Unconventional sports, Riya Daga (12): Racecar driving


Ava Lipsky , Staff Writer

Horace Mann students are known for being quick-learners, but Riya Daga (12) is learning at 200 mph — literally.

Daga started racing at 13 years old. By the time she was 14, she was on the racetrack regularly. Daga was inspired by her father, who is a motorsports enthusiast. “When I was 13, he asked me if I wanted to learn how to drive and I said yes.”

“When I started racing, I had no experience driving, so I was learning to train my depth perception for braking and how to smoothly accelerate and decelerate,” she said. Even though Daga was 13, she did not need a license to start racing because it was up to the private property to decide whether or not to let you drive, she said. Daga started taking lessons with an instructor who watched her drive.

That summer, Daga attended the Bertil Ros racing school to learn the basics of the sport. Afterwards, Daga spent many days on the track where she practiced driving laps in her car. This helps the driver learn more about the car and general racing techniques, she said.

In 2020, Daga went to another racing school and became more invested in the sport, she said. “The summer is usually my favorite time to race as I can just focus on racing as opposed to balancing school and racing,” Daga said. The summer before her junior year, Daga interned at the track for a month where she spent her time working and racing on the track. 

By the end of the summer, Daga’s car, a Global MX-5 Cup, had two major mechanical issues, primarily due to her height. “My car was built for taller people and I am 4’10”,” she said. Daga tried to make adjustments to the car like inserting different types of pedal extensions to compensate for her height, but after two years of racing the car, these implementations put stress on the vehicle that worsened the mechanical issues. “Unfortunately, I had to retire the car during the middle of my peak-performance summer season.” Recently, Daga has been racing in a Porsche GT4 Clubsport. she said.

At the beginning of high school, Daga went to the track once or twice each weekend. Racing season begins mid April and lasts until the end of November. “I will typically leave my house at about 7 a.m. and I get back home at 6 p.m. after a day at the track,” she said. “It is a whole day activity — whenever I arrive home after racing I am usually physically and mentally exhausted.” However, Daga has not been able to go to the track often in the last year due the mechanical issues with her car and other commitments.

When racing, Daga wears a fireproof suit, fireproof thermals, racing gloves, and a fireproof base layer underneath her suit. Her racing shoes have a grip to help her feet move quickly around the different pedals in the car. She also has a helmet with a HANS neck brace that straps onto her helmet to protect her in the case of an accident. Once in the car, she straps herself into a five-point seat belt which tightly secures her.

When racing, Daga tries to maintain a focused and clear mind, she said. “Racing is endurance because you have to be able to put 110 perecent focus throughout your session, and you can’t think about anything else or you will probably make a mistake,” Daga said. “I visualize a perfect lap of the track and go through the gears once quickly just to make sure I am in the right mindset.”

Because she races, people have often assumed that it is easy for Daga to drive on the road — but there are major differences. “On the street, you will break slowly when you approach a stop sign. In racing, you’re accelerating 100 percent and then you’re breaking 100 percent.”

People are shocked to hear that she is a racecar driver, Daga said. “A lot of people think of race car drivers as tall and toned white men.” The racing community is majority male; 90 to 95 percent of the members at her racing track were men, Daga said. 

There is an effort to make the racing community more diverse, though it isn’t there yet. “The club is trying to get more females involved in motorsport,” she said. “One of my personal focuses has also been trying to encourage females to join the sport.” Daga often speaks to girls interested in racing at the track so she can explain her journey to them.

One significant moment in Daga’s racing career was learning a manual/stick shift. “Applying stick shift to the track was really thrilling because hearing the car shift well is an amazing sound,” Daga said. Learning stick shift was initially hard for Daga because of her height. “I needed to press harder on the clutch, which exerted more energy on my legs and mentally to make sure the clutch had been fully pressed,” she said.

Daga enjoys passing cars during races, she said. “When you start racing, cars are often passing you and you get frustrated, but that’s part of the process,” she said. “As I became faster, I started passing cars, which was thrilling.”

To pick up speed and pass other cars, Daga calculates the right radius and angle on the fly. “The calculation that goes into passing cars is rewarding to figure out.”

Through her racing experience, Daga has been inspired by the racing colloquialism, “you should always look three turns ahead” that taught her to think long-term. Racers must look at least one or two corners ahead to see where they want their car to be, and maneuver towards that position. “I’m always thinking ahead, not only about the upcoming turns in front of me, but about the other cars on track.,” she said. 

From racing, Daga has also acquired more patience and persistence, she said. “It can be frustrating when you feel that you’re not getting a turn right or you are having a hard time downshifting from fourth to third gear,” she said. “Practice and determination makes you better at those skills at the end of the day, so being patient and trusting yourself and the process is essential.”

“Racing does have its ups and downs,” Daga said. “On ‘Drive to Survive,’ they say that in racing, the highs are really high and the lows are really low, and that is 100 percent true,” she said. “You learn to manage those feelings after a while but it’s still very intense since you’re giving 100 percent focus on being one with the car the whole day — if the car is having a rough time, you feel like you are having a rough time.”

Regardless, Daga’s passion for the sport has persisted. “I very much love racing and plan to continue pursuing it in the future.”