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Gaza’s racing club hits speed bump

A group of amateur auto racers created a club for sports car racing in the Gaza Strip, but they lack safe cars and adequate roads to drive on without causing safety concerns for the public and themselves.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Sports car racing is slowly making its way on the roads of the Gaza Strip amid a crumbling infrastructure and dire living conditions. The growth of auto racing in Gaza faces numerous challenges, and amateur auto racers continue to practice despite a lack of safety procedures.

The Israeli blockade, the population density (4,000 people per square mile), the small size of Gaza (360 square kilometers, or 139 square miles) and a lack of adequate facilities and infrastructure are obstacles hindering the practice of sports car racing in Gaza, said Ministry of Youth and Sports media spokesman Ghassan Muheisen.

“These obstacles hinder the proper progress of this sport and keep it limited to individual and arbitrary attempts on the part of a group of amateurs, who refuse to give up and insist on practicing their favorite hobby,” Muheisen told Al-Monitor.

A group of amateur auto racers founded the Gaza Racing Club in February 2014, which is the first and only sports car racing club in Gaza.

The club's manager, Mohammed Nabhan, told Al-Monitor that the club was founded by a group of amateurs, and is the first step toward a thriving motor sport in Gaza, paving the way for Gazan drivers to participate in Arab and international auto racing competitions.

“Seventy amateur drivers joined our club in the hope to find a way to vent their frustration with the dire living conditions they experience in Gaza,” Nabhan said, adding that the number of members is increasing.

On June 12, the club organized a race — the second of its kind — on the sandy streets in the east of Gaza City, in which 25 amateurs participated. The race received considerable attention by the public who viewed it as a chance to relieve their boredom.

Akram Shaheen, 23, from al-Zaytoun neighborhood in the east of Gaza City, won first place in the race driving a Renault 5 (1,400 cubic centimeters). He said that sports car racing is his favorite hobby, but that he could not become a professional in light of the political situation and dire living conditions in Gaza.

Shaheen, who holds a technical degree in automotive electrical engineering from Gaza's University College of Applied Sciences, told Al-Monitor, “I have been practicing this sport since I was 17 years old, driving my father’s car. Later on, I borrowed money and bought my own car. I made some improvements to it and equipped it with a bigger engine and some other parts, making it faster and easier to maneuver in races.”

Shaheen said that as a sports car driver he misses wide roads and auto racing clubs. “As a result of these obstacles, I am forced to practice my hobby in the streets of residential neighborhoods. Many times people curse and insult me as I go past them,” he said.

He added that in light of the Israeli wars, many border areas have been bulldozed; these areas used to serve as good race tracks for amateurs like him.

“I cannot drive more than 100 kilometers [62 miles] per hour on any of the roads in Gaza due to their bad condition. I love speed, but Gaza is overly crowded and heavily destroyed,” Shaheen said.

For his part, Nabhan said, “There are no adequate auto racing tracks in Gaza. Thus, we find amateurs taking part in races on their own in populated areas, driving their own cars that are not equipped for auto racing.”

Riyadh Jawadah, 26, also participated in the race, driving a BMW. He told Al-Monitor, “The amateurs’ cars are not equipped with strong engines and other sports car accessories and they lack the minimum safety and protection gear."

He added, “The cars we were driving in the race are not equipped with fire extinguishers, bumpers or even strong brakes. The body of the cars are not fit for racing. Roads are not well equipped either as they lack tires on the side [of the road] to prevent accidents, putting the life of drivers and passers-by at risk."

Jawadah pointed out that the amateur auto racers in Gaza have yet to become professionals as there are no experienced trainers to supervise them. In addition, the closing of the Rafah border crossing — which opens for emergency and humanitarian cases only — prevents amateur auto racers to travel abroad to enhance their skills at international auto racing centers.

“We are living in one big prison that we cannot escape and we cannot get what we want,” he said.

In this regard, Muheisen said, “The Israeli blockade prevents the importation of well-equipped safe sports race cars into Gaza.” He accused the Israeli authorities of tightening the noose on Gaza on all levels.

He added that there are many obstacles in the way of the Ministry of Youth and Sports to develop this sport, including the suspension of sport infrastructure projects such as the establishment of a motor sports club and the creation of a race track in the east of Gaza City. Donor countries such as Qatar were supposed to help finance these sports projects, but are instead focusing on the reconstruction of the homes that were destroyed during the Israeli war in the summer of 2014.

Shaheen dreams of becoming a famous sports car racing driver and of participating in international competitions such as the Formula One. He called upon all the relevant local and international bodies concerned to help the young amateur auto racers in Gaza by establishing a center where they can develop their skills, developing race tracks and allowing the importation of sports cars.

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