It is 20 minutes past noon, and Coimbatore’s sun is at its peak. Mumbai-based Aditi Patankar, standing at the Kari Motor Speedway, makes her way to the rest stop after completing her morning training. The routine, or the sport, is slightly unfamiliar to her. But that doesn’t stop her from partaking in a Formula 4 racing championship.
“This is my first time so the experience would be completely overwhelming, I'm sure. But I'm looking forward to it,” she says, the expectant tone in her voice evident.
Aditi’s training wheels came off this weekend, at the JK Tyre FMSCI National Racing Championship held in Coimbatore between December 9th to 13th. She is part of an elite all-women F4 team by Ahura Racing, and this competition was her maiden voyage into motorcar sports.
It was a new chapter for her, brought on by the unexpected ways of the pandemic. Other chapters that have preceded this beginning have little in common with each other: she has worked in marketing, banking, pageant production, and fashion industry, before landing on the racetracks of F4.
In this pursuit of versatility, Aditi has deftly worn shoes of varying shapes and sizes -- and each one has fit like a glove.
Donning the sporting gear
It was February this year when she joined SBM Bank India, after shifting base from London, UK to India. She came across a post referencing a ‘Talent Hunt’ from Ahura Racing during the early days of the pandemic. India’s first all-women F4 racing team was scouting for new members, and Aditi was eager to enlist. The team is led by Sarosh Hataria, who is a three-time national championship winner.
“I didn't take a second to decide that this is for me and I should go for it," she says, reflecting on how shifting gears from the corporate or pageant world to sports came very naturally to her.
The criteria for selection were twofold: any woman who knows driving, and has made her peace with the risk involved in racing. 25 people participated in the final round of the national talent hunt, out of which she placed third. It was a three-second difference that separated her from her co-winners.
Factors that went into selection included best lap timing, ability to drive well, fitness test, simulator timings, and a written test. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the talent hunt was carried out with protocols like temperature check, masks, self-health declaration form, fumigation, pulse oxymeter, and car sanitisation in place. Even training happened in batches, Aditi recalls.
Sponsorship in F4, like any other sport, was key to managing the expenses that come with it. Aditi finds herself beaming with gratitude as she mentions all the companies that came together to support her and promote a woman’s racer brand. SBM Bank India, Brandwok & Mrs India UK, Radio Chutney Singapore, Enfield Riders, Zero Risqué Facemasks, Bucket List Experiences, Momentum – Luxury Fitness Club, Urban Desi Store, AGLP Enterprises – UK and Pentagram Pictures – UK donned the role of her sponsors.
Aditi jumped through hoops to land a competing spot in Coimbatore. Motorcar sports for women is a fledgeling field, but that didn’t deter Aditi from getting in on the ground floor. Instead, the fact that it was a field largely undiscovered fueled her interest and inspiration.
“There is a lot of learning over here,” she notes. Being a Formula 4 racer, being one of the only married women, competing with men and women in a race that you’re just starting to understand -- there’s a fair share of nerves and trepidation. But for Aditi, the sticks and stones give her just the right amount of push towards her potential.
It’s all worth the effort for when you finally get on the track, sit in a low-seated car with the engine ramming triple digits in speed. It can make you feel like a different person, and Aditi thrives on that feeling.
She chalks up this interest to her father and brother. Sport played an important part in her family, with both involved in some athletic field. Her father taught her everything she knew about sports, and groomed her in terms that made her sure of her choices today.
It gives me pride and joy to be a sportsperson, she says.
Probing the myth of beauty
Hers isn’t a conventional ‘sports background’, as one would like to think. While she has been an avid bike rider and enjoys driving, there’s no professional expertise that grants her immediate credibility. She comes from the far end of the spectrum. “From heels to sports shoes has been a different journey altogether.”
She has been a former beauty queen, the winner of Mrs India Singapore in 2015. She ran four seasons of Mrs India UK as a founder in London, which fleshed itself out as a platform to celebrate Indian married women. Her pageant production company catalyses the support and raises funds for important causes. In the last three years, they have donated almost INR15 lakhs to three Indian NGOs.
Aditi sought to craft beauty pageants in a way they could ooze with meaning and purpose. “I wanted to redefine the myth of beauty. There’s a narrative that casts conventionally attractive people in a certain way. But I wanted to bring out how personalities aren’t limited to how someone looks,” she says.
You can be a pageant participant and still brim with excitement over sports -- the fields don’t have to be mutually exclusive, she says. Even in F4, some have experience and expertise in different sports and some don’t. But both can come out with great achievements, the difference doesn’t have to separate them.
Personal pillars of strength
Aditi knows better than to let conventions define her choices. Was there an inflexion point, a time she can trace her perseverance back to?
The moment sits clear in her memory, as if plucked out from yesterday. “I was participating in one of the pageants in Mumbai. It was also when my dad had severe cancer. He had always been excited about it and told me I would do very well. On the day of the finale, he passed away... On that day, everything changed for me.”
Dreams, she realised, weren’t just her own -- they shared allegiance with other people in her life too. It ingrained in her an idea of responsibility, ownership, and shared accountability. She later moved to Singapore and London with her family and started her production companies there. The familial unit, she is happy to declare, is her powerhouse -- the source of her energy and joy.
“My support system is dependent on my family and Prashant, my husband (who is an ex-hockey player). I do not have to think twice before taking opportunities. Whenever I'm not available, he just balances the household chores and takes care of our kids. That is something which encourages me to put my best foot forward, and take on any kind of challenges that I look forward to.”
She has been married for 12 years, and has two children: an eight-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. After living in Singapore and London for 10 years, she came back to India in 2019 to finally settle in the city that will always be a home to her.
“My daughter is too excited for my new innings -- I’m at that stage of career where I’m starting something afresh and she is eager to watch me do new things. I want her to see and get as much exposure as she can and decide her own path,” she says.
A journey of redefining
She hopes to be a role model to her daughter, and introduce her to a world where the glass ceiling is all but a thing of the past. For Aditi, her mother has been an icon for her life's goal, and that is what she would want to be for her daughter.
The modern woman is capable of anything and everything. “Modern women are thought leaders, they know how to balance everything. They know how to go for it.”
There is no cheat sheet or handy guide on how to claim your identity and narrative, but she finds it helpful to start with a question: What is the journey you want to pursue, and how would you like to pursue it? At the end of the day, she says, it should be your choice.
“Women need to step more in leadership roles, more in the capacity of decision-makers. Unless we do that, our daughters are not going to go forward with that perseverance, and things will be the same for ages to come.”
Her foray into motorcar sports becomes important at a time women participation is still picking up.
“I beam with pride when I think that my journey has inspired some women, they are kind of influenced, they ask me how I did it and it kind of empowers them to think that they could do it too. It’s the kind of immediacy which comes with this -- if she can do it, I can do it too. There is a scope for inspiring more women in this journey, as a woman, and as a racer as well.”
Aditi is a banker, a marketer, a beauty pageant winner, and now a sportsperson. It makes one wonder which role she identifies with the most. As fate would have it, the thing which came last is most reflective of her personality. “Going back to my childhood, if people were to see me racing now, they would say this is a very Aditi thing to do,” she says wistfully.
Is it possible to have multiple aspirations and work towards them, and not have one thing define you? “Very much. I don’t think we should, or can, define a line for ourselves or our goals.” If being the Jack (or Jane) of all trades means one can constantly push themselves, Aditi is happy to trudge forth.
We know how to dream, but often fail to put them in context, she adds. And context changes more often than one would like. “Relook at your personal goals, recalibrate it from time to time, and go from there.”
There have been lows, times when the struggle has been overwhelming. If anything, they’ve taught her to believe that growth lies in the act of getting up. “You’ll keep rising, irrelevant of things around you.” With all the colourful feathers in her cap, there’s a fullness that she is grateful to experience every day.
Has she set her sight on a new adventure or a new horizon to pursue? Along with her regular job, she is preparing to get into mentoring for leadership and personal grooming.
“We always believe in having good teachers at school, right? It’s the same anywhere and everywhere. In any sport or a pageant or any kind of field, you need good leaders to push you and motivators to take you there.” And she would love to get the chance to pass even a little bit of what she has learnt over the years.
The soundtrack of her life may have changed from music and hums to whirring sounds of cars racing by. But her credo remains the same: to be simple, humble, and focus on being better at what she does. “It’s always about the journey we hope to lead over time.”