At just four-years-old, Juliana Grasman started to showcase her love for all things cars. And at the age of 11, the Kazakhstani girl got her first taste of being behind the wheel. Today, that passion for all things motors has bagged her the title of the UAE's first female 4x4 freestyle drifter, and she says it's been the ride of her life.
Going by the track name 'Afra', Grasman told Khaleej Times that she's been a "petrol head" (car fanatic) from as young as she can remember. "Growing up in Kazakhstan, I used to take the cushions from the sofa and stack them in a square, then I'd tell my brother to sit behind me and I'd pretend to drive it like a car."
When she got a little older, Grasman's father took her off-road to teach her how to drive a manual car. And she hasn't looked back since.
"I was always the one to put my hand up first when he'd ask me and my brother who wanted to get behind the wheel. I loved that feeling of movement, motion, being in control."
As the years went by and her interest in driving and fixing cars grew, Grasman, now in her mid-twenties, competed in her first competition at 15. And as the only female competitor, she went on to bag her first victory against an all male competitor line-up.
"I won the equivalent of about Dh500 in that first drag race. It was a lot of money for me back then but it was the rush that excited me, not the cash. I got a real taste for success and was so obsessed with movement, racing and learning more about cars."
At that time, in her home country, she said very few females participated in such activities; so winning against men in front of a crowd gave her even more motivation to continue.
But it wasn't without its struggles. Grasman said her parents raised concerns at the beginning about being involved in such a male-dominated sport.
"I fought for it. They told me it was not something a girl would typically do, but I knew I could be just as good if not better."
Fighting against her parents, she would often sneak out of home at night to watch and compete in different drag and street races. And within months, a group of competitors started help organising legal races.
"We wanted to change the face of the sport and provide a safe and supportive environment in the right way. We achieved some great things by doing that, garnered a lot of interest." Throughout her teen, Grasman continued racing and built a signature look for herself.
"I didn't want to be identified as a female when I raced, so I used to drive a black car with heavily tinted windows. I didn't want people to have this perception of me or treat me different because I was a girl, so it was a way of disguising myself. I remained in the shadows."
But as the wins kept coming, her interest in building and modifying cars took hold, and she stepped out of the background to help inspire other women to compete in the sport.
Known for her freestyle drifting in the desert, it was her UAE friends who gave Grasman her track name, Afra.
"It's a very old Arabic name and it means something pure, like land never touched by a person. They gave it to me because of the way I drove my 4x4 in the desert."
Driving a 4x4 Nissan Patrol called Black Edition, she has rebuilt it herself from scratch.
"The chassis is from 1991 and the body from 1997. Everyday I am working on my car or driving it. It is something I cannot stop. If I'm not modifying it or testing it, I'm taking it for a service. Cars are my life and most of my time is spent in the garage working on them."
Working closely with the Emirates Motorplex, a spokesperson told Khaleej Times that Grasman, aka 'Afra', is now the UAE's first female driver to freestyle drift in a 4x4. And for Grasman, who has more than 16,000 followers on Instagram, it's been the ride of her life getting that title.
"For my journey in the UAE, I would like to thank the Godfather of Motor sport, Sheikh Marwan bin Rashid Al Mualla. He has been so supportive and has made this dream my reality."