In 2021, the FIA launched Rally Star, a global talent detection program aiming to find the next Rally champions. The program starts with local selections, then six Continental Finals will each contribute one driver to join the FIA Rally Star team. Besides the winning driver from each continent, the six best female drivers will compete in an additional Women’s Final for one to come out on top and join the FIA Rally Star team. The FIA Rally Star team will conduct a training program in 2023, with the opportunity to compete in Junior WRC in the 2024 season.
From October 10th to 12th, India hosted the fourth Continental Final of the FIA Rally Star – the Asia-Pacific (APAC) Final. 25-year-old Indian driver Pragathi Gowda will be joining Farah Zakaria (Jordan), Maja Hallén Fellenius (Sweden), Katie Milner (United Kingdom), and Kristie Ellis (South Africa) in the Women’s Final in Januaray 2023 in Peru. We had the chance to hear from Pragathi about her story, here is what she has to say.
Photos © Pragathi Gowda
Pragathi’s racing career in rallying didn’t start until two years ago, but her chase for speed on both two wheels and four wheels has always been there even before she figured out what racing means. “I started riding bikes when I was 8, and I started driving when I was 13. All these driving and riding didn’t come through any kind of training school as such. I just saw my dad and brother drive and ride. I just inhale that in me and I one day just started off driving and riding. I didn’t really know what motorsport was though. I didn’t know there was something called racing as such, that happens in India. I used to just race on streets whenever I get that empty road. From the beginning, I knew that this is the place, but I don’t know if the place even existed or how to get there. ”
Even though Pragathi wasn’t aware of racing, thanks to her friend, the “place” and the “how to get there” were both found. Pragathi was persuaded by her friend to participate in her very first racing event in auto-cross, coming home with great results from the get-go. “One of my friends noticed that I got the skills and the abilities to control a car when it’s at a high pace. She came across an auto-cross event on Instagram, and she pushed me to take part. I went there. There were about six women drivers and twenty men drivers. I was pretty shocked at the event, because I didn’t know how a race car is handled in the first place. It was an all new exposure for me. I came first in the women’s category. ”
Finally knowing what her calling was, there was no turning back for Pragathi. “I was quite impressed with the auto-cross event and my result. I was very happy with this first try. The adrenaline rush and the speed got me really thrilled. I kind of wanted to stay there. I know I can do much better if I get some good practice. From there on, it all started.”
So somewhere down the lane, I felt, if I’m not racing, maybe I would just stick to the automobile industry because this is where I belong. This is where I live my life. This is what I enjoy the most.
Pragathi’s racing career is for her own passion, as well as for her family. Losing her brother in an accident, she always thought of herself as representing her brother on track. “The reason I am racing is for my brother. I lost him in an accident. I’ve dedicated my whole journey to him because he dreamed of me being a racer and me being up there. It’s always an honor to represent myself as him.”
Since 2020, Pragathi has been racing in the Indian National Rally Championship (INRC). With fellow off-road enthusiasts around her, the Rally Star program presented itself. “One of my competitors in INRC came across the FIA Rally Star program. They told me there was an age limit, and I only got one year to go. So I decided I have to give it a try. This is something that everyone would dream of getting. I just wanted to grab it at any cost. I wanted to do my best and see what would happen.”
Even though Pragathi is determined to grab this opportunity at all costs, she didn’t have high hopes for the selection. She came in without too much preparation besides her normal rallying, and she took this opportunity as a way to improve her driving. “When I saw the entry list for the APAC Final, there were about 45 competitors, and out of which there were about six to seven women drivers. All I wanted to do was just do what I know, because that’s what we can do in the end. I didn’t try to compare myself with others, instead, I wanted to know what their strengths are and try to learn from them. I looked into how I can change my driving skills and how I can improve. Even if someone had a very bad lap time, maybe there are still some skills for me to learn. Maybe later I would accumulate all the strengths from each and everyone there and I get to do my best. I also spoke to each of my competitors individually, getting to know them. I just asked them how they got into this and how they learned their driving skills.”
Not thinking too much about the competition, the selection itself was still full of surprises. But in the end, Pragathi was able to show growth during the selection and seize the opportunity to go into the Women’s Final. “Firstly, I didn’t know that it would be in that high standards, the organization and the committee. I thought it would be this easy-peasy thing I can do. Later, once I was there, I felt very difficult because those cross-karts were very new for me. I’ve never seen nor driven those cross-karts ever before. I didn’t know how they were handled at all. There was also a physical assessment, driving skills assessment, and interviews. All of these kind of got me in a very bad situation. But maybe that situation actually helped me grow. I will carry it with me throughout my career because it’s a very good learning process for me.”
Rally Star provides a path into World Rally Championship, which is a dream for every young and aspiring rally driver, same for Pragathi. “Once I got into rallying, I was always dreaming of World Rally Championship. It’s the ultimate goal for any rally driver. So it’s been my dream as well. With just two years of experience in rallying, this is a great opportunity for me. I’d like to take it forward, because I’m getting the easy way compared to everyone else. I should be very thankful and grateful, stay grounded, and learn from every step.”
Pragathi didn’t prepare much for the APAC Final, now ahead of the Women’s Final, some serious preparation is required to stand out and get in the Rally Star team. “This is the utmost level of competition. I’m giving my heart and soul out there to get prepared for it. I’m dedicating myself for the next three months. I’m actually facing quite difficult things in terms of testing because it’s quite expensive and out of our budget. But for now, I’m focusing on my fitness level and trying to make it up to the mount. Maybe next month or the first week of January, I’ll be going for my testing, without which I can’t face the Women’s Final. I need to be prepared, I need to know what I can do, and I need to know what the limit is.”
Now Pragathi has made it into the Women’s Final, it didn’t mean that she didn’t come through difficulties or biases in her short career previously. But none of that matters now, and she has a message for all the girls out there who aspire to have a place in motorsport. “If I can do it, you can do it too. All that matters is your skills and your talent. Show the world what you can do, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
I stopped thinking about everything else. When it comes to racing, it’s just me, my car, and the track ahead of me. It’s just me against the world. I don’t really think of anything else, any of the negativities. I’ve always stayed positive and I’ve got my idea.
Regardless of the outcome of the Women’s Final, Pragathi is looking for opportunities and financial support for international rally championships already. We wish her all the best of luck in the Women’s Final and in her career beyond.