Dalal Elsheikh on Judging NBC’s ‘Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge’ and the Changing Auto Industry

Vehicle designer Dala Elsheikh grew up playing with Hot Wheels. She never expected she would be working with them as an ambassador to the brand, let alone judging a Hot Wheels Competition on national television.

“I love the brand,” Elsheikh tells The Nerds of Color over the phone last week. “I love the toy and everything they have done with it. It was a no-brainer to do [the show].”

As one of the judges for Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge — which premieres tonight on NBC, Elsheikh is given the daunting task of choosing between two challengers weekly on who had built the best Hot Wheels build out of an actual automobile. As a designer for Ford Motor Company, Elsheikh knows exactly what makes a Hot Wheels car exactly that: Hotness — “I’m talking flames, vibrant colors, exposed engines, you name it!”

HOT WHEELS: ULTIMATE CHALLENGE — Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Dalal Elsheikh, Terry Crews — (Photo by: James Stack/NBC)

For the Sudanese American designer, it’s not lost on her that she’s a Black woman in a white male-dominated industry. According to the US International Trade Commission, Black women made up 5.6% in the auto manufacturing industry in 2019. She hopes her appearance will have an impact for women of color to pursue their dream of working in the automobile industry.

“[When I was asked to be on the series], I was so nervous,” Elsheikh reveals. “I was honestly having a little bit of imposter syndrome. Why me? Why would they pick me? But when I really sat with it, I thought about how few people look like me and to have this kind of representation in the automotive space, or just on TV in general, I knew [I had to do it].”

The Nerds of Color got to chat further with Elsheikh about the series and the auto industry in general for people of color.

The Nerds of Color: As a judge for the series, what do you hope your appearance as an expert will say to everyone out there watching?

Dalal Elsheikh: It should tell people this is a real industry that you can sign up to be part of. You can study for [this] and apply for it. A lot of times when I tell people that I’m an automotive designer, they say ‘wow, I’ve always wanted to be a car designer.’ People tell me all the time. They’re like ‘I didn’t think people actually do that.’ When I was younger, I thought the same thing. They had to get designed somehow, but you never think about who’s doing that or how you could be the person that does that because it is a dream job. So I really hope that people watch me and see ‘wow, that’s something I can do if I wanted to. That’s something that I could aspire to [do].’ It’s not insanely out of reach. It’s also a gate-kept industry and culture. I hope people see me and think, ‘hey, this girl did it. That means I can do it too.’

HOT WHEELS: ULTIMATE CHALLENGE — Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Dalal Elsheikh, Hertrech Eugene Jr., Jadejha Edwards, Terry Crews, Rutledge Wood — (Photo by: James Stack/NBC)

In the first episode, we meet Jadejha, a young Black woman engineer in the competition. It makes me really excited to see NBC pushing for more diverse contestants who want to be part of the industry. As a woman in the industry, were there any conversations that you had with casting or with the contestants especially for those of color?

Jadejha was amazing. I loved seeing another woman in a male-dominated field. We talked about that a lot. And the build she was making, it was really powerful and really aggressive. To see a woman who is feminine and still creating that space for herself and not being afraid of her femininity and not being afraid to hold space in male-dominated fields, that was really amazing. We talked about that quite a bit especially because she really had to be a role model for herself and now a role model for other girls. I know how difficult it is to be surrounded by nothing but men and, oftentimes, they don’t value your opinions, whether they mean to do it or not. Sometimes it’s just implicit. I got really lucky with [fellow judge] Hertrech [Eugene Jr] and [host] Rutledge [Wood] because they are so accepting and so sweet and so fun. I really hope other women have opportunities to work with people who are so accepting and so open-minded. I know that’s not always the case. We talked a lot about her holding space and really being proud of herself and being unashamed of who she is. 

You said you’re looking for hotness in the competition. Without giving too many spoilers, what has been your favorite competition?

We had this one build that came halfway through the season that was absolutely one of my favorites — if not my favorite. It was just so bright, so vibrant, and so full of life. Our contestant really brought in their culture and everything about them. When you look at this vehicle, it puts a smile on your face. It’s aggressive. It’s cool. It’s hot, but it’s also so fun and happy. It’s sweet and it made me feel like I knew this superfan’s whole story — their family, their upbringing, the country and the culture they were from. I loved it so much. I just wanted to sit in it. I think that is what makes a Hot Wheels car.

It’s so fantastic to see you as a judge, but I can’t help but think this is still television and I’m always scared of television putting Women of color into a bubble of how we should be portrayed or perceived. For example, the strong Black woman trope, the shy timid Asian person, etc. I was wondering if there were any discussions or concerns about that.

There’s a double-edge sword of being the only Black woman in design that I’ve seen so far. Obviously, there are other Black women at Ford that I’ve met, but I haven’t met another one in design. I’m sure they’re out there, but it’s so few and far between. The one thing about being one of the few ones is that people always want to uplift you and they uphold you and want to ask you questions and ask you to represent the company in some way. So oftentimes, I’ll get asked to be part of a panel or to speak on certain topics or speak to future designers, which I love doing, but it’s really unfortunate that I feel like sometimes I am the “go-to” because I’m the only one who looks the way I do. You know, we’re just real people. I remember this one specific moment, we were doing interior design for a vehicle and all the male designers were discussing where women would put their purse. The way they designed it was that the person’s purse was going to be so far away from the rider. No woman, no matter how cheap or expensive her bag is, is going to leave her purse far away from her. It’s not going to happen. It’s like having to be the point person for inclusivity and things like that, it’s annoying, but I am glad I get to do it. On the show, they are very open. They made sure none of us were typecast in any way. We stayed in certain lanes like I’m the Hot Wheels brand ambassador and Hert is the cool guy who really loves a lowered slammed vehicle and drifts and Rut is an encyclopedia of automotive weirdness. So, the categories that we get to live in are really fun ones that we picked for ourselves rather than things that were placed upon us. 

HOT WHEELS: ULTIMATE CHALLENGE — Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Dalal Elsheikh, Rutledge Wood, Hertrech Eugene Jr. — (Photo by: James Stack/NBC)

Tell me your personal story with Hot Wheels.

I grew up playing with Hot Wheels like a lot of kids did. But I think what’s really unique about my upbringing, even though I was born and raised in New Jersey, I spent the first like four or five years of my life in Sudan. So I came back to the US having completed kindergarten in Sudan, but like not speaking any English, so I couldn’t go straight into first grade. I had to redo kindergarten and learn English. Of course, because there’s that cultural divide between me and the other kids, I was the outlier, But when it came to playing with Hot Wheels or bringing the toys in, that’s a common language that all children understand. So it helped me really bond with people and helped me really discover my love of taking things apart and trying — but failing — to put them back together. I love the Hot Wheels tracks and trying to build the loop de loops into these crazy insane pathways. Oftentimes, they did not work because of physics, but I feel like those are like really crucial moments for my upbringing.

What advice for people — particularly women of color — would you give if they are interested in this field?

Kids grow up drawing and there’s a time where they stop. I would say even if you feel like you’re not good at drawing, keep doing it. You have to keep sketching. Keep a sketchbook of drawings — even if you think they aren’t good. You can’t be precious or a perfectionist about it. You have to just keep drawing all the time. It’s really about having that 10,000 hours under your belt. It’s also a more simple pathway than you would think — it really is just putting together a portfolio and applying to design school. Unfortunately, like design pedagogy is not really inclusive and these schools can be restrictively expensive. That’s just the unfortunate truth of it. Personally, I’m in a lot of debt. But as far as studying — just believing in yourself and keep drawing and keep doing it. When you’re a student, reach out to people because when you’re a student people listen and they want to help you. When you become a professional, it is a little different, but you’d be really surprised. Reach out to that person over at Honda or at Ford or at Porsche and tell them that you want to be a designer. They might sit with you and do a portfolio review.

Keeping it within the NBC family. There’s a show on NBC called American Auto which showcases the comedic inner workings of the auto industry. I was wondering what your take on it is?

It’s hilarious. I love it. It really disillusions you from thinking that this community is super cool. I think people think designers are so cool and aloof, but we’re actually car nerds. We’re design nerds. We kept doing it and that’s why we’re here. I love that they poke fun at us because 

We’re designed nerds and we kept doing it and that’s why we’re here. So I love that they poke fun at us.

Favorite Hot Wheels car?

I love Bad to the Blade. I love that car so much. It’s so cool. Unfortunately, it’s not something that’s legal, but it’s so sick. It has the craziest sharpest edges and [is on tonight’s episode]. I would love that to be a real car. I would drive it.

Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge premieres tonight on NBC.