to choose one factor, what do you attribute your success to as a rally driver?
Persistence. I struggled with finance, I struggled with people disappointing me, I struggled with time because I’m a mom raising a child and I have a full-time job. I also have to work on finding sponsors for the team. All these obstacles – if you’re not persistent and don’t love what you’re doing then you will stop at the first obstacle. That’s what happened with other women entering this field before – I’m not the first woman to race in Egypt in the rally scene. There were two other women that previously joined the rally team but they just did one race and then quit. I’m still facing a lot of obstacles but I believe that I will be supported by a big corporate one day that will fund all the activities and help me join the world championships if I sustain and I keep on fighting and trying to join as many rallies as I can and manage to afford.
I read that you mainly sponsor your rallies yourself and you have to take out loans for financing. Has it been difficult finding sponsors? Why?
In general this sport is one of the most expensive sports worldwide and it drains all your finance, so you need to have good funds and support from a sponsor. This year was the first year I got sponsored from my bank – I work for QNB “Qatar National Bank”. They sponsored my team last year but then needed to cut some costs so they didn’t renew this year. In Egypt this kind of sport is not really popular and it doesn’t have enough exposure and coverage from the media and support from the government. Most of the companies look to sponsor sports that are always on TV, that are popular and everyone knows about. Being in the desert, this sport is very limited for people to actually go and watch the rally. So it’s a bit tricky to convince corporates to fund this sport that is not very visible, especially in Egypt. I’ve been racing in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and Morocco but all these countries have funding and support from the government, not just companies. They have regular rallies and they have the support that can help athletes easily find sponsorship. So that’s what I finally decided to do. I took my car to the UAE and I plan to keep it there and race there because I can easily find sponsorship there but still, I’m not giving up hope in Egypt. I’m still looking for sponsorship and partnership and support from companies in Egypt.
What do you ultimately wish to achieve as a female rally driver in Egypt?
I have two big goals: firstly, to be the world champion and to be able to enter most of the world championship rallies across the world, not just in Egypt or the UAE and, secondly, to have some kind of training school that teaches girls what it takes to be a rally driver. I want to teach them how to build the rally cars, the basics of car mechanics and how to fix the main troubleshooting that can occur during any race, all the basics about rallying and navigation that can help them join this sport. I’m doing this now on a small scale with my friends and my colleagues and whenever I find a girl that needs to learn I want to show her everything. I’m hoping to find a sponsor for this school to be able to make it on a larger scale.
You’ve set one of the best examples for girls that you possibly could. What, instead, would your message be to boys and men when it comes to gender equality?
I think there is no specific field or role specified for women or men. Women and men can enter any field they like. Men can be a cook or a hairdresser and girls can do anything classified as a ‘manly thing’. Girls can do motorsports and can be the world champion of athletics. There’s no girl-specific field or man-specific field – anyone can be anything.
What do you have planned for the next year? If people are interested in following you, what can they look forward to?
The “Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge” will be my first International rally on a large scale and will be held on the 1st of April 2018. Now that Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive in their country, I am hoping to be the first Arab woman to race there and join “Rally Hail” which is one of the toughest worldwide.
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