JEDDAH: Fresh off the road from the Hail International Rally, the last round of the World Cross Country Championship, 33-year-old rally racer Mashael Al-Obaidan, who won second place in the T3 class, is gearing up for the 2022 Dakar Rally, the most challenging rally in the world. She sat down with Arab News ahead of her next big adventure this coming January.
Competing in the T3 category, Al-Obaidan will set off aboard a custom-made Can-Am Maverick alongside her co-driver Ashley Garcia. They will speed across Saudi Arabia’s dune waves and rocky terrain on a thrilling 12-day journey.
I’ve been training in the desert in Saudi with a personal trainer, wearing my suit and helmet and focusing on building my stamina with a focus on my mental strength.
Al-Obaidan started racing when she was a kid. What began as a fun day out with her father and a love for desert and off-roading adventures on quad bikes, eventually turned into a hobby, then a passion for traveling and competing.
“My dad gave me a quad as a gift when I was a kid, and I grew up exploring the world of buggies, dirt bikes, and motorcycles from a young age,” she said. “While studying in the US for my master’s degree, I would take a VW camper van and go touring for months at a time. I would visit hot springs, waterfalls or go scuba diving. That’s how I discover myself and started to take dirt bike courses, which became a hobby, and received my motorcycle license.”
That was merely a first step into what she was truly passionate about. “When I returned to Saudi Arabia and discovered the Dakar was taking place here, I called SAMF (the Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation) and asked if I could be issued with a competition license. I kept pushing and finally HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal called me personally to say I was ready to race, and I took part in the Dakar Experience in 2019, where I did a single stage,” she said.
She credits her family’s support for helping her get this far. “My parents have always supported me. They are always in touch with me while I am competing.”
In preparation for Dakar 2022 next January, Al-Obaidan told Arab News she loves adventure and nature, and the Dakar combines all this with speed, technical skills, and a powerful engine.
“I was in Dubai a couple of weeks ago testing with South Racing for four or five days in the dunes of the Empty Quarter. Also, I’ve been training in the desert in Saudi with a personal trainer, wearing my suit and helmet and focusing on building my stamina with a focus on my mental strength,” she added.
To physically prep for the race, Al-Obaidan would run up the emergency staircase of buildings as fast as she could. “It was challenging because there are no windows, not so much of a breeze even, and you have no idea how far there is to go. You think your legs won’t carry you anymore, then you get to the rooftop and achieve a high with this incredible view at the top.”
Last March, Al-Obaidan won the T3 class in the Cross Country Baja World Cup tour held in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.
She realized she was living her dream as well as unlocking doors and breaking down barriers, and she said: “At the beginning, I wasn’t sure what people would say, but all I’m getting is love and support. One thing that really touched me is a former teacher in high school got in touch with me out of the blue. She told me something she’d never shared with anyone before. She said she had always been in love with rallying and followed it in newspapers. It was a dream for her to compete in rallying and she said how happy she was that I was living out her dream.”
With a budget enough for one international event, last August, Al-Obaidan participated in the Baja Espana Aragon, known as the “mini Dakar,” alongside Emirati co-driver Ali Mirza in their South Racing Middle East Can-Am Maverick on a two-day whirlwind of a race. Al-Obaidan, the first Saudi female driver to compete in a European Baja round, came 7th.
“The Baja Espana Aragon was the hardest round,” she explained. “The terrain was completely new, the dust was something else, and we had to stop a couple of times because I couldn’t see my co-pilot any more. There were big rocks, water splashing, no windshield and at one point, I lost four-wheel drive. But I finished really strong against competitors who have been doing this sport for more than 15 years.”
She added: “The relationship with your co-driver is everything and they probably account for 55 percent of you finishing the race. We spend hours together and you need a synergy. The first thing I do before starting an event is that I tell my co-pilot ‘I trust you’ so whatever they say, I will follow.”
Regarding the changes she observed in Saudi society, she said: “It’s opening in Saudi Arabia, yes, there are a lot of things we still need to change and provide, but it’s amazing. We are paving the way. We are understanding the journey to tell other females how to join us.”
With an aim to finish Dakar 2022 and compete in next year’s Baja, she concluded: “I want to race more and more. When you do that, you understand yourself and where you stand. At this stage, I’m sticking with T3 class but moving forward I’d like to race in the T1. I still have a lot to learn, but am excited for the future.”