Under the Visor: Ayla Agren

Ayla Agren is used to turning heads in a racing car, but it was a boat that first decided her fate. “When I was six and my brother Sebastian was two,” she remembers, “my family were supposed to go on a round-the-world sailing trip. My dad and my granddad built the boat, and we started the journey, but Sebastian got sick, so my parents had to make a decision: were we going to cross the Atlantic or turn back? Sebastian was born with fluid in his ears so there was a lot of seasickness and it was uncomfortable for him, so we decided to turn back from Spain, which is where we’d got to by the time we made the decision to return home to Norway.

“On the way back, we stopped at my grandparents’ home in Sweden and, while we were there, my uncle and cousin were competing in the Nordic karting championship, so we went to watch the race. From that moment on, I was hooked. So it all started for me with a stroke of what at first seemed like bad luck but ended up being good luck for me at least: if we hadn’t sailed back from Spain to home, I probably wouldn’t be part of W Series now.”

Ayla, 26, is currently based in Houston, Texas, where she was selected for the Skip Barber Racing School in 2012. After winning the Formula Ford-spec F1600 series in 2014, she took part in last year’s inaugural W Series assessment at Melk, Austria, but wasn’t among the 28 drivers selected to the next stage of the driver selection at Almeria, Spain. It was clearly a low point in her career. At the time, she admitted, “I’ve kind of just come to the point where I’ve realised I don’t have the funds to sit at the high-roller table. I can’t play against it.” But now Ayla, who works for racing apparel company HRX USA, is back with the steely determination that comes from such soul-searching setbacks. Of W Series she says: “It’s an opportunity to show you can provide so much more for future sponsors. That’s the biggest word: opportunity.”

It’s difficult for Ayla to imagine an existence without racing because it has been the fabric of her life since childhood. “When we left the boat behind and went to that kart race, everything changed for me. It sounds crazy but I remember reaching up and spinning the karts’ wheels. They were up on trolleys and I was fascinated by the movement of everything.

“One thing I noticed was that there were a lot of guys. I didn’t see any girls at all, but I happened to be watching when there was a wreck and, because there was a wreck, the drivers needed to take their helmets off, and so I saw that one of them was a girl. I was like: ‘Oh cool, there’s a girl. I want to do this.’ My parents were like: ‘We’ll see about that.’ But it was a definitely a significant moment because it dawned on me that racing was a serious possibility for a girl.”

Nowadays, Ayla’s Norwegian mum, Beate, and Swedish dad, Glenn, run a kart track in Norway – but, at first, with their sailing dream in tatters, it took some persuading to get them to focus on another project. Ayla says: “My parents have always been interested in action sports. They actually met while windsurfing. My dad, who’s an engineer, has the ideas but my mum, who’s an accountant, has the force to take them forward and organise them. So, if I was ever going to get started in racing, I knew I’d need to persuade both of them. To be fair, they said if it was something I seriously wanted to do, they’d try to explore the options, but I had to show that I was committed.

“Before I got the racing bug, I loved going through my grandma’s fancy clothes and makeup and all of that girly stuff, but I was also the kind of girl who would charge off on a bike without knowing how to do it and figure it out as I went along, cuts and bruises or not. I grew up with boys. I’m the first girl in the family so it was always ‘the boys and I’.

“So after we aborted the sailing project and moved back to Norway that autumn, my dad and I went and got our karting licences and the ball started rolling. The plan was that we were both going to race but by the end of the first season he was like: ‘Nope, this isn’t going to work. We need to focus on you.’”

Ayla showed early promise in karting, but a real turning point came when she progressed to a category called the ‘minis’. “It was the third step on the karting ladder at the time,” she explains. “The kart had a 9.5bhp 95cc engine. I’d always showed good speed and done pretty well, but I’d never really shone. Then, when I took a step up, things started to shift. I borrowed someone else’s kart to try it out and my style was just better at the higher speeds. It’s when things got more professional.”

They also got tougher where gender was concerned: “In karting, I definitely felt the gender difference, especially competing in countries like France, Italy and Spain where perhaps the culture is more macho in general, but when I moved over to the US, I felt it was a more positive atmosphere. It felt like more people were cheering the difference on.” The promise of significant sponsorship then drew Ayla to the US in 2012 – and the move paid off. She says: “In 2014, I won a F1600 championship in the US. That weekend didn’t start off great, in fact practice was only so-so. In the first race I finished fifth and, leading into the championship final, I started third, fell back a bit, but then, as the halfway point came, something just clicked and I began to go quicker and I ended up winning the race and the championship. That was the most perfect race I’ve been able to put together – so far.

“For me, being a racer is about the need to always want to improve. When you get the corners right, or there’s something you’ve been working on that you finally conquer, well, it just feels so good. You can tell when it’s something you’re clicking with, and the clicks feel even better because you know you did the prep work to make them happen. But then you also have to figure out and work on the things that didn’t click right away, and that’s a challenge.”

Aside from racing, Ayla got a degree at the Norwegian University for Business and Administration, a commitment that required her to fly frequently back and forth between Oslo and Texas. “My parents always said: ‘We’ll help you as much as we can with your racing, but you absolutely need to also keep up your schoolwork.’”

Ayla, who cites “tough but fair” Jules Bianchi as her racing idol, also tries to find some space for down time: “I have a black Labrador puppy called Ella whom I adore. I love to travel too, and I get antsy if I stay put for too long. Obviously that isn’t possible right now. My last trip was to Thailand, which was great. I also loved Guatemala, and I really enjoy walking around big cities, people watching. I can sit in a cafe for hours.

“I also love live music, but I don’t have a routine of music I listen to before a race. My ritual is not having rituals. I’ve been around a few drivers who get so set in rituals that, if they don’t do them, they get stressed about it. I don’t want to get into that cycle. I have an order of dressing but it’s more about practicality than superstition.”

The conversation has inevitably circled back to racing and Ayla is direct when discussing her goal. She says: “My ultimate goal has always been IndyCar and I’d give a kidney to be a part of that fantastic championship. But, whatever happens or doesn’t happen, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave racing completely.” Her boyfriend is Charles Crews, 30, a US driver who recently returned to the wheel after 12 years out of the car as a team manager and law student.

Ayla says: “My boyfriend and I talk about settling down. We say to one another: ‘Maybe we can stay home for two weeks and think about it,’ but then we stay home for two weeks and we end up saying: ‘No, not yet.’”

And, finally, what of her little brother, Sebastian, whose illness fortuitously determined his big sister’s motorsport fate? “Sebastian got the opportunity to try racing,” Ayla explains. “He was very talented, but he didn’t want to do it enough and instead he went into ice hockey. He’s now a coach.”

Whatever fate has in store for Ayla this time around, it is certain that she will stop at nothing to seize the chance that W Series has given her with the same life force that she devotes to every endeavour. Flat-out, in other words.