Motor Sports

Racing against gender norms in Chennai

CHENNAI: Motorsport is still a man’s world. But as a reminder to women, who are relentlessly making their way up the gender ladder and breaking the glass ceiling, Jennifer Christa Paul, a 22-year-old avid motorbike racer and motorsport enthusiast, has embarked on a journey to become possibly the country’s first female race engineer. The exuberant youngster, in a tete-a-tete, shares how her outing in the industry has been her version of ordinary girl extraordinary journey.

“My love for motorsport started at a very basic level. When I was in school, my male cousins used to come over and we played video games. ‘Need for Speed: Underground’ is what we played and that drove me to learn and know more about cars. I became a petrolhead,” she says.

Subsequently, the Fast and Furious movies released, and Jennifer says she loved the portrayal of women in the franchise. “By then, I completed class 12 and decided to do Automobile Engineering,” shares Jennifer who was the only female Automobile Engineering student in a batch of about 220 other students at SRM Institute of Science and Technology. “The four-year course was an incredible learning experience. The girls who were in the Mechanical Engineering department said that they looked up to me, and my faculty members were supportive too,” she smiles.

The part of a wall in Jennifer’s Egmore house is plastered with newspaper clippings about developments in the motorsport industry. “This is my father’s way of keeping me updated about what’s happening. My parents have been my strongest support system throughout this journey. In fact, it was my father who introduced me to the racing circuit,” she explains.

Her father gifted her a Yamaha R15 V1 when she was 18 years old but under a condition. “He asked me to not show off that I owned a bike. I never wanted to do that… in fact, I wanted a motorcycle only because I wanted a better understanding of the various mechanisms involved. I was even ready to buy a scrap bike, work on it and turn it into a functional one. But, my father bought me the best. He introduced me to track riding because it is safer to ride on the track than on the roads,” shares Jennifer.

A few years ago, she was part of the Honda One Make Ladies Race (Round 1) and that paved way to her racing career. “Racing is what I look at as a passion,” says Jennifer who owns two other motorcycles – Honda CBR 250r and Hero Impulse. “They even have names – Darkseid, Shadowfax and Hellspawn!” she enthuses.

After blazing the trail, Jennifer wanted to do more – she wanted to be a bridge of sorts between the technical and practical aspects of motorsports – she wanted to become a race engineer. “I started spending time at the Madras Motor Race Track with the JA Motorsport team who taught me the nuances of trackside and industrial experience. I owe it to them.

I also signed up for the Meco Motorsports level 1 training for Karting. But, I realised it required a lot of money to pursue a career behind the wheel. I come from a middle-class family and that’s something which I cannot afford. That’s when Akbar Ebrahim of Meco suggested that I try my hands at motorsports engineering. He advised me to take all my credentials and put it to good use. That’s what pushed me further to pursue my dreams,” she shares. Jennifer applied for a Master’s degree in Technology in Motorsports Concentration at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. “I have been selected. But, finances for tuition fee and so on are still dicey,” she shares.

The petite yet well-built Jennifer has had her set of challenges. “I am five feet, a woman… so, when I initially decided to enter the field, I received a lot of backlash. ‘How can someone who’s is just five feet ride a bike? How can someone like you lift parts off a race car and work on it?’ were the kind of questions that were thrown at me. But, none of that mattered. My parents always said none of the other things including gender or height mattered if I had the passion and skill. I even took up strength training to build my stamina and physique,” she shares.

Jennifer’s ultimate goal is to become the first female race engineer in the country and inspire more women to enter the field. “Motorsports is a brilliant field, a wonderful platform, and competitive space. I want other women to experience it as well,” she says.

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