Rally and rallycross

Ramona Karlsson

This time we spoke to top female racing driver Ramona Karlsson about finding sponsors at age twelve, her work promoting equality in motorsports and how she combines her career with life as a parent.

WHEEL SISTERS: Ramona, please introduce yourself.

Ramona: I live in the countryside outside Kil in Sweden (close to Karlstad, HQ of Rally Sweden, together with Glenn and our two children Nils, 3, and Olof, 1. Right now I’m on maternity leave from my work as rallycross driver and team owner at Ramona RX. I’m also consulting as a driving instructor, stunt driver and lecturer.

WHEEL SISTERS: Ramona, you started your racing career at the age of 12 and now you are one of the most successful female race car drivers in Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about your way to the top? Is it true that your family had no connection to motorsports?

Ramona: That’s true that no one in my family competed in motorsports when I started with it. I think there were several reasons why I decided to take part. When I was little I hung out with my father a lot and I think that his interests inspired me. We went to motorsports competitions, watched motorsports on TV and when it was snowy and slippery outside, he used to slide with our car which I thought was so cool J. He encouraged me to try motocross when I was 4 years old and after that I was hooked. I really loved the feeling of the speed, the adrenaline and it was a great atmosphere among the people in the sport. I was very shy when I was little, and I’ve always felt a bit different. So feeling a bit different through being a girl in motorsports was a familiar feeling to me, and it never felt awkward in any way.

It has been a quite hard and long way to the top, which I was prepared for. Motorsport is expensive and my family never had any money so I started to find sponsors when I was very young. That was the hardest part. Since I was very shy and introverted, talking to people was the worst thing I knew. And on top of that, I had to sell… Oh my god, I thought I was going to die sometimes, haha. But I really loved motorsports, and to be able to succeed, I had to find the money. Simple as that. My family has always worked hard, and since an early age I’ve learned that nothing comes for free. When I talked to my father about my goals in motorsport, the answer was always “of course you can do it!” I think that this attitude was the most important thing; that nothing is impossible. You just have to find your own way to the top, believe that you can succeed despite tough pre-conditions, and be very solution-driven.

When I was 12 I started with crosskart, and won the Swedish Championship in my first year. When I was 16 I started with rallycross where I was 3rd in the Swedish Junior Championship, and was also selected for talent groups. In 2000 I started with rally, which was going to become my main sport. I really began from a grassroot level; my first car was a Saab 900 that I bought for 350 Euros. But I fought my way up, and after 8 years I competed in 4WD classes. And in 2012 I started to run my own team in the Rally World Championships.

 

Ramona started with crosskart at the age of 12, and won the Swedish Championship in her first year.

Picture: private

WHEEL SISTERS: At the time you decided to start a racing career, what were the reactions of your family and friends? Did anyone try to talk you out of it?

Ramona: My family was very supportive, as were my friends. But some people just laughed and thought I was crazy, that I was never going to succeed, that women shouldn’t be involved in the sport, etc. And I’m very grateful for those comments, since they made my will even stronger. I looked forward to proving them wrong.

WHEEL SISTERS: How did you finance your racing? How did you get sponsors?

Ramona: When I started with sponsors, it was quite a small amount of money, maybe between 100 and 1000 Euros. At that time, my father drove me around (I was 12 years old and had no driving licence :-), I jumped out of the car outside different companies, walked in (nervous as h-ll) and asked to talk to the manager.

But nowadays my budget is much larger and I spend a lot of time on the phone booking meetings, and at my office preparing the meetings, making marketing material, offers etc. Sponsors are interested in marketing and events, and it’s very important to find a good solution for them that suits their target groups, employers, and their brand. 

WHEEL SISTERS: In 2001, at the age of 20, you started to drive rallies after your career in motocross, crosskart and rallycross. How was the switch from rallycross to rally? These two disciplines are very different. Can you compare them?

Ramona: Yes, they truly are. In rallycross you drive on a wide track, and you know every corner and the surface. In rally you are challenged with new, and unprepared, situations all the time – on a road that is much narrower. And, at the same time, you need to listen to your co-driver and to the pacenotes. So during the first rally competitions, I spent a lot of time in the ditches…:-) But with experience I learned more and more about how to drive fast AND stay on the road at the same time :-).

… nothing is impossible. You just have to find your own way to the top …

WHEEL SISTERS: Let’s talk about your rally time. From 2001 to 2013 you participated in rallies in Sweden, Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Norway. And in 2012 you drove four WRC rallies. Your rally career is amazing and one of your biggest successes was the outright victory at the Uppsala rally in 2013. In 2013 you were also voted “Rally driver of the year” in Sweden. How important for these successes is the team and family who support you?

Ramona: They really are everything. My career has, like many others, been a mix of successes and defeats. And it’s important to work with people who support you both in good and bad times. These lessons can really be tough sometimes, but in the end you grow stronger and you get to know fantastic people. I’m very grateful to have met Miriam, we have really been through a lot together and she is the only one who really knows about all the hard work and experiences “behind the scenes”.

It’s a privilege to have a co-driver who you rely on so much both inside and outside the car. When you win and when you are in the flow, you have a lot of friends. But when the wind turns, I’m very happy that I can rely on my “rocks” around me: team staff, friends, and family. Without them I would never have succeeded.

 

2001 Ramona started to participate in rallys with a Saab 99, she bought for 350 Euros.

Picture: private

 WHEEL SISTERS: In 2014 you switched back to rallycross and made your debut at World RX in Portugal. Can you tell us the reasons for this change? How about a full season of ERC? Was it never a plan?

 Ramona: Several reasons. It was tough to find the budget for rally, and rallycross had better media coverage, plus it was more audience-friendly. I was also starting to think of having kids, and I thought rallycross was a more family-friendly sport. I can be out on the track to compete for five minutes, and then back in the paddock again to push the baby’s car :-) My plan was to drive for a full season in ERC 2015, but I got pregnant so therefore I retired.

WHEEL SISTERS: How were your later years in rallycross? And when did you found your own racing team Ramona RX?

Ramona: The same focus I’ve had on motorsport during all those years, I now have on my kids. I want to stay at home with them for as long as possible and to wait with kindergarten. So I haven’t got much time to work with sponsors, although I really long to get back behind the wheel.  I made a comeback in 2017 with a very tiny budget, and I knew that we didn’t have the updates that we needed to fight at have a proper budget and equal material – which is my goal for the future.

Ramona always wanted to have a female co-driver at her side. With Miriam she found not only a perfect navigator, but also a true friend.

Picture: by private

WHEEL SISTERS: If you look back – what had the biggest impact on improving your driving skills?

Ramona: I think it has been the balance between self-confidence and self-control, haha! When I have a high level of self-confidence, while at the same time being relaxed and driving cleverly – then I’m fast. And I get these skills with the kms, so everything is about driving. Driving, driving, driving. And, of course, surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and help you keep your self-confidence up.

WHEEL SISTERS: In 2013 you founded the YFD programme (Young Female Driver) together with Sweden’s National Sports Federation to promote the careers of female motor sport competitors in Sweden. What did the programme look like? What was the content of this programme? What were the events and lessons about? How has the programme developed over the last few years?

Ramona: This was a two-year programme (2013-2014) that I ran together with Sweden’s National Sports Federation. I shared my experiences from my career and all of the ingredients you need to succeed in the sport. I also arranged meetings and lessons about acquiring sponsorship, marketing, safety, mental training, driving lessons, training programmes and physical tests, etc. The girls gained more knowledge about the most important ingredients for becoming successful in the sport, and at the same time they could share experiences with each other.

That’s such a fantastic feeling that words can’t describe.

WHEEL SISTERS: Since 2014 you have been a member of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission. What does it mean for you? What are your tasks and goals in the commission?

Ramona: Yes, I was selected as the drivers’ representative in the commission, which of course was a big honour. Michèle Mouton was the president of the commission, and to work with my greatest role model was very special. All of the representatives met at global meetings, where we discussed different topics with the common goal of inspiring more women to get involved with motorsports, and to make the conditions easier – everything from equality at work, to marketing. I worked in the commission until I went on maternity leave in 2016.

WHEEL SISTERS: Generally: what aspects of motorsports do you love the most?

Ramona: I love controlling a car on the absolute limit, when you have adrenaline up to your ears – but at the same time are 100% focussed and are in “the zone”. That’s such a fantastic feeling that words can’t describe.

Ramona and Miriam had a “hot moment” at Rally New Zealand 2012 when their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X caught fire.

Picture: by private

WHEEL SISTERS: In your opinion, what does a successful rally/rallycross driver need to have in order to become successful?

Ramona: Passion, focus, guts and money.

WHEEL SISTERS: The most inspiring woman in motorsports for you is Michèle Mouton. Do you see any similarities between her and you?

Ramona: I never forget the first movie I watched with Michèle Mouton. The first big impression on me was the strong focus and will I saw in her eyes. You could really feel it through the screen, and that had a strong impact on me. I’ve always been very committed to what I do, and maybe this is the thing we have most in common.

Ramona is member of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission and is working together with Michèle Mouton to inspire more women to get involved with motorsports.

Picture: private

WHEEL SISTERS: Although there seem to be more women becoming involved in motorsports, why do you think there are still so few? What can be done to encourage more women to take part?

Ramona: Not as many women as men are interested in motorsports from the beginning. Generally, men are more interested in technique and cars, but motorsport is more than that. You can be successful as a driver even though you are not interested in the technical parts. I think it’s important to market the girls and women that are successful in the sport, and to create more role models. Everything from mechanics, team and organisation staff, to drivers.

WHEEL SISTERS: Have you experienced any sexism during races and, if so, how did you deal with it?

Ramona: Yes, I think that most women in the sport have. And that is something you have to handle, unfortunately I think it will take many years until girls are generally as accepted as men.
I really don’t put much energy into that. If I had, it would have stolen my passion for the sport. This I learned quite early. Most of the situations are just clumsiness and I just don’t bother. But if someone has crossed the limit, I have just told them that it isn’t ok. And then I let it go. As a girl in the sport, you have to speak up for yourself, which of course can be tough sometimes, especially when you’re young.  Then it’s important to have reliable people around you that are 100% there for you.

I also think that if you feel that you can handle all the tough situations you are confronted with during your career; everything from finding finances and dealing with defeats, to prejudices and sexism, you will increase your chances of success. I know so many examples of people who have had the best pre-conditions and have surfed their way up to the top. But then they are confronted with defeats (as everybody is), and then they give up. Because they aren’t thick-skinned enough. So, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I really believe that. And you shouldn’t forget that being a woman brings its own benefits. A successful woman in motorsports creates lots more publicity than a man, which is valuable for sponsors.

And you shouldn’t forget that being a woman brings its own benefits.

WHEEL SISTERS: Ramona, you are now mother to two lovely boys. How did this change your life?

Ramona: It changed a lot. I have never felt this much love before and it’s really overwhelming. As a parent you worry about entirely new things, but at the same time I feel more relaxed. Nothing is more important than creating the best possible future for my boys, and this purpose in life feels very important and relaxing. My paths are clearer at a deeper level.

WHEEL SISTERS: Would you like them to also take up a career in motorsports?

Ramona: If they want to, yes. I think it’s very important that they do something THEY would like to do. I’ll try not to influence them when they choose interests, but if they choose motorsports I can definitely help them a lot with my experiences. But I will for sure be worried to death after all my experiences on the roads, haha!

WHEEL SISTERS: How do you teach your boys that it is important to respect women and that women and men are equal, especially in motorsports?

Ramona: I think this is a question of how you behave as parents; as mother and father. This is so obvious for us and I think it will come naturally in the way we act and speak to them. It won’t be an issue that a woman competes against men in an equal sport such as motorsport. The fact that I’m a mother also helps me to find a higher purpose in my sport; now my goal is also to be a great role model for them.

“It has been a quite hard and long way to the top, which I was prepared for.”

Picture: by private

WHEEL SISTERS: What advice would you give to girls or women looking forward to getting into motorsports?

Ramona: Do it for passion, and you will have a great time. You will for sure have tough times as well, and it’s important to have reliable people around you. Speak up for yourself, but keep your humbleness. If you want to become no.1, don’t look at yourself as “the female driver against the male drivers”. You are a driver among drivers, in the same conditions. Be determined, and when you meet prejudices, get power from them. Instead of losing energy, feel the feeling in your body when you prove them wrong.

WHEEL SISTERS: What are your private and sporting goals in the upcoming months or years?

Ramona: I will combine work with maternity leave for the next year. I would really love to compete again this season, but I haven’t any budget sorted yet because of my focus on my family over the last few years. So it’s a bit of an open book right now. I really long to sit behind the wheel again soon, so I will for sure be open for opportunities!

 

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