A Day With: Desert bike rider Dana Miskulnig

Jay Asser 17/11/2016
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All action biker: Dana Miskulnig.

There’s not much that Dana Miskulnig can’t do, making her something of a renaissance woman. Whether it’s handling her motorbike, travelling the world and capturing it on her GoPro, setting up an apparel brand or even juggling kids (not her own), the 23-year-old can do it all.

The 23-year-old of Austrian descent who was born and raised in Dubai is one of just three women competing in the Emirates Desert Championship, the top desert racing event in the UAE which caters to bikes, quads, buggies and cars.

Sport360 caught up with Miskulnig to talk about growing the sport for women, how often she has a camera strapped to her and the message behind her apparel brand Elevaete.

How did you get into motorbiking?

My dad has always been a bit of a petrolhead. Back when he was living in Kuwait, he used to race in rallies with cars. When I was 16, for Christmas my dad got me and my mom a dirtbike and he taught us how to ride. I kind of got the hang of it and then he got himself one so we could go to the desert and ride together.

The bike I first learned on was a 250cc, so it was a good beginner’s bike and he got himself a 450cc, so I borrowed his bike for a little while and I ended up not giving it back to him. I kind of stepped up in terms of power and handling. He had to get himself a new bike, but it was me, my mom and my dad riding together in the desert for a couple of years.

My dad taught me everything I know about bikes. When I was old enough, when I was 18, I started racing in the Emirates Desert Championship. I thought ‘okay, a lot of guys are doing this, a couple girls and my dad used to race rallies’ so I thought I’d give it a go and see what it’s all about.

Dana out on the dunes.

Dana out on the dunes.

I started two seasons ago so this is my third season. I really enjoy it because it’s very psychological. You basically race for two hours, give or take, and it’s always a different route in the desert. The first lap is always about kind of seeing what the layout is like and what kind of dangers you need to avoid.

It’s kind of cool to race against the guys, like plus or minus 90 guys, and see where you rank amongst them.

As a woman in the sport, do you get surprised responses from people when you show or tell them what you do?

I definitely think it’s still a novelty when I tell people I ride dirt bikes, let alone that I know how to ride a motorcycle. They get a bit of a ‘oh wow’ moment. While it’s nice, it would be nicer for it to be more of a normal thing.

Since I began, there’s definitely more coverage. Not always, because sometimes they don’t include the ladies as often in the reports or in magazines or whoever publishes about the races. Sometimes there’s only three of us racing, so I guess they think why should they cover it. But then again that’s what we need to show – that there are women racing.

Once you’re part of this biking community, the guys are so willing to help you. I wouldn’t know half the things I do about bikes and be able to ride half as good as I can if it wasn’t for the guys along the way who have pushed me, taught me and helped me. I think they also want to see more girls out there and are willing to help where they can.

Is there a way of getting more girls involved in the sport?

I’ve had so many girls ask me and say ‘please teach me’ and ‘show me how to try it’. I taught a couple of girls last year how to ride and it’s really, really nice because they tell other girls about it.

If I had the means, I would be teaching a whole academy of girls. We have a list of like 25 Emirati girls who want to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The only thing that’s missing is the equipment to be able to give them helmets, boots and other protective gear, because it is a bit of a high startup cost just to try it.

Especially for girls, there’s not the right size boots for us and there’s not a lot of people you can borrow boots from that have girls’ sizes. I think there’s a huge potential at a grassroots level to start it if you give the girls an opportunity to try it and go from there. There is a curiosity but they don’t know where to start, that’s the problem.

You’re part of the GoPro Family. What is that and how did you get involved?

I’ve quite recently started taking a lot more photos with GoPro, which I really enjoy doing because the GoPro camera itself is very discreet and you can take a quick action photo. It helps an amateur photographer like me get some nice photos without trying too hard.

So I just started posting a lot of photos, doing my thing, riding my bike and travelling. Then GoPro Middle East contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of their family. When they have events, they invite you to meet other family members, or if they see an opportunity you can be part of, they let you know. If there’s new equipment they want you to try, they’ll send you that.

Or even like recently, we had the Hero 5 launch and a few of us were invited to come out to Majorca and try out the camera and test it a bit. One thing they make sure we know is that if we travel to other places or have projects we kind of want to put forward, we just need to let them know so they can support us with equipment or financing.

Ambitious: Dana and business partner Tanvi Malik.

Ambitious: Dana and business partner Tanvi Malik.

You’ve also created an apparel brand called Elevaete. How did that start?

A couple months ago, I got together with another girl, Tanvi Malik, and we decided to start an activewear brand to make our own gymwear basically for women in the UAE, be it local or expats. We have the women here in mind with their body types, culture and all that. We also have this social aspect where we really want to have a positive impact on the community and really have a culture behind what Elevaete is about.

Our goal is to encourage women to work together and encourage each other, for us to find ways to give women opportunities, like hosting a networking event.

Surely you can’t have much time for even more hobbies, can you?

I’ll ask anyways. Growing up here and with the parents I’m lucky to have, I got to learn a lot of different activities. I wakeboard, I have a boat driving license, I scuba dive, I longboard here and there. I also just love to try new things and learn new things.

One thing I really enjoy doing before every race is servicing my own bike. When I tell guys I service my own bike, they open their eyes and think ‘wow she does that herself’ when it’s just because I want to save 500 bucks.

You also babysit and nanny. What’s that been like?

I actually wasn’t much of a kids person when I started, but maybe I do have a knack for it. I nanny regularly three days a week and it’s been interesting learning negotiating skills, patience and how to actually deal with kids.

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A Day With: Nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen

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Le Mans legend: Tom Kristensen.

Tom Kristensen is a motorsport legend. He won Le Mans a record nine times and perhaps even more impressively recorded six consecutive victories between 2000 and 2005. Most of his wins came behind the wheel of an Audi, although he also drove for Porsche, BMW and Bentley. He announced his retirement in 2014 and now works as an ambassador for Audi Sport.

We caught up with him in the UAE when he was here to open the world’s first Audi Sport showroom in Abu Dhabi and he spoke to us about his glorious career…

Why do you think you were so successful?

That’s a tough opening question. I was born in a gas station and my dad was a racing driver so I guess it was my destiny. It was a pretty humble beginning going to race tracks watching my father but I wanted to show the world that I could be a race car driver and that needed a lot of energy and determination.

As regards to Le Mans, I knew immediately that this was a fantastic place to be. You could feel from everyone that this was a race where you had to perform and that if you did well in that race it would help your career a lot. I had a lot of respect for that race and that certainly helped.

Now I am looking back at 18 starts at Le Mans, nine wins, 14 podiums and four times where we didn’t see the finish. But it is important to say that it was never about ‘me’ but about ‘we’ – the team, because sometimes it was the mechanics that won the race for us.

It is a balancing act between triumph and tragedy, not winning, or winning but I don’t think there is a secret to success. It’s a combination of hard work, determination and passion as you try to overcome the hardest race in the world.

A lot of racing drivers started in karting when they were kids. Did you?

Absolutely. When I first got into a kart I was immediately hooked. At a race track where my dad was racing a guy came over with a used go-kart which basically had a chainsaw engine. It was difficult to start and the first year was a disaster but it never put me off from what I wanted to achieve.

The years in karting when I had to drive a scooter, at the age of 12 when I really wasn’t old enough, to the station to take the train and then a bus to the kart track, something I did for a few years, needed determination and commitment and, for sure, was character building.

Do you think the fact that you had to struggle in those days with a kart that wasn’t that good helped you in the future?

Absolutely, it helps you to keep focused and determined to do well and I took that into my later career. I remember in the beginning before I joined Audi I was racing a car and felt something itching on my back and it started to feel like it was burning.

I stayed out on the track because I was determined to deliver and when I finished and got out of the car I was told that during the night before the mechanics had taken the seat out when they cleaned the car and petrol was used to clean the floor but it was sucked into the seat and on to my back which is still damaged.

Kristensen helped Audi dominate the endurance racing scene.

Kristensen helped Audi dominate the endurance racing scene.

So you did karting, single seaters, you were successful in DTM, Formula Nippon and obviously endurance racing but there is no Formula One on your CV. Why?

The simple reason is that F1 is commercialised and I didn’t have the money. Some people have kindly said I was the best driver not to have competed in Formula One but I have done quite a lot of F1 testing for Jaguar, Williams and Minardi.

I was a test driver for Michelin tyres and I was pretty close to joining an F1 team on many occasions but it always came down to money. Yes, it was part of my ambition and dream to go that route but the way I look at it is that I might have missed out on some of my Le Mans career and I might not have joined Audi.

Was there ever a proper conversation about joining Formula One?

Alain Prost was very close to signing me and I had a deal to join Minardi where they would give me half a year for free but I didn’t want to gamble with that because after the free period I had to bring a budget. Williams was also a possibility but, as I say, it always came down to lack of a money. There are no regrets because I know I would have had a good career in Formula One.

You describe Le Mans as the greatest race in the world. Why is it so special?

We have to speak about emotions. When I went to Le Mans for the first time as a driver I had to control my emotions. You just have to look around at the mechanics working on the cars and you realise that even for them it is different; they know this is THE race.

The circuit is very similar to the way it was in 1923 – the first Le Mans race – and you just soak all that history and energy in. The 24 hour format with four categories also means you constantly have overtaking, there is always something happening. You can also tell one engine from another – they don’t all sound the same – so it is probably the complete motorsport event and the fans also make it special.

Do you have one Le Mans victory that stands out from the others?

The first in 1997 for Porsche was special because it was the foundation of my Le Mans career. Then the one in 2001 when it was raining for 19 out of the 24 hours.

And then 2008 when supposedly we had no chance against the Peugeots which were 3.5 seconds a lap faster than us but with the rain at night and everything that happened winning that ‘impossible victory’ has gone down as one of the greatest Le Mans ever.

And of course, 2013 which turned out to be my ninth and final victory at Le Mans when I lost a great friend and colleague Allan Simonsen in a crash and my dad died a few months earlier.

During that year we had local rain. You really can’t afford to go onto wet or intermediate tyres because it was only wet in certain parts of the track which made it mentally very tough so that was probably the most extreme Le Mans.

How hard was it to give it all up?

Drivers like Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell used to tell me when I asked them why they retired so early that I didn’t understand but that one day I would. They were right. You know when the time is right to go.

Yes, it was a tough decision but I felt it was perfect timing.

Audi have announced that they are pulling out of endurance racing and Le Mans to focus on Formula E. How do you feel about that?

In a way it is sad for the WEC and Le Mans in particular. I am just so proud to have been part of their fantastic journey with 13 wins and two world championships but life moves on and Audi is moving on as well and they have an exciting future. It is going to be exciting to see that evolve.

How do you see your role now?

To carry the history and heritage of the Audi Sport brand forward and to work with the young drivers in training, team building and fitness work.

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