RIYADH: From playing with toy cars to becoming a professional racing driver is a dream for many children but one that few achieve.
However, for Reema Juffali of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the fulfilment of that childhood ambition will be especially poignant when she becomes the first woman from the Kingdom to compete in the Kingdom.
It will be yet another watershed moment for Saudi Arabia, as Reema takes to the track this weekend (on November 22 and 23) competing in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, the support race to the Diriyah E-Prix at the Diriyah Circuit, part of the epic Diriyah Season, a month-long festival of sport.
And for Reema it will be the latest chapter in a love affair with cars that began as a young child.
She said: “Somewhere in the album there will be pictures of me driving in my dad’s lap or waiting in the car on the driver’s seat making car sounds.
“I was always a very active child, I didn’t do ballet I did karate. I didn’t play with Barbies I liked little model cars so from a very young age. I liked things that weren’t simply classed as feminine. My parents encouraged me to go after what I wanted to do, I played in a football team, I played basketball, I played baseball, I tried all these different sports and I find happiness in sports.
“Cars was something though I was always interested in, I liked reading about them, what new cars were coming out, all the classic cars. It wasn’t until I until I went to college that I started watching and learning about racing. Ever since then it has been a question mark ‘how can I do this?’.
“When I was my teens the movie Transformers came out and so my friend gave me a nickname of ‘Opty’ after Optimus Prime because she knew how much I liked cars.
“When I got my first car in Boston in the US I would just take it out on drives whenever I needed time to think or I was stressed so I nicknamed my car Opty too. Being behind the wheel is my happy place.”
Reema made history by becoming the first Saudi female race licence holder to compete in the TRD 86 Cup at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi in October last year, taking second place in the Silver Category and fourth overall. Her previous racing experience also includes the MRF Challenge in India.
That moment came just months after Saudi Arabia announced that women could drive as part of the Kingdom’s evolving social landscape. For Reema it was a pivotal moment.
She said: “I knew the day was going to come when women would be able to drive. If you had asked me when I was 12 I was adamant I was going to get behind the wheel, then I left and moved abroad and got the chance to drive and I thought how great it would be to drive at home.
“For me it wasn’t about the fact that women could drive, it was what driving brings, that freedom and that independence. It was an emotional moment, I had to celebrate with a drive and the first time I saw another women on the roads I waved to her. My sister asked if I knew her and I was like ‘no, I’m just so happy to see another woman driving’.”
Reema made one of her first appearances in the F4 British Championships at Brands Hatch last October. Just last month she was back at UK circuit driving for Double R Racing, the Woking-based team formed in 2004 by 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen and his race manager, Steve Robertson.
For the 27-year-old though competing in Saudi Arabia, on the Diriyah Circuit in the heart of the UNESECO World Heritage site, will be something special, especially competing in the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY, the support race to the opening double header for the ABB FIA Formula E Championship.
She said: “I am very excited, I never thought this day would come, or at least I didn’t know when and it came a lot sooner than expected. I’m a year into racing and here I am now about to race at home which is an incredible feeling.
“My family are very happy and excited. I told them I was going to be racing in Saudi and its going to be a big thing for me and us and they were like ‘that’s nice’ and then when it was official I sort of dawned on them and there were like ‘oh my, are you ready for this?’ I think I am.
“I came to racing quite late in life, some people start karting at the age of six, they have a path for them, for me my path was go study, then go work and it wasn’t an option for me to drop it all and race. Thankfully I got the opportunity to try this itching passion that I had for cars and just drive on the tracks, and then just give it everything.
“That was last October and it’s been very positive since then. I have a lot of learning to do, it is still the beginning for me, but it’s just been an amazing experience for me. I want to be a better driver and grow, at the end of the day I love it and I want to improve, I am doing it because of that.”
Reema also hopes her debut in the Kingdom will inspire other young men and women to get behind the wheel and consider a career in motorsports.
She said: “With Formula E and the Saudi Dakar Rally it’s amazing to see what is happening with motorsport and the opportunities that are opening up for Saudi drivers, especially girls.
“For me connecting with other women is definitely a plus. Having other people to look up to, especially for me at a younger age, would have been amazing. Now I get the chance to influence and if I can do that for one gender great, if I can for both genders even better and I feel like I am doing that.
“The questions I am getting from a lot of people such as ‘how do you do this, how can I do this?’ are from both men and women. It is a whole new world of motorsports for everybody in Saudi Arabia and they just want to learn and understand how its going to work and how they can be a part of it.