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Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton began his career with karting. Naomi Schiff, 18, hopes to follow her idol into the big leagues of motorsport.
She was introduced to karting at 12, during a family friend’s indoor go-karting birthday party.
Her Belgian father, David, noticed that she “was always in the queue to go back on”, so he decided to take her to the Kyalami racetrack in Midrand for testing and to practise.
“It proved to be the best thing,” he says. “Within a couple of kart races, she was quicker than me.”
She was at the tracks constantly with her father. Eventually he bought Naomi her first chassis and decided to coach her.
She was easy to teach. Sometimes David was hard on her – “now and then we argued” – but she was the kind of person who worked well under pressure.
IN THE BLOOD
They bonded through the sport. She was surprised to find out that her father had been a Benelux Formula Ford champion in the 1980s.
“I think more than anything, my dad was happy because he was living his passion through me,” says Naomi.
After a year of training, Naomi entered her first club race at Zwartkops Raceway in Pretoria.
She felt overwhelmed and nervous, but the race went “surprisingly well”.
“Often novices get lapped, but I was never lapped. I stuck with the pack,” says Naomi.
Now in her seventh year of racing, Naomi is competing in the most competitive karting category, the X30, and races for the Roos Kart Team.
Over the years she has accumulated several trophies, which are on display at their Morningside home.
She has trophies from her wins from the Zwartkops Kart Club Championship in 2007 and the South African Rotax Max Challenge final in 2008. That year she also qualified for the La Conca Rotax Max Challenge grand finals in Italy, where she was one of only two women to qualify for the world finals, with more than 216 drivers.
For three consecutive years, she was selected to represent South Africa at the ROK World Finals.
And 2011 was a particularly good year for her – she competed in the South African Super ROK championship and won several races and events, including a race win against South Africa’s Leeroy Poulter, a Toyota rally driver and 2011’s Motor Sportsman of the Year.
She also set the lap record for the Super ROK category at Killarney Kart Circuit in Cape Town.
Last year, she signed with Zanardi SA and was chosen to represent the brand.
Training sessions and competing in national and international races often meant being absent from school. But she still did well in her matric – she got three distinctions.
Her social life is almost non-existent, she says, but she has no regrets. Being surrounded by adults in motorsport made her mature quickly. “You don’t have time to be a kid,” she says.
Racing also taught her to be independent. “I want this as a profession. I know the sacrifices it takes. People may think this is a game, but for me this is real.”
She has never felt out of place in a sport dominated by men. Fellow drivers have been friendly and accommodating, while some consider her serious competition.
“They would rather be beaten by another man, not a girl. They don’t like to hear that. They joke among themselves about it,” she adds good-naturedly.
INTIMIDATION DOESN’T SCARE HER
She has learnt to play the mental game just as well as the others, often presenting “body language to intimidate people”.
Because it’s pretty much a father-and-son scene, she has had some fathers approach before races “to play mind games” with her.
“They say things like: ‘Don’t make trouble, and don’t get in his way.’ Those things are meant to intimidate you out of your aggressiveness,” she says.
But it’s a different story when the race is over. “We’re all human again. It becomes a home away from home and we chill out together,” she says.
Before every race, Naomi goes through certain rituals, methods taught to her by a sports psychologist and a former coach. She sits in her kart for a few minutes and closes her eyes to get in the zone. Mentally, she does a few laps around the circuit. To help get her focused, she tells herself: “I’m the best, I have great equipment.”
The fastest she has driven has been 270km/h in the rain, at the Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, one of the most famous racing tracks in the world.
“I was there to do a race in a prototype car in March 2012. I qualified third. But I crossed the line in fourth. There was an oil leak in the car and my motor was broken. The year before that, I qualified third and finished second.”
A BRUTAL SPORT
Does she feel fear on the tracks?
“No. You can’t afford to,” she says. She has had a cracked rib, a few concussions and a broken left foot courtesy of a race in Italy.
“People think it’s a glamorous life, but it’s quite a brutal sport,” she adds. And yet the first-year Wits student – she’s studying for a BA in psychology and law – stresses when she breaks a nail at the tracks.
Finding a sponsor has been her biggest challenge for the past seven years. Karting is an expensive sport and it has been tough finding people willing to fund her.
“It’s sad and disappointing because you may have the talent, but you don’t get to where you should be because there is no money,” says Naomi.
She is seeking sponsorship to be able to take part next month in the Formula Renault 1.6 litre NEC Junior (Northern European Cup), which consists of races in Holland, Belgium and Germany.
“It costs about €100 000 (R1.1 million) just to do six races,” says Naomi.
Every spare rand David earns goes into Naomi’s racing requirements, from buying tyres to getting motors repaired.
He’s still optimistic about finding a sponsor. “Naomi is hungry for this,” says David. “She’s not a model in a racing suit. We really want to be racing drivers, and we think we come with the skills to get into Formula One.” -The Star