Sand and Speed: Saudi Arabian Motorsports

Camels, oil rigs, and… big-bore V8s?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a bizarre and unique country. Socially, it’s one of the strictest nations in the world: alcohol is outlawed, women are forbidden to drive, and the political structure resembles something out of 15th century Europe. But if you look closer at the car culture, you’ll find an automotive love affair reminiscent of the golden days of American racing. This country holds an incredible collection of gearheads, tuners, and drivers that prove that a love of speed transcends all borders.

The performance aftermarket industry is booming in the Middle East. Mainstay markets like the UAE and Qatar have established themselves as major performance hubs, but Saudi Arabia is quickly catching up in reputation. While many of its neighbors focus on exotics and imports, Saudi tastes lean decidedly towards American muscle. And with long and desolate stretches of highway, many of which have unrestricted or unenforced speed limits, this is a culture that truly values horsepower.

With a population of around 29 million, the automotive market in Saudi Arabia is the largest in the region. American cars comprise approximately 20% of all new vehicles sold, and Saudi Arabia is the second-largest market after the US for GM’s full-sized SUVs like the Yukon and Tahoe. It’s also the last bastion for big V8 sedans; the LS-powered Chevrolet Caprice (known in the States as the Pontiac G8 and the Caprice police special) is a stalwart of the automotive landscape.

With that in mind, the prevalence of the Gen III and IV Chevrolet small-block opens up ample opportunities for the aftermarket. The massive LS fanbase is supported by a network of competent aftermarket tuners, with companies like Riyadh-based Saudi LSX Racing regularly fielding 9-second Camaros and Firebirds. On the eastern part of the country, companies like Motormotives and In Design are cultivating a rich performance scene.

“After years of racing in the States during my time in college, it was great to come home to a culture that really embraces the sport,” says Motormotives owner Hamzah Hezam.

Drag racing in Saudi Arabia is massively popular, with many tracks struggling to keep up with the growing demand. One of note is Dirab Motorsport Park, a complex located south of Riyadh that opened in early 2013. Racing venues in Saudi are typically multipurpose in nature, and DMP features a ¼-mile drag strip, drifting arena, and soon a karting track. Built to NHRA standards and featuring timing equipment by Portatree, the strip holds a semi-annual event known as “King of the Strip” that attracts over 60 cars. The event schedule stays packed with everything from Lamborghini events to Mopar drag days, and a proposed Jr. drag racing academy is slated to open up the sport to aspiring young drivers.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the crazy (and sometimes deadly) drifting videos that leak out of the Kingdom. It’s no surprise then that drifting is at the forefront of Saudi motorsports. Imports and European cars are popular, but surprisingly the most common contenders are Camaros, Mustangs, and Challengers. The OEMs have been quick to recognize this; Ford partnered with the Al Jazirah Racing Team to field a winning Mustang 5.0 in the Red Bull Drift Series. These events frequently draw crowds of 15,000 or more, making it a lucrative market for sponsorship. With more venues opening up in the coming years, expect strong growth for this particular discipline.