Aishwarya Pissay is one of India's leading ladies in motorsports. Soon after her rally in Spain Baja in July, CNBCTV18.com interviewed Pissay. Excerpts of the interview are below
Aishwarya Pissay is one of India's leading ladies in motorsports. She specializes in off-road bike racing and rally. Pissay, who turned 27 on August 14, has many achievements to her name. She is the first Indian woman to participate in Baja Aragon in Spain. The Bangalore-based racer did that when she was all of 22. In her nascent career, she has been crowned as the National Road Racing & Rally Champion six times. Pissay is also the first-ever Indian motorsports athlete to win a world title. That feat came in 2019 when she finished first in the FIM World Cup in the women's category after the final round of championship in Varpalota, Hungary.
Soon after her rally in Spain Baja in July, CNBCTV18.com interviewed Pissay. In the freewheeling conversation, Pissay talked about her passion for biking, her sports heroes, the struggles of being a female motorsports athlete, her life-threatening injuries and much more.
Excerpts of the interview are below:
Q: How did you find your passion for biking?
Aishwarya: Growing up, I was always around bikes. My dad owned a bike and on the weekends we would go on a trip on the motorcycle. I gained a little bit of experience of travelling on a motorcycle. And when I failed in my twelfth standard, I started working and I started going out on bike trips along with my girlfriends. When I turned 18, I explored travelling and then I started training and eventually got into rallying. That is how I developed my passion for biking.
Q: Did you face any hurdles when you first started biking and revealed that you wanted to become a professional biker?
Aishwarya: Definitely! Coming from an Indian family my grandparents wanted me to take up a regular job and finish my education before I pursued anything else. They wanted me to do biking just as a hobby. However, my mother really supported me. She never really stopped me from the dreams that I had. One of the biggest support I got was from my mother. Many people had suggested sticking with biking just as a hobby.
But I realized one thing early in my career if I wanted to pursue a sport, I cannot do it as a part-time thing. I wanted to go give biking my all. If I had to make a mark I had to give my 100 per cent and invest a lot of time in training and racing.
I did have a lot of people say to me that this could not be a career. But today I have been able to show to all these people that biking can be a career and it is not just a hobby.
Q: Growing up who were your sporting heroes?
Aishwarya: I recall watching just one race that is MotoGP on TV and at that time I never realised that I would be doing it someday. That time Valentino Rossi was winning, so he was one hero. As I started to know about motorsports more I came to know about more motorsports athletes. Growing up I also appreciated Lindsey Vonn who is a ski racer.
Q: How is off-road biking different from other forms of biking?
Aishwarya: Motorsports consists of different styles of racing. There is something called as circuit racing that happens purely on an enclosed tarmac circuit. Then there is motocross racing, which is a type of off-road racing with jumps. These are small motos.
What I do is called a cross-country rally. It involved riding the bike for a lot of kilometres together. For example, we cover around 400km in one day riding the bike through forests and desserts. We take the bike to the most unreachable spots, those are the places where a rally happens. This is more of an endurance game than a 25-minute moto. In a rally, the man, the machine and the skills are all put to test.
The bikes used in a rally are also different. They are specifically designed to tackle any kind of obstacle or terrain. They have the power to motor through terrains like a desert or a forest.
Q: In 2019, you became the first Indian to win a world title in motorsports. What has the journey been like to achieve that feat?
Aishwarya: It hasn't been an easy ride for sure. I was an underdog in motorsports. I did not have anybody in my family who was in motorsports already or anybody who knew who could guide me to World Championship.
It has been a process of a lot of learning and a lot of hard work. It has also been a process of meeting a lot of new people when I have gone to races. Learning a lot of aspects about motorsports.
It all started in 2018 when I met my coach Jordy in India when he was training a bunch of us. I discussed with him that I wanted to go race internationally and he suggested me to go to Spain's Baja. So 2018 was when I first entered the international off-road racing scenario.
In 2018 I had a bad crash and I suffered a ruptured pancreas. It took me about three months from the crash to get back on to the bike again. Then I started training and putting a plan together aiming at races in which I needed to participate to help me get into World Championships. Then I started to look for sponsors.
That is pretty much how my journey has been and that is how we won the World Cup.
Q: Motorsports is a very resource-intensive and expensive affair. Did you experience any financial challenges?
Aishwarya: Yes. Early on when I did want to pursue motorsports as a career I was told that it is an expensive sport. And I did start to realize the amount of money that went in.
But I believed that if I put in enough hard work and persisted the sponsors would eventually come. When I started I wasn't the best but I started putting in all the time and effort I started having results sponsors started to come. TVS Racing signed me in 2017. Scott came on board in 2019.
So yes, getting sponsors early in my career was a struggle.
Q: How tough is it for a female to breakthrough into motorsports which is so heavily male-dominated?
Aishwarya: It is not easy. There is a notion that bikes are meant only for men. You only see men participating.
To be able to get support and prove that we are equal took me some time. It took me some time to be on a level playing field and I wanted to prove that I am in motorsport not for the glamour quotient.
It is more about being an equal racer. When I started racing I started racing with men. I was the only girl racing in the grid with 42 boys. When I started racing everyone was concerned that I may be the slowest rider. But my performance started improving race on race and this kind of steady progress helps.
Q: How friendly is India for female motorsports athletes like you?
Aishwarya: We have women racing in India and the women's racing has evolved year on year.
I will explain. When I started racing I raced with men on a 42 grid. But now we have women-only national championships where we have 10 female riders racing. In rally also we have around eight to ten female riders coming every race weekend.
Sport has been evolving in terms of more participation of women. Internationally too motorsports have been growing as far as women's participation is concerned.
Q: Which country is the best for women in motorsports and why?
Aishwarya: Spain. It is because they have the infrastructure in terms of training facilities. Also, parents are more open to bringing their kids to the training facilities, which is also what you see in India these days.
Now we see kids get into motorsports starting at the age of 7 or 10. From me starting at the age of 18 to seeing that number decrease to seeing a level playing field in Europe. I race against many from Europe.
Spain has a nice infrastructure in place and that is why it is the best country for women's motorsports.
Q: And which is the most motorsports-friendly city in India?
Aishwarya: For off-road racing and rally it has to be Bangalore and for on-road racing and circuit racing, Chennai and Coimbatore are great.
Q: You have had some bad injuries like Pancreatic ruptures and last year during a race you broke both your wrists. So what was your comeback like?
Aishwarya: The time I ruptured my pancreas it was a life-threatening accident. I was in a very sensitive space physically. Being able to be in the best hands of a doctor in Europe helped. Also when I came back having an ecosystem that supported my training in the condition that I was in was very important.
The entire team of my coach, my mental fitness coach, my physical coach, my nutritionist, and the doctor worked together to get me back on the bike.
Q: In the case in future if motorsports don't work out for you, have you thought or planned for a second career?
Aishwarya: If I have a plan B then I am already not giving my 100 per cent. If I have a plan B then I am definitely not planning to be number one. My focus is to give my 100 per cent.
I have to train myself to the limit where the margin of error is less. If I am thinking of anything else then I am not giving it my all. All the top athletes like PV Sindhu or Virat Kohli don't think about anything else. It is the same with this sport too.
Q: Any message that you want to convey to budding motorsports enthusiasts and a message to young girls who want to get into sports
Aishwarya: It is not an easy sport and it requires a lot of hard work like any other sport. If you put your mind to it and if you put in all the hard work you can achieve what you want to achieve.
For the girls I would say, don't let the naysayers deter you and go achieve your dreams no matter how big they are.
First Published: IST