Alice Gee | 15/04/2023
Sat in La Nouvelle Republique’s vinyl room in Paris, sipping on tea, Naomi Schiff starts our interview by responding in her own words to my question how would you best introduce yourself. She takes a moment to let me know it’s a tough one, as although she’s a retired racing driver, she hasn’t in her heart of hearts. But if we are to go with an answer at that moment, “I’m a racing driver and a Sky Sports F1 Analyst,” she proudly declares.
I’ve been a fan of Naomi’s for quite some time. Naomi has always been an unapologetic female powerhouse, paving the way for others in often male and underrepresented community. Having found huge success in racing, punditry, and ambassador roles, you can’t help but admire her charming and utterly authentic self, paving the way for future women in sport on and off the track.
Having so many accomplishment’s at the ripe age of 28, it’s hard to know where to begin in asking how she digests those moments. “There are a lot of moments where you sit back and go, holy crap. I think there’s been a lot of moments that have come full circle, especially in the last year of my life. So although I’m not exactly on the path I set out to be on, it feels like I’m where I’m meant to be. As much as they are an achievement, I don’t look at it and think, oh, it’s an achievement, because, to me, past achievements were always trophies and standing on the podium.” It can’t be easy adjusting to a definition of success, having had one so deeply ingrained in her life. “In a way, it’s been quite special to see after all that hard work we put in, and I say we because it took a lot of people to get me to where I am today.” I’m curious to know what’s always been the goal for Naomi. “I guess the ultimate goal when you set out in a sport is to have a professional career. And although I had somewhat of a professional racing career for 16 years, paying my bills and living my passion was the goal. I was able to do it in the last few years of my career. My work now is a way for me to stay in the sport that I absolutely love.”
How old were you when you first began, I ask? “It was the year that I was turning 12 that I started racing,” noting that it was pretty late in terms of racing standards. “When I started, most of the competition I was racing within my age group had about eight years of experience on me. So I was quite late to the party, to be fair.” It seems it’s something she thinks is better in many ways. “It’s all good to have your pedigree, but I sometimes think when kids start so young, they often also move on sooner because they either get tired or realise that it wasn’t really their number one choice. Whereas it was definitely my choice, I could make those decisions for myself. I stuck to it because I knew that I believed in it.”
With racing, it’s easy to assume some form of calling drew Naomi towards the sport, be it a naturally competitive nature, the thrill of the adrenaline, or simply the love of cars. “I don’t know if I can really pinpoint it. I was invited to an indoor go karting birthday party, and that’s when I was first really exposed to the sport. Going into it, I didn’t have any thoughts about it. I wasn’t necessarily into motorsport.” Her eyes glisten as she admits her competitive nature. “I’ve always been quite competitive. I was always involved in sports at school. I did mostly Judo, but there was swimming and athletics.” With most not being exposed to motorsports in the average physical education class, it wasn’t initially on her list growing up. “It wasn’t even on my radar, but I do remember always wanting to have one of those electric cars kids get to drive around the garden in. That was always my dream gift, but it took me coming to that indoor go-karting birthday party to realise that I actually enjoyed driving and was good at it too.” Naomi laughs, admitting there’s no worse feeling as a kid not being good at something you love. “Some people think it’s just about putting your foot on the throttle, pressing the brake, and turning the steering wheel, but a lot goes into it to make it perfect. A perfect lap is an art. It’s that element that I really enjoyed.”
When up against stiff competition, I wondered how easy it was to stay on track, literally. “On one hand, I tried to have my cake and eat it. I was always told if you want to succeed, you’ve got to sacrifice” something we all know doesn’t come easy to the average teenager. “In the years that I was really getting into racing, and I was starting to perform on quite a high level, I was 14/15, that time where you’re teenagers and people start going out and having crushers and things like that. So I saw my friends living their teenage lives, and I spend most of my weekends at the racetrack, and often some afternoons after school.” As Naomi opened up to me, the fact of the matter was she loved racing, and she clearly loved being good at it. To succeed, Naomi tells me about the number of hours needed to be put in to hone the craft, something around 10,000, something she tells me even she didn’t quite get to. “When you break it down, it’s a crazy amount of hours per day that you need to do. But I understood that if I wanted to be good, I had to sacrifice my time and be super dedicated.” I can’t imagine many teenagers doing it, let alone myself being so dedicated at 15. “Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t come naturally. I mean, there was always an internal battle. It takes discipline. I definitely had parents who helped me stick on the right path. When I started to waver, they were there to remind me of what my goals were. I thank them for that today.”
Although I'm a massive fan of F1 and aware of the age Kids begin racing and competing, I find it fascinating the dedication, discipline, and sacrifice involved by all, which extends further than those in the cars.
“Honestly, it was tough, maybe more so than in other sports. Of course, every sport, from a parent’s perspective, requires time, dedication, and sacrifice from them as well. But motorsports is such an expensive sport. There’s a massive financial sacrifice as well, which I think was quite difficult to deal with as a kid.” As we break down more of what’s involved, Naomi gets candid with me about the pressures she felt. “On the bad days, when things were terrible, you were reminded of the position you were putting your family in to be there. And if you’re weren't delivering, it was a lot to take on. For the very first few years of my career, my dad was extremely hands-on in being at the track for every practice, and every race, working on the go-karts with me, so he was super, super involved. And sometimes, that was too much for me because it meant that from morning to evening, we would talk about racing, go to the track, everything was racing, and then when things didn’t go well, I felt we would bring that back home with us. Sometimes that’s a lot to deal with. And as I mentioned, there’s obviously this massive financial burden. And as kids, you understand that. Sometimes I think people underestimate how much kids feel that pressure. So I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
Speaking earlier, before Naomi’s cover shoot and our podcast, I was able to spend the morning getting to know Naomi a little more. From the moment we were personally introduced, the drive surrounding Naomi’s aspirations was apparent. Knowing we’d touched upon the pressures involved before our formal podcast conversation, I wondered if being so headstrong had been the reason behind her staying on course to achieve her dreams.
"At that time, I was very focused on that sacrifice and ensuring I could do everything correctly to get where I wanted to be. As I’ve aged and grown up, I’ve realised there’s much more to life than just racing.” A lonely period can be involved in working your way to the top. “Where I was racing in Asia, and I was doing really well, I was bringing home loads of trophies but experiencing all those moments by myself. It was tough. I didn’t have family or friends with me. So I wondered what’s the point if I do it by myself and sacrifice everything. You don’t hear much about missing out on many things like friends, birthdays, or special moments.” Now standing back from being in the car, Naomi hopes there’s less sacrifice involved. “I guess it still is a bit of an issue, you know, two of my friends are getting married this year, and their weddings fall on race weekends, and I have to think, these are my best friends. Am I really going to miss their wedding because, like, that’s a once in a lifetime. I think I’m a little more conscious of having that work and life balance. I’m lucky now because I’m not in that racing seat. When you’re in the seat, you’ve got sponsors and the teams counting on you. You can’t just take a day off. You have to show up and do your job. Whereas now, with the job I’m in, there’s a little more room for flexibility. I don’t do every single race on the calendar. I can prioritise the ones they want me to prioritise within reason, and if there is a super special event happening, my employers are nice enough to allow me to have that time to have these special moments. Life is short; anything can happen, and I don’t want to look back on something and think, damn, I prioritised work over these people that mean so much to me.”
Regarding mental health, I wonder where the tricky question of how Naomi copes falls alongside herself becoming her priority. “That’s a tough question. I would say that for me, it’s been coming out of the sport, as there’s so much pressure. As much as it is a team sport, there’s a massive focus on the person in the cockpit. Compared to other sports, let’s take football. You have a 50/50 chance of winning or losing. In racing, the odds of succeeding in one race are way less. There are also so many other factors around it that play into your ability to compete at the level you’d like. There’s a lot of pressure, sacrifices, and failures, and that’s really tough, especially when there’s been so much sacrifice from other people for you to be where you are. So you carry this burden with you. I was always close to making it work. But it was always compromised to an extent, and it was very frustrating. Now I’m able to control my narrative. I don’t have this burden of needing to succeed or get a result. Mental health balance is something taken more seriously now. They are talking about it more, but change is happening very slowly, I believe it can happen faster.”
As Naomi steps out of the cockpit into a world she has firm control over, I wanted to ask not so much what’s next but what’s on her radar, as and when suits her. “I’ve been asked that question quite a lot in the six months about what I want to be doing in the next few years. I think I’m so lucky to say I am where I want to be, working alongside such amazing people in a space I love. I feel honoured and lucky that I have this potential time to hone in on what I’m doing now and make the absolute most of it.”
“But if there is anything on the horizon for me, I want to step outside of sport a little bit because, as I said, when I was younger, I didn’t know who I was without being a racing driver. It was the biggest part of my identity and still is the most significant part of my identity. I love racing. I love motorsports. But I want to start to define myself. And I want that to be outside of sports because I’ve spent so much time in the space. I want to explore something different in the lifestyle space. I don’t know what it is yet, but I know that I’m happy where I’m at in terms of sports. That base is covered."
I know from our time together how seriously Naomi takes her ambassador roles within sports as she hopes it willcreate a brighter and more accessible future for all. “If I go back to the beginning, when I started racing, when I rocked up to the track and looked around me, there were very few women, maybe two or three, as opposed to 60 or 70 guys. And there were definitely no women of colour. Being a teenager is a key time for young people, not just girls, but when you are becoming socially aware and want to fit in. So to stand out wasn’t necessarily the greatest feeling.”
As Naomi tells me more about the years that followed her introduction to racing, it’s apparent how monumental the arrival of 7-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was for representation in sport for her and others. “I remember the same year that I started racing when Lewis got into Formula One. It was great timing for me because looking around me in motorsport, specifically, the pathway I wanted to take, which was Formula One, there were no female role models. Danica Patrick was obviously a huge female character in motorsport, but she was on a different path than my one. For me, it was important when Lewis ended up entering Formula One. It shone a big light on him. He was obviously really successful, but he was an identifiable role model for me. He may not be exactly like me, but he was something like me. And that already meant so much.”
Fast forward 16 years, Naomi found herself in the driving seat for the W Series, the first time she competed directly against women. “It was so nice to compete with these women instead of us immediately pinning each other as competition. We understood that we were there for a bigger reason, that this platform was giving us that opportunity to speak and to showcase the talent that females have in the sport. The last race was at Brands Hatch. I remember they brought down a group of girls from a youth program called Goals for Girls. They were so shocked that it was just women who were racing, and many of the girls were girls of colour and different ethnicities, so they all gravitated towards me because I was still the only woman of colour on the grid. All of a sudden, at that moment, I realised how big that was. I guess for me, at that moment, the penny dropped, and I realised I could be this identifiable role model for other young girls, which I remember is something my 16-year-old self didn’t have. I feel like there’s a bigger reason for me to be involved in the sport. I can support women in sports and bring people from other ethnic groups into the sport. That was a massive moment for me that day.”
For Naomi, her future means something other than something motorsport. It seems Naomi is ready to spread her wings and explore new possibilities. “There’s a couple of different areas where it all still ties into the same thing. I mean, there are a lot of initiatives out there now to help women come into the sport or to get people from different ethnic groups involved in the sport. So if I could be a part of making that change that would be incredible” It’s clearly about giving back for her. “I want to remember where I came from and grew up. It’s all about making a difference and helping change things. Those are the things that are on the top of my mind. I feel like if I can be a part of a change, I can do something good.”