"When the helmet is on, I am not a man or woman, but a race car driver," says Sneha Sharma.
Nothing gives Sneha Sharma, a professional Formula 4 race car driver and commercial pilot flying with IndiGo Airlines, a better adrenaline rush than speed.
“I was 14 when I discovered my irresistible passion for speed at a now defunct go-karting track in Powai. I had never experienced such a rush before; I felt one with the car. That is when I decided that racing is what I wanted to do with my life,” says Sneha, in a conversation with The Better India.
During her off days at school, she would spend her time at the track. However, she didn’t have access to professional training and would initially take on odd mechanic jobs and watching professional race car drivers compete.
“By the end of each day, I would see these mechanics racing with these tattered karts. I approached them to train me. They were kind enough to teach me the basics of steering, cornering, overtaking and breaking. Look, you don’t need fancy degrees or equipment to make it in life. Since racing is an expensive sport, I saved up my pocket money and whatever else I could to get some training and race a few laps on the track,” she recalls.
Soon, she began competing in city-level races, which she won or finished on the podium. Her desire to compete professionally was ignited one fine day during practice when she saw two racing drivers.
“When I asked who they were, I was told they were national racing drivers. Seeing their poise and how they expertly maneuvered around the track inspired me. As my journey continued, I drove many races, a lot of which I would win. In one such race organized by the Times of India, I defeated many professionally trained and seasoned drivers, and also caught the eye of many important people. When I won the race, I got picked up by a national racing team, and got to compete in the national championships,” she recalls.
By the time she was 16, Sneha was studying in junior college, doing pilot ground classes and competing in races. She was obese too. To fulfil her dreams of racing, she had to reduce her weight from 90 kg to 60 kg within months because racing is an extremely demanding sport.
“The hardest part was managing my time from racing, college to flying lessons and fitness work. But I did it. My family didn’t support my dreams because they thought it was a dangerous sport and a big hindrance to my studies. Initially, they thought it was just a passing fad, but I kept at it. Sometimes I would leave my helmet outside the house, lie to my parents about where I was going and race. While sneaking out to race, I ensured that I carried my books to the track, studied between practice sessions and races,” she says.
Fortunately, she graduated from school with flying colours and even competed at the MRF National Karting Championship and was also the only girl to qualify for the KCT category, where only ten drivers across the country would be selected to race.
But just as she was finding her feet in the professional race car driving scene, Sneha had the chance to fulfil another long-standing passion of hers, which is flying.
At the age of 17 in 2007, she had to put down her racing helmet and put on a flying headset for her commercial pilot licence. Her family had taken loans to make this happen. It was a difficult time, and she didn’t know whether she would ever see the inside of a race car again. When she came back from the States after more than a year later, her passion for racing had not diminished in any way. In fact, she came back hungry as ever.
Until she converted her US flying licence into an Indian one in 2011, she continued to do part-time jobs at racing tracks as a mechanic, working on engines, training, maintaining accounts and loading/unloading equipment. This was rather exhausting because she had to work on other cars till the wee hours so that she could wake up the next day and race.
But 2009 turned out to be a breakthrough year for Sneha as she came back better than ever and earned a podium finish in the National Karting Championship.
Her objective has always been to venture into single-seating racing, but in 2010 she raced in the Volkswagen Polo Cup (a touring car series), followed by a stint in the Toyota Etios series before earning a top-five finish in the Mercedes young driver star programme. There, she drove her car at an astounding 270 kmph at the Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida.
Meanwhile, by 2011 she had found a job as a commercial pilot for IndiGo airlines. Once she had a steady source of income, she decided to invest her own money into her racing career, because professional racing is a costly sport.
For a while, she did race under closed roofs, but the attraction of formula cars was too much to resist. Finally, she made it in the JK Tyre’s LGB category—the first step to the single-seater racing—in 2013. In her very first formula race, she finished in fourth place.
Despite her long-standing dream to drive Formula 1, she did sponsored racing events for a while and joined IndiGo as a commercial pilot. Fortunately, JK Tyres came calling, and even IndiGo came on-board, and they have been sponsoring her ever since. Today, she competes in international Formula 4 championships around the world, while as a pilot, she flies the Airbus 320 for six days a month.
“When I started racing and sometimes even today, I was the only girl on track among 22 guys. Most would hate losing to a fellow male competitor, but if they lost to me, they would add a lot of harsh statements like ‘women don’t know how to drive’. It was rough, particularly early on, but I made sure it never slowed me down. I would channel all that anger into my performance. When the helmet is on, I am not a man or woman, but a race car driver. This aggression is reflected in my driving. I am a fast driver who isn’t afraid to exploit any opening my competitors give. If I see an opportunity to race ahead, I dive in. Yes, I have had my share of injuries like hairline fractures, spinal injuries, shattered knees and even petrol burns, but that has never deterred me,” she says while describing her outlook to racing.
It’s the same outlook that gave her a leg up in life at a time when no one gave her a chance.
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(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)