Lex Akehurst racing the Radical SR8 in Dubai Gulf Radical Cup
Since obtaining her driving and motorcycle license at just 17, and being inspired by her late father’s passions in motorsports, she showed no signs of slowing down.
Leaving behind a successful career in IT, she built a new career in the fast lane in the Middle East, smashing every glass ceiling as she sped on. Lex Akehurst is a racer who disregards gender on the tracks, a focused business owner, and an advocate for female empowerment.
Based in the UAE, the British racer’s passions for the sport knew no bounds as she set up her very own motorsports business, XSPORT, in 2004.
AboutHer.com caught up with Lex to find out more about her experiences with racing in the Arab world, how to make yourself respected in a male dominated industry, and what it takes to be successful in the extreme sport.
Lex with driver Fabienne Lanz in Malaysia F3
How did you get into the world of racing – what piqued your interest?
I have always had an interest in cars and had my car and motorcycle license by the age of 17, my father bought me my own motorbike and car so I could be independent and was the biggest influence as he used to race at a club level himself before I was born and had his own auto workshop so I used to be around cars all the time as a youngster. My father died when I was early 20’s so it motivated me to keep pushing this career. I later met my husband who also has a passion for cars and bikes, and in 2006 he encouraged me to enter a TV competition in the UK called Formula Women, where 5000 women signed up to be taught how to race and it was all filmed as a boot camp reality show. It was all a bit of fun, but I got all the way through to the top 10 finalists and attained my race licenses and was selected to race in the series. From there I decided I wanted to race against men as equals and just continued on from there.
Has racing been your only career or did you start out doing something completely different?
I was part of a successful IT telematics business which was later sold to an international company, and as a company director I was not allowed to work in the same industry for 3 years so I needed a new focus. I went racing and set up my own motorsports services business, running events, championships, media/PR, training clubs and managing other athletes. When we moved to Dubai, it was when the circuit was newly built and I was excited. I went on to get my FIM motorcycle road race license in Dubai and was the first woman to do that, so that was special. I also went on to be the first woman on the podium in circuit racing which was a nice historical moment.
What does it take to be a professional racer?
Well there’s a difference between those who do it as a profession and those who do it for fun and recreation. So for those who are lucky to be professional, it’s similar to other highly trained athletes and its hard work keeping fit and in top mental condition, it’s usually their sole occupation and normally a paid career, and there has to be a significant amount of talent to bring the results. For those of us who do it as a hobby, we are still required to have the talent and fitness and also we must find the budget, which is the hardest part. It’s is a very expensive sport compared to say football as we have a large investment to make upfront in the training, clothing and equipment we need to take part. So it is a big barrier for a lot of newcomers.
For those of us who can’t drive above 60 mph without risking a speeding ticket, can you describe the feeling you get being in control of a car that travels at speeds we can’t even imagine?
There’s a great satisfaction in being in complete control of the vehicle and getting the best performance you can from it. You need to be fully aware of your surroundings at all times and drive within inches sometimes of the cars or bikes you are racing with at high speeds. Also racing against other highly skilled drivers gives a great satisfaction and a great benchmark for learning. You cannot get the same feeling by driving fast on the public roads.
Who are the women that inspire you and why?
Lella Lombardi for her outstanding Formula 1 career, with 17 starts, 4 times racing at 24hr of Le Mans and also Nascar and sport car racing. Michelle Mouton for her outstanding career in rallying, and her great business acumen starting the Race of Champions events and she is our president of the FIA's Women & Motor Sport Commission. Lastly my Mother for letting me be me and not pushing me to be anything I didn’t want to do, always supportive.
You’re a woman with a successful specialist motorsport business XSPORT, you manage men in an industry that is dominated by men, have you had to experience any gender bias within the sport and if so, how do you combat that?
I must say I have not experienced too much negativity in the region, but yes you do get the usual jokes etc, but you can either be offended by it or just give back as good as you get as its all meant in fun usually. You just need to grow a thick skin and not take it too much to heart personally. In business terms sometimes, it is difficult to make progress because there will always be some men who will create a barrier because you're a woman and try to close the door on you, so as women we just need to push the door open a little harder to prove our point. Of course, the other most important point is to know what you are talking about, that helps. All my colleagues are also supportive but I don’t get any special treatment just because I’m a woman. I’ve worked with quite a few drivers over the years including currently drivers from Saudi, Kuwait and Qatar and I’ve been wholeheartedly supported by them, they see me first as a professional person, there is no bias to me as a woman. In fact across all the countries I’ve worked, in the Arab world I’ve always felt respected as a woman.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m proud of the fact that I have always tried my best efforts in whatever I’ve put my mind to, I don’t tend to give up easily and I’m proud that I have been able to support and encourage other women to do the same. I’ve tried to set up opportunities for women at all my motoring events to be part of the team and to develop initiatives that support young girls to learn about the sport.
Lex Akehurst with drivers Mohammed Jawa from KSA left and Khaled Al Mudhaf, Kuwait on winning the 24hDubai 2014
Why do you think there are not more women involved in professional racing? Is it a lack of opportunity or interest?
I think there is a lack of exposure and options for women which promotes the opportunity, but it is not for everyone, it’s not a stereotypical hobby for women such as say athletics or tennis for example. It’s not part of school curriculum or encouraged by parents, unless they are in the sport themselves. Women must go into a male dominated world without any contacts and the circuits can be quiet inhospitable places if you don’t know anyone or don’t know the sport, it’s quite daunting and can be dangerous. This puts a lot of people off and also spectators as well sometimes. It’s usually a good idea to reach out to car clubs or groups of like-minded individuals to share experiences. I set up a woman’s motorsport club in Dubai back in 2007 and it was very successful, focusing on the social side and introductory motorsport activities like karting and courses on car maintenance etc. I’d like to think it helped a lot of woman understand the choices available to them. There are many jobs in motorsports these days for women and many are already working in the sport for a long time but for the moment it is male dominated and heavily promoted to men. My hope is to one day have an all-women’s team with pit crew and drivers to be women. That would be something special.
In June 2018, Saudi Arabia will see women driving for the first time since the driving ban has been lifted. What are your thoughts on this and what challenges do you think they might face as the first generation of Saudi women drivers?
I think it’s a great big step in the right direction and a great progress for the country as a whole. Women will finally be able to take more control of their own lives and have a great number of new choices ahead of them and will feel part of the wider world of motorists. As with all new things there will be some skepticism and some resentment, however women must just keep composure and remain focused on learning and not be deterred by any negativity, over time it will become accepted and things will progress.
Do you hope to see Saudi women eventually partaking in rally racing and similar motor sports?
Why not, there are already Arab women who have gone before them and entered the sport. I once raced alongside a Saudi lady, who actually did not publicize this fact due to the driving ban, but she was racing back in 2007 in Dubai and got great support and sponsorship. In the Arab world it is still not an obvious choice for women to go and get involved in motorsports, but things are changing and there are wonderful circuits and facilities now so hopefully women will be made even more welcome with more initiatives aimed at them. I recall when I was running some powerboat championships in Saudi, that even I could not drive a car on my own, as a foreign woman, this was a real disadvantage for me as an event’s organizer, I had to be driven everywhere by a man. It really opened my eyes to the situation. Also when the new circuit was built just outside Riyadh I visited it with a view to perhaps racing on it one day, but I was told that I couldn’t race there, even though I had an International FIA race license, hopefully one day soon I can return to race on the circuit.
What 3 driving tips do you have for Saudi women who will be taking the wheel in June?
Get as much expert tuition as you can, and keep calm and composed even when you feel vulnerable it will help grow confidence. If you feel that you need to ask for assistance then don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is impossible to learn everything in a day, it’s a constant learning process so women shouldn’t feel disheartened in the beginning. Remember even the men had to learn to drive too and the car doesn’t know there’s a woman or a man behind the wheel it just responds to your inputs.
What empowers you and how do you use your position as a female race car driver to empower other women?
I feel empowered to have attained a high level of knowledge and expertise in the sport in the region and internationally and all of which I have achieved by my own efforts, with my own investment. I try to use my skills to pass on any advice or guidance to encourage other women interested in the sport that it is possible.