- Maryse Navaratne on Sri Lankan racing
The world of cars, racing and motorsports often seems like the very definition of a ‘man’s world,’ but it is 2022 and such definitions no longer hold any weight. Shattering the stereotypes for women and driving is Maryse Navaratne, one of Sri Lanka’s superbly rare female racers.
Maryse is one part of the racing team ‘Devils on Wheels’ with her friend Ashwitha Wickrama. As team ‘Devils on Wheels,’ Maryse and Ashwitha tore through glass ceilings of all kinds when competing at SHEMUD – the world’s first all-women extreme 4×4 offroad racing challenge, placing third in 2016 and second-runners up in 2018. The duo was also part of the first all-girls’ team to win a six-hour Endurance Karting Championship in Sri Lanka.
This week, Brunch chatted with Maryse on what it’s like being a racer in Sri Lanka.
Being a racer in Sri Lanka
Maryse is an offroad racer. There are five broad types of racing or motorsports – track racing, which is the most conventional with the race track that goes round and round in laps; gravel racing, which is cycle-based and mixes road racing and rugged terrain; karting or go-karting, which is racing around a track in small, open vehicles; offroad racing, which uses modified 4x4s designed to race on a variety of terrains; and motocross, a motorcycle race that can take place on a track or offroad.
Speaking on what it’s like being involved in Sri Lankan motorsports, Maryse explained that while it does provide a rush like no other and can be a very rewarding hobby, it is also very challenging and costly. Locally, the motorsports arena is relatively active, with many clubs engaged in the sport and various races taking place almost every month.
However, it is first and foremost almost exclusively a hobby. “When it comes to racing in Sri Lanka, I wouldn’t say you can make a career out of it,” Maryse explained, adding: “Mostly people race because it’s their hobby, and it is a very expensive sport. You do find sponsors, and Devils on Wheels often gets sponsored, but you do tend to get sponsored per event. You can’t make a living out of it.”
Sharing her advice on how people can get started with racing to see how they respond to it, Maryse recommended go-karting, calling it a stepping stone for anyone looking to get into racing and learn the core techniques and understand how racing works.
As an offroad racer, there are places where you can practise offroad racing, and you don’t need to own your own modified 4×4 for this. There are clubs and tracks that allow you to rent modified 4x4s, but even this is an expensive endeavour, sometimes prohibitively so, as once rented, these modified vehicles must be transported by carrier to the track (as they are heavily modified vehicles, they are not certified to run on our roads as normal vehicles).
An unusual passion
Maryse has always been drawn to motorsports. Growing up a self-professed tomboy, she loved playing with remote-control trucks and cars and was an avid fan of Formula1 on TV. Incidentally, Maryse is related to one of Sri Lanka’s oldest veteran racing drivers, the late Ananda de Alwis, and would frequently tag along with her father to watch de Alwis race. She’d also often help her father work on his own cars.
Maryse’s proper introduction to racing came in 2016, but she’d started karting since 2013. “The majority of the karting I’ve done was at the Sri Lanka Karting Circuit in Bandaragama,” Maryse recalled, noting: “There was also a karting track in Battaramulla, but they didn’t host any events as such. In 2016, I got into offroad racing, which was the same year Ashwitha and I represented Sri Lanka at SHEMUD in Malaysia.”
Her transition from karting to offroading was somewhat sudden and was precipitated when the head of the offroading team in Sri Lanka, Sean Hameed, was looking for girls to represent Sri Lanka at SHEMUD and reached out to her teammate Ashwitha’s father. A quick training process that covered the basics followed, and then the girls, under the name Devils on Wheels, went on to take part in SHEMUD. The name Devils on Wheels, Maryse revealed, came from Maryse, Ashwitha, and a group of common friends’ participation in Conquer Colombo, South Asia’s largest scavenger hunt, where the team (all girls) took part in the hunt in Maryse’s “monstrous-looking” Nissan Navara. The team came up with the name Devils on Wheels for the scavenger hunt, and after that, the name just stuck.
Devils on Wheels also made history when they (as part of a larger all-girls team) won a six-hour Endurance Karting Championship, competing against 12 other all-male teams. “We wanted to help the public get a general picture of women in motorsports and highlight that women could also race with male counterparts,” Mayse shared, explaining how the all-girls karting team came to be.
What makes racing magical for Maryse is how addictive it is. “The wheels are awesome, the speed is addictive. Engines are mind-blowing. To me, who wouldn’t ‘want in’ on all this stuff? Racing is more than just a hobby for me. It brings me a huge sense of joy and satisfaction,” she said, adding that racing also cultivates a lot of important core values like being prepared, being disciplined, time management, and dedication, all of which Maryse finds inspiring. “I would say racing is the sweetest thing. It teaches you a lot about loss and pushing yourself to the absolute limit.”
Driving in a man’s world
With racing being such a conventionally masculine sport, we asked Maryse what it was like for her as a woman to compete in such an arena. “I’ve never really been a typical ‘follow-the-track’ kind of person, and living in Sri Lanka, that’s not really a good quality to have because people don’t like that kind of attitude. Being a woman in any community in Sri Lanka, I’ve always had to deal with negativity, judgement, and people criticising me, and that experience gets different with age. Not better, but different,” Maryse shared, noting that the racing community is no different, and she has had to face some discrimination at all levels at one point or another.
“Even when sourcing sponsors, it has been super difficult. I’ve had sponsors ask questions like ‘why are two girls trying to do something men are good at? How can they manoeuvre a truck and go to a foreign country and compete?’ Once, at a karting event, I heard a father tell his son: ‘You can’t let yourself get beaten by that girl’. To date, I still have people who hear I’m into cars and say things like ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, that’s such a boy thing to do, you should do something a lot girlier’. It’s 2022 and people still have that mentality. It’s changing, and you do see girls getting into male-dominated industries and sports and stuff, but it’s changing very slowly.”
Maryse has never been one to let naysayers get in her head though, and for her, the proof is always in the pudding, as evidenced through her many wins over the years. “The best was when we went to Malaysia and won our first challenge,” she said. “It put a full-stop to anyone who doubted us. We [Devils on Wheels] are the only girls team in offroad racing – there are one or two ladies who co-drive in offroad racing at the beginner level – and we are the only two girls to have represented Sri Lanka internationally.”
It all comes down to resilience at the end of the day, and this is what Maryse explained would carry racers through (both girls and boys). “The biggest quality you need to have is to be strong,” she mused, adding: “We live in a difficult world. You have to know what you want, and you have to fight for whatever you want. You have to strive for authenticity and vulnerability no matter the task at hand. There is a quote I live by: ‘Fear is a state of mind, and will is an action taken’. There have been endless amounts of times where I was told what I wanted to do was impossible, but I’ve made it happen. If I were to give advice, I would say to never give up, and I can promise that whatever you want to and are trying to achieve can and will be yours. You need to ignore the haters, the doubters, and the non-believers, believe in yourself and chase off your fears. Never settle for anything that isn’t your best, their best, or the very best.”