We interview Athira Murali, who has the unique distinction of being India’s one of the youngest upcoming woman off-road racer. She was also honoured in the India Book of Records and Universal Record Forum for being the youngest person to hold the most number of vehicle licenses.
Q) Tell us about yourself?
A) I am Athira Murali from Kottayam, Kerala. I completed my Bachelors in Computer Applications (BCA). As my interest is in the field of automobiles, I am now pursuing a short term course in Mechanical Engineering from Regional Institute of Engineering in Thiruvananthapuram.
Q) How long have you been riding / driving and describe on how you got to where you are with your passion of driving today.
A) I started riding at the age of 12. The very first vehicle I learned riding was my dad’s motorcycle- the Suzuki Max 100. My dad used to drive Lorries to transport loads from quarries. My task was to collect money for the trips done by him. So I used his bike for the same.
We also had a Mahindra Jeep and a year later seeing my interest; my dad taught me driving a four wheeler. Then I also started driving a 3-tonner mini truck when I was just in my 10th Class!
Gradually, I tried my hands on heavy vehicles like buses, special purpose vehicle like JCB. I always wanted to know how a JCB operates and so I headed to learn the operation and controls. I realized that it needed a lot of continuous practice to attain perfection in handling it.
My only disappointment was that I could not drive on public roads as I was not 18 and could not get a valid driving license.
As soon as I was eligible, I applied for driving license of 2wheeler, 3-wheeler, and LMV (Light Commercial Vehicle) and then at the age of 20 for the license of HPMV (Heavy Passenger Vehicle) and Heavy goods Motor Vehicle(HGMV), EXAVATOR.
Learning to ride a motorcycle was not an issue for me. It was easy for me to ride a bike in narrower roads as there was no traffic on that roads. I was so fond of vehicles since my childhood; I still remember that my mom used to serve food sitting in the cabin of the mini truck we had, only because of my stubbornness. That expressed my undying love for vehicles since childhood.
Q) Tell us about on how you got into motorsport racing?
A) Apart from regular riding and driving I wanted to achieve more as a professional rider. I was interested in motorsport racing. But the problem was, I did not have any proper trainer or a rider to guide me. I started searching a lot on the internet on how to get into motorsport and slowly I got to know few things by connecting people through social networks.
Finally by the end of 2013, I got in touch with Kottayam based Sam Kurien Kalarickal (KTM Jeepers). Sam is an established off-road driver in the country and has got an off-roading training academy named R&T Autocatalyst. I was given an off-road vehicle to drive on a rough patch and impressed with my driving techniques Sam offered me to join the academy. Later he recommended by name to various off-road races which took place one by one.
Getting to Autocross racing was not an easy task. I did not own a vehicle, so I got a car sponsored by Indian National Rally Champ Dr. Bikku Babu for the race. Autocross happened in the year 2014 in a place called Chavakadu, Thrissur.
Later after getting in touch with Ashika Menezes (Bangalore) and participated in the Bangalore Autocross where I bagged the second prize in ladies category. The car I was driving then was the Maruti Esteem and was thrilled.
Recently, Mahindra organized a race in which drivers were selected from different state. The final race was in Nashik, Maharashtra where I won the first prize in the ladies category at the National Level.
Q) How about motorcycling? Are you not interested in riding?
A) Yes, I am. Under the sponsorship of Marikar Motors Trivandrum, I have organized rides along for the ladies those who are interested in bike riding. What I promote is safe riding technique that is very much necessary. We also teach two-wheeler riding for those interested. There are a few in my group who ride a Royal Enfield.
I have just started learning to stunt on motorcycles. Now that is just to experience what stunting is and to do it possibly in a safe manner
Q) What about repairing your drive? Do you maintain and repair vehicles on your own?
A) As said, I completed my Bachelors in Computer Applications. My interest is in the field of automobiles, and I wanted to know more about the mechanisms of the vehicles. So I am now pursuing a short term course in Mechanical Engineering. It is not all about riding or driving vehicles, but one should know how to repair or at least tinker with it.
I can carry out basic check-ups of a car, replace tyre of a commercial vehicle and so on. My wish is to get employed in an automobile based company.
Q) Do you have any achievement that you take pride in?
A) I have two records in my name at National level. The first one is the India Book of Records that is for the youngest to possess driving licenses of Transport and Non-Transport Vehicles including 3-wheelers, HPMV (Heavy Passenger Vehicle) and Heavy goods Motor Vehicle (HGMV), Excavators.
Secondly from Universal Record Forum which honoured me for “Kerala’s First Youngest Motor Sports Lady Driver” and Youngest Lady having most driving licenses “
Q) Good to see that you have achieved many things at such a young age. What’s next?
A) I want to change the perspective of people those who think that ladies can’t drive well. I bet they are safe drivers. I am planning to train female drivers on motor mechanism. If the car breaks down and a lady is driving it, there is this inherent fear of being looted by the mechanic in terms of being overcharged, or cheated in terms of materials, as ladies are considered to lack knowledge in the motor field.
Females drive cars in Kerala but due to shyness or inferiority complex they do not want to get into the repairing work, and this is the thought process I am seeing to change. May be in future I start a course of vehicle repairing especially for ladies.
What I am focusing right now is getting a job and then slowly I will be achieving my targets one by one.
I am also looking for sponsors who can help me out in motorsport racing. As motorsports are expensive, and one can perform well only in the presence of good sponsors.
Q) The cars/ motorcycles you dream to see parked in your garage?
A) I am more interested in old cars. I just test drive new age cars but not interested in buying one. The CJ series of Jeeps is what I like, and Mahindra Thar is my favourite because of its power and off-road capabilities.
My dream is not to own but at least get a chance to drive a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Jeep Wrangler and Superbikes.
Q) How are women riders/drivers treated by most people?
A) Frankly speaking, people sometimes do pass comments when they see me driving a heavy commercial vehicle like truck or bus. The move aside saying “hey a lady driver is coming ..move away.’ But that will not stop me from doing anything I wish.
Every Sunday morning I drive a bus on Pallikathodu-Kottayam route which is around 23kms. The bus named Lakshmi is owned by my dad’s friend and it is only the first morning trip that I drive. People over here believe in my driving; they know that I drive safe.
I do not care what people say. When I am behind the wheels where I concentrate is on the roads.
Q) Parents/ Friends- How do they feel about you riding a motorcycle or driving heavy vehicles at such a young age? Any comments?
A) Friends are supportive all the time. The reason why I am here at this position is because of my buddies. The go on searching for motorsport happenings and inform me. Parents do support, but they are sometimes scared looking at extreme driving. They are totally against the motorcycle stunting which I am learning now.
I am thankful to Almighty, friends and my dear parents V.N Muraleedharan and Usha Murali. Thanks to my sister Arya Murali and my brother Anand Chandran, who sometimes is my co-driver in offroad racing events, for continuous support
Q) Message to other female drivers / riders?
A) It is all about support from family. If they do not, then we are stuck. One of my close friends is very much interested to get in motorsport racing, but her family is not supporting her. They say it is a risky thing. Whatsoever, there is a lot to be changed in our community. If support is there, then you should explore yourself.
What I would also like to add is that in girls should learn to drive. It is not always possible to be dependent on our parents all the time for mobility. I have seen many those who have a car at home but can’t drive. At least knowing how to drive may help in case of emergency.
Image credits to respective owners
interview unedited and as told to team technwheelz