If you are willing sky is the limit

The first female formula racing driver in Sri Lanka

Director, Mclarens Group of Companies

-Shehara Jayawardana

Usually ladies don’t like racing or driving manual cars. What made you fall in love with cars & racing?

Now-a-days ladies do like to drive racing cars. Because whenever I tell some lady that I am racing they say “Oh that’s interesting, I also like to race”. May be that was those days they had that impression. But for me personally I grew up with racing cars. My father (Rohan de Silva) was a champion race car driver from the time when I was very small. So I was used to go with him to the race track and help with small things like fitting the stickers or doing little things in the workshop. Racing was a part of my life growing up. Sometimes we used to have the race car inside our house, in the hall of our house. When you have a race on a weekend, from Friday itself we are preparing the car. Saturday we have to go to track for qualifying and Sunday is the race. So it became a lifestyle. Most weekends were to do with racing. So obviously with my father being the champion at that time, I was a big supporter of him and naturally got into like cars. I am very passionate about the sport. There’s lot of emotions and danger that surrounds it. Sometimes you are worried about the safety of the person who is driving. But you start to love it.

When did you start racing competitively?

I always wanted to start racing since I was about 6 years old. In Sri Lanka, we had Go-Karting at that time. Most kids used to start Go-Karting at about 6-8 years age. But obviously for me it was bit difficult because they said you’re a girl, you can’t do it. So I had to wait till about 15. Then my father gave me a Go-Kart with restricted power. I drove that. I participated for a Go-Kart race on BMICH circuit and became 3rd in my first race. So, after that everyone felt a little bit more confidence that I can race and then slowly started racing Go-Karting. Then at 18 when I got my license I started to race a Nissan March which was an entry level racing category in the racing and then slowly went up that way to drive a formula ford and Honda vetch 1600cc racing car.

What were the challenges you faced as a woman engaged in motor sports?

Well the biggest one was taking a break from racing to have my children. When I got married I stopped racing for about 6-7 years because I had two kids. I think I was older. 18-19 years old, nothing to lose, I felt that before. I used to take a lot more chances and risks. I ensure lot of accidents as well because I was not scared of anything. Now I’m a little bit more cautious. Now I drive from the head and I think it serve me better because when I started back, I started with the March and I moved to SLH. I got my confidence and became a front runner in a slower, steady and more decent manner.

When I came back after my children, things are very competitive. For most of the guys who I’ve raced with have workshops, they have car sales, they are in the car business itself. So they have the time to all this where I’m working in a corporate environment. I don’t have time to spend doing research, in the workshops, doing with the car so much like them. So I find that as one big challenge. But apart from that, I don’t really think of myself as “okay I’m a lady and they are boys”, I don’t feel disadvantaged because when we are all on the circuit, we are all competitors. Of course physical strength is one thing. They are strong but, we also can work out, we also can become strong. So I try to work out as much as possible. It is difficult with children, work and everything. But I don’t try to make that a factor for me to fall back.

Most of the people around me have supported me. But there are of course others who don’t like when a woman beat them because they feel bad. Specially my competitors. But it shouldn’t be the case just because I’m a woman. I’m a competitor who has been there in racing for a long time and equal competitor as them. So they should not make it a reason.

Motor racing is not a contact sport. You are not supposed to make contact with other cars .There are some guys who knocks you off the track and then both are out. Sometimes they knock you, you are out, and he’s gone. Then the officials don’t take the right decisions, there are disqualifications. So there are a bit of bullying going on like that. I think all racing drivers in Sri Lanka need to be much more disciplined in terms of their driving.

What do you think about Sri Lankan Motor Sports?

In Sri Lanka, our people are very keen about motor sports. The drivers are keen. The spectators are also keen. But if you look at motor sports world wide, motor sports is a business. The drivers do it for their career. The sponsors and the advertisers and even drivers are making a lot of money. That’s what makes the sport thrive. In Sri Lanka it’s not there yet. Because our drivers do it as a hobby not as a career. We do have some big sponsors but they have to see value in coming into a sport and getting enough coverage via people watching the sport. Now Rupawahini covers all the gravel races. But apart from that, other races are not so much covered. And if they are covering, then we find the spectators are less. So people need to come for the races if they find it interesting. There need to be much more publicity. They need to have races with more drivers, 10-15 cars, shorter duration and more in line with the international standards. Our racing should have a pathway to go international. At the moment we don’t. Our roads are not in line with the international races. My husband is also a racing driver. So both of us, started this place called Speedrome to support young drivers. Go-Karting is the cradle of motor sports. Go-Karting has died out in Sri Lanka. We opened a Go-Kart track and that brought in a lot of new people into racing that normally wouldn’t had the chance to get in. It was actually Pro-Karting, which is a slow version of Go-Karting. But at the same time the highest form of the sport in the world is Formula 1 obviously. If we look at it in terms of single seater racing, if we look at rally wise it’s the ‘World Rally Championship’, if we look at stock car, ‘World touring car championship’. There are hardly any Sri Lankans racing competitively in any of this series except Dilantha Malagamuwa.

So if we want a future for motor sports, we need to change our whole setup from the administrative body to the rules & regulations. To makes us more competitive internationally, we can race aboard or invite the foreign racers to Sri Lanka. So there’s a lot to happen in terms of development of the sport in terms of international standards.

Do you see an increase in the number of women entering Motor Sports in Sri Lanka?

Yeah I do. When we open Speedrome, we had these ladies’ events. I don’t support ladies’ events because I think ladies should race together. But we had the ladies’ events just to invite in and make the girls interested. There are now about 5 or 6 girls who are very interested, who came through Speedrome to learn karting and very interested in motor sports which before I never saw. Even 5 or 6 is a big number for motor sports. Now Bandaragama has a Go-Kart track for them. But in stock cars it’s only me. There was one other girl but she’s also taking a break now.

You are a mother, a businesswoman and a racing driver. Those are three completely different roles. How do you manage these roles?

Well, I like the diversity. I get bored if I do only one thing. At work we are a group of companies. We’re in shipping, manufacturing, automotive, and hotel industry. I had an organization called Wista which is women in shipping, so we promote more women to trying shipping industry because shipping is also only dominated by men. It’s a worldwide organization and I’m the president of the Sri Lanka branch. At home I love to spend time with my children. As much as I can, I take them to the races. For me work is important but of course I have flexibility in my work. So, I can even do work after putting them to sleep. It’s about managing each one. When I spend time with children, I spend time with them. When I’m at work, I’m at work. Of course my mum is there to help me to watch them. When I have taken them for the racers, I have asked some relative to come to help me to look after them. So, it’s not easy. Sometimes my husband is also not there because he is also racing. But we manage. It is about concentrating on what you are doing at that time. Instead of trying to doing so many things all at the same time.

Do you have any role models in your life? Is it important to have a role model? Why?

Yes, certainly. I think everyone needs a role model. My father was my first role model because not only that he was the champ, he won in formulas, he had all the hill climb records. He did a lot of innovations in motor sports and started new things. He is an all-rounder in that sense. He not only looked after himself but he looked after a lot of people around him and he inspired a lot of young drivers and drivers to excel in that sport. Apart from him there’s some other local drivers like Mr. bri Ponnambalam who has being a great guru to me. When I started the formula he taught me everything from basics.

When I look at the global sport figures, Serena Williams is a role model. All the hardships she faced being a black woman playing tennis, I think I learned a lot. I watched a documentary about her and I think I gained a lot of inspiration from how she broke all those barriers. She also being older, came back to play into international tennis. I think that shows that age is not a barrier. Competitive athletes finish at 33, after 33 it’s difficult to be competitive on a global scale or even in Sri Lanka. But I think it’s in the mind. If you make up your mind that you can be physically and mentally fit, there’s nothing stopping you. We never stop learning. So, role models teach us how we should overcome them when we face difficulties. So, it’s very important that you have some benchmark to reach for.

What are the major milestones in your journey?

Well, after I finished university, coming back to join the business was big milestone. After that getting married and having the children was a big one, it changes your perspective all together. Then you have to learn to balance. Starting racing after having children was a big milestone because a lot of people assume I’ll never start again. But I realize that it was a big part of who I was. I didn’t start to be competitive, I just started for fun and then realized this is who I am. I can get that fitness back and I can get back that front position. So it really give a lot of confidence in that sense, and more than anything not going back to a slower car but going to a faster car.

Going to the Honda was big milestone. Because at that time driving the Honda was something that only the big boys did. After I tried it I got the confidence. At work I’m getting involved with shipping industry now. So, my father has taken a back seat, myself and my husband are the joint managing directors of the company. So, that was a big milestone because a lot of responsibility has come to us. We pretty much run about 25 companies in the group. So, McLarens is like leader in the shipping business in Sri Lanka. I’m not done in my journey; this story is still not over. There’s a lot of things I want to achieve. And take it as a day at a time.

What do you want to achieve further in your life? What is the dream that you follow?

I think in terms of work I want to create a sustainable business. This was formed in 1940’s by my grandfather. So, it is a big responsibility for me to ensure that it’ll survives another 100 years at least and I’m looking at consolidating the business. I want my children to be good citizens. I will not pressure them to do racing or studying, or go in one direction. They should have choice to do what they want. It’s a challenge for me to be a good mother. That’s one of the big areas in my life.

And of course in racing, I have to get SLGT. That’s my dream. I want win championship this year or even next year in SLH again. Because before 40 I have to do it, otherwise it will be very difficult.

Apart from that, I also support women, I do a lot of women empowerment work and we do a lot of CSR through Wista to encourage rural women to expand their businesses. I’m also advisor to the Women’s Ministry, so hoping to do a project by bringing all the women associations together to empower more women.

What do you think about women empowerment in Sri Lanka?

We’ve come a long way. Sri Lanka has been a country where we have the first woman prime minister in the world. Women are the major contributors to the foreign exchange in Sri Lanka. Women are the ones working in the tea industry and garment industry which are major export. Then women are the ones going to Middle East to work and send back remittances. So, women bring so much foreign exchange to this country. But all are that low level. In terms of the rural areas there is so much potential and capability. But we need a lot more training and development for them to move on to the next stage, more value addition.

It’s a vicious cycle because in Colombo you see it completely different. All of the women are now very different, a lot of women are doing businesses from their home. They’re much more empowered now in that sense. But women need to work together instead of competing with each other. Even in the cooperate sector you see there’s a so many women now there. Women have much more capabilities than what they are achieving.

What advice have you got for young women who are passionate about motor sports?

You can’t just like racing because it’s a tough sport. You need have passion for it. If you are, then the best advice is you certainly have to start with go-karting. Go-karting is like absolute beginning. If you at least run a full season of go-karting then you feel your confidence, and then you can move on to a smaller car, like a Nissan March or an Alto. There are several events in a motor race, the novices events is a way to go. From then on after you win and you’re confident you can move on. But at the same time you need to be fit, you need to have sponsors because it’s expensive. If you prepare a good proposal and go to sponsors, there are big sponsors who are in the sport.

I’m sponsoring two ladies who are racing go-karts. They want to go to Malaysia and drive some 4 x 4 challenge and I’m helping them. So like that, in a small way I’m doing what I can. A lot of women think, racing is just driving fast. But it’s not. It’s a sport, there are skills involved. You have to learn that skills or at least take a training program. They should learn all that and they have to drive manual on the road, that’s a basic. A lot of girls are not driving a manual; they’re driving an automatic on the road. You can’t look forward from that point. So, there’s a lot of dedication involved. So, if you are willing to put it I think sky is the limit.

©2016 Department of industrial Management,University of Kelaniya,All rights reserved.