Originally published in India Today
I am Speed. Faster than fast. Quicker than quick. I am lightning,"— so goes Lightning McQueen's pre-race mantra from the high octane Cars. For those who haven't seen the movie, Lightning is a young rookie race car who dreams of winning the prestigious Piston Cup Championship. Chennai's aspiring motorists may well want to take a leaf from his notes. For speed is the operative word for enthusiasts of this sport at the Irungattukottai race track. And everyone revs up for the smell of burning tyres, the roar of engines and the spirit of the speed demons.
With the UCAL-Rolon National Road Racing Championship underway, Pramod Kumar, executive secretary of the Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC), couldn't be happier. "We've had close to 200 entries this year, 50 per cent of them from Chennai. In the last few years, there has been a sharp increase in interest, with a lot of youngsters taking part. The good news is that they have the support of their family, which is an encouraging trend," he says.
Much like Alisha Abdullah, the 17-year-old racing star, who began at the age of nine with her family's support. But then her trainer is her father, seven-time national champion R.A. Abdullah. "I began with go-karting actually, and won the MRF National Go-Karting Championship when I was 12. It was only later that I turned to bikes, primarily because of the thrill of the sport and the fact that it was more challenging," says Alisha.
Currently pursuing her B.A. in Sociology at M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women, she is happy with her support system. "Motor sports are dangerous. Many times there are accidents. But when I get hurt, my parents are more like 'you are a racer, go and get them'.
I really wouldn't be where I am today without them," she adds. Having won the runners-up category last year in the UCAL Rolon National Championship, Alisha is now setting her sights on bigger things. "When I began, I wanted to be the first Indian girl to race abroad. Now that dream is steadily becoming a reality," she says. Cruising through gender issues on the race track, Alisha is one of the few girls who is into bike racing, and has learnt to cope with the pressures of the competition.
"I have always been aggressive, and like to compete. If I am pushed, I don't hesitate to push them back," she asserts. Gearing up for the FIM Asian Grand Prix that is being held in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, Alisha is one of the youngest racers in the city today, along with Ashwin Sundar, who is awaiting his Class12 board exam results.
Racing for Yamaha in India and for team Petronas Sprinta in Malaysia, Sundar has the distinction of winning the Champion of Champions title in 2006, as part of the UCAL-Rolon National Championships, and coming overall second in the under-21 category at the FIM Asian Grand Prix last year. "I began racing in 2003, with go-karting initially. In a couple of years, however, I shifted to bike racing as the budgets are lower for bikes, compared to cars," he says. With family support and help from sponsors, Sundar has been lucky enough to race abroad, an otherwise expensive proposition. "Racing abroad can cost Rs 40 lakh to 45 lakh, whereas in India, it is cheaper, at Rs 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh," he says, adding, "Now that I have been selected to play for teams, the financial aspect is taken care of."
Racing is all about passion and commitment, with monetary concerns coming a poor second for people like Manu Vasudevan. "I have been professionally racing for only two years, but have been involved in the racing scene for the last 10 years. In fact, a group of us were responsible for reviving the Rajdoot Yamaha 350 and bringing it back into racing. Today, one race costs us Rs 25,000," he says. Working as the national head of operations for Internet company Youtelecom, Vasudevan, 35, believes that "commitment, speed and accuracy" are the watchwords for racing. "Your reflexes have to be awesome, your turns and curves perfect, and, of course, you have to have speed." Awaiting the arrival of new bikes from companies like Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda, Vasudevan is hopeful about the future, even if there is still a dearth of sponsorships.
MMSC's Kumar has been an active member of the racing world since 1960. He feels that compared to earlier times, racing has come a long way. "Several years ago, there used to be tracks in Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, but most of them have been taken over as airstrips or simply shut down. In fact, even Chennai began with a track in Shollavaram, and since that track too was going to be used for testing radiocontrolled planes, we needed a space of our own. In 1976, MMSC slowly started acquiring land, and in 1990, we officially opened the Irungattukottai track, which is our baby from start to finish."
This track sure has been a blessing for several enthusiasts in the city, and elsewhere. For Vishwanath Thindlu Krishnappa, 28, from Bangalore, it has helped in pursuing his dream. "I got interested in racing in 1999, when I saw a few people racing on a dirt track near my village. Though I had little support from my family, I began to race, and now I race in India and abroad," he says. A Champion of Champions in 2005 UCAL-Rolon, Krishnappa is part of Team Yamaha, and runs a finance firm in Bangalore.
In close competition with Krishnappa at the UCAL-Rolon this year is Preetham Dev Moses, 25, the racer who shot to fame in his debut year in 1999. "After I completed my 12th standard exam, I went with a friend to watch a race. That very year, I participated and came second in the MRF National Championship. And in 2000, I was part of team TVS," says Moses. Working for Airtel as an HR Executive, Moses seems to be the popular choice for the UCAL-Rolon this year, and he is also the overall second at the Asian Championships Malaysian Super Series this year.
"When you see the red lights during a race, there is a moment when you think, 'Do I really need to do this?'. But once the race begins, the speed and thrill of the sport is just something else," says Moses. Though racing is considered a dangerous sport by many, Moses begs to differ. "I think it is more dangerous on normal roads these days," he says, but is quick to add: "There are a lot of precautionary measures taken during races, and the organisers are extra careful about avoiding accidents."
At the UCAL-Rolon Championships this year, no expense has been spared in making the race comfortable and user-friendly for both participants and spectators. "The track has been re-laid and despite the weather, the bikers have had no problems. The event is bigger and we have had a good turnout of spectators, most of them evincing an interest to join the races," says Kumar. "Chennai has always been the home for racers, and most of them have begun their careers here."
Zipping ahead with aplomb, Chennai's young racers are neither oblique nor abstruse about their passion. For them, it's all about the speed.