At some point during her maiden Raid de Himalaya in October 2016, Aishwarya Pissay realized her bike’s front brake wasn’t working. She still had to finish 70km on the treacherous, freezing route of the world’s highest, and perhaps toughest, rally raid. “I almost died in the raid," says Pissay who couldn’t complete it. “This is not a figure of speech, I mean literally."

She had better luck the next year; despite suffering a major crash on the fifth day of the six-day raid, she was the only woman to complete it and win in the Ladies’ category. That was her seventh victory, sealing the 22-year-old Bengalurean’s place as a young star on the motorsport scene.

Pissay began riding when she was 18, first taking trips with friends on her first bike, the KTM200. She didn’t do too well in class XII, and took a year off, spurred by a desire to explore other interests. Completing a bachelor’s degree in commerce via correspondence from Bangalore University, she continued with her passion for riding, never seriously considering anything else. This came as a jolt to her conservative family; they thought the idea of a career in racing was crazy. “Everybody said take a 9-5 job and pursue this as a hobby," she says. “But I chose to stick to this and wait for what I want.... There is a career anywhere you want."

Pissay, tall—5ft, 9 inches—and slender, exudes a quiet confidence and passion in the way she speaks about the sport. “It’s the adrenalin rush that I like," she says. “It makes me feel alive. Racing and riding is the way I live and breathe."

After enrolling for formal training, she started riding competitively in 2016, and for the past year has been supported by motor company TVS, and juggling between three cities—Chennai, Bengaluru and Coimbatore. And although most riders tend to focus either on circuit races or off-roading raids, Pissay has embraced both forms.

“It’s riding, at the end of the day," she says. “It’s not about doing two different genres but about doing what you like."

Aishwarya Pissay.
Aishwarya Pissay.

At first though, it wasn’t easy. The One Make Race, her debut race in February 2016, was an utter failure. “That triggered me. I thought, I got to be better at this, I want to be a better version of myself," she says. “I am going to come back stronger."

And she did, combining physical and mental training with a kind of grim determination. This yielded multiple wins, including topping the women’s class of the Indian National Rally Championship in 2017.

Few women in India participate in motorsport, but the initial scepticism Pissay faced about young women riders has begun to change. “It’s no more about someone trying to prove something," she says. “Now, it’s about performance, skills, and how good you are."

The next season starts in June, and she will compete in about 20 races this year. The sport, though, is expensive (costing more than Rs10 lakh a year, by her estimate) and still needs to find wider audiences.

Has she ever been caught on the roads for speeding? She smiles and shakes her head. “The adrenalin kicks in during a race," she says. “On the streets, it’s about exploring, having fun, more about the journey than reaching a destination."

Bengaluru traffic may have proved more useful than expected. “All the potholes and people coming from everywhere are like racing on an obstacle course," she says. “I think that’s what has made me a better rider."

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