|CRUISE CONTROL: (Above) Participants at the 1904 motoring event; (top) a rallyist roughs it out in the Raid de Himalaya.
Subhash and Saswati Nag Chowdhury could well be your next-door neighbours. Now in their 40s, the two have eased their upwardly mobile paces in favour of a more relaxed life, sitting back to reap the fruits of their corporate labour. A typical success story, you’d say. What’s new’
It’s their car, parked at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, that gives you an answer. Subhash and Saswati stand against a silver-grey Maruti Esteem, its gleaming paint job a stark contrast to the pall of gloom that envelops Calcutta this bleak and cloudy morning . The car has no rear seat; it has a makeshift hammock with motoring items thrown onto it. The vehicle doesn’t really purr ‘ something that carmakers like to make a religion of. Instead, it emits the brute groan of a souped-up engine.
The Nag Chowdhurys, in their Esteem, are part of the starting grid at the Tata Bearings Monsoon Rally. It’s one of those occasions when they leave behind their routine responsibilities and get down to skidding rubber on gravel. As motor rallying comes of age in India and sheds its exclusive tag, the couple, along with several others across the country, herald the birth of the new rallyist.
Never mind the time taken, though. A hundred years, to be precise. From the day when almost 20 per cent of Calcutta’s cars (11 actually, but then, there were only 60 registered cars in the city!) turned up to participate in a promotional run to Barrackpore, about 40 kilometres away. ‘It was perhaps the first of its kind in the subcontinent, the Middle East and Southeast Asia put together,’ says Ravi Kumar, chairman of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club (CMSC).
The number of vehicles in a motor-car rally hasn’t really dramatically risen since then. But what’s grown by leaps and bounds are the number and range of rallies. Just last weekend, 16 cars took part in the Monsoon Rally, from Calcutta to Jamshedpur and then Kharagpur. Bengal also has the Servo Kaviguru Rally from Calcutta to Santiniketan.
And there is a whole host of other rallies ‘ the Nashik Rally, Bangalore K-1000, Kochi Rally, Rallye de Goa, Delhi Maruti Suzuki India Challenge, Mumbai-Pune MRF India Rally and the Chikmagalur Coffey Day Rally. And that’s not counting the two tough ones ‘ the Raid de Himalaya and the Desert Storm, from Delhi to Bikaner.
A rallyist may have to negotiate gravel and dirt tracks, forest stretches and dry riverbeds. In tougher versions like the Himalayan raid, it could mean driving through barren rocky mountain trails and high-altitude passes. It’s just you and your car until you reach the next checkpoint: you pitch tent at night at low temperatures amid howling winds and find your own way out.
But 100 years ago, a rally meant motoring down what was the upper part of Park Street, Free School Street, Wellington Street and Cornwallis Street and then down the Trunk Road. A souvenir released by the CMSC ‘ celebrating the centenary of Indian motor sports this year ‘ provides a heartwarming insight into the event. Organised by the Bengal Automobile Association, the August 28, 1904, rally crew took a break at the Emerald Bower, the suburban residence of Maharaja Bahadur Sir Joteendro Mohun Tagore. Thrown into the itinerary was a photoshoot, following which the participants ‘ all British, of course ‘ went on with the rest of the journey to Barrackpore. And if you think women were rather demure those days, think again: for one Mrs Acatos, on a Geo Richard-Brazier, had indulged in a bit of freewheeling as well!
Sex, as Saswati’s presence would underline, is not an issue these days. And age is no bar either. What you need are your instincts, and fairly deep pockets. For instance, Prasanta Paul, who comes from the family of D.C. Paul & Sons, has done the difficult and more expensive Himalayan Rally. So has Mitil Chakrabarty, who has his own garage.
Sanjay Arya owns a transport business. Ranchi’s Shalin Wadhwani ‘ in Calcutta for the Monsoon Rally ‘ deals in bikes and his navigator, Ashish Budhia, is into construction. ‘We lead hectic lives and when it comes to taking a much-needed break from work, we spruce up our Maruti Zen for some rolling and tumbling,’ Ashish says.
Clearly, rallying as a sport is catching on. And that’s quite a feat for, till recently, the sport was the sole prerogative of what seemed like an exclusive club of suicidal nabobs.
Organised racing, however, has been a part of independent India ever since the formation of the CMSC in 1949, when races were first held along the Calcutta Red Road and then on metalled airstrips in Kanchrapara, Alipore and Barrackpore. But rallying didn’t quite catch on till the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) came into being in 1972. ‘We took the initiative to introduce stage rallying besides navigation rallies in the country,’ says Vicky Chandhok, president of the FMSCI.
Things began to change once the FMSCI decided to ahere to international safety specifications ‘ which were far superior to those practised in India, but entailed steep operational costs. A car, for instance, had to have better shock absorbers, brakes, seat belts and tyres to be able to join a rally. ‘But it ruined any chance of private enthusiasts participating in rallies,’ rues Chandhok. Motor sports suddenly became an exclusive affair; a luxury only corporate houses and affluent families ‘ the Mallyas and Singhanias, for example ‘ could afford.
Meanwhile, lack of funds was also proving dear. The famous Himalayan Rally, started in 1980, was discontinued in 1990 after sponsorhip became a problem. The sport would have headed for a premature funeral, had rallying enthusiasts not stepped in.
Now, rally organisers are working on an overdrive. Sponsors have been wooed back, and new and not-so-expensive rallies are being organised across the country to attract the adventure-loving Indian. ‘Given the splendid terrain our country has, we felt the need to revive and promote navigation rallies at the grass-root level, apart from working out a solution to bring down the expenses involved,’ Chandhok stresses. ‘And the efforts are beginning to pay off.’ The Rally Star Cup is catching on in south India, and new rallies are being planned in Coimbatore and Hyderabad.
To be a rallyist, all that you need ‘ apart from guts of steel ‘ is a spruced up car with a powerful engine, a strong transmission and adequate safety measures. And since there are even rally driving classes in India these days, it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of rallying.
Not surprisingly, the upper-middle class and the upwardly mobile seem to have taken to rallying like never before. ‘It’s an extension of your lifestyle,’ says Subhash, minutes before the Monsoon Rally flag-off. ‘We don’t rally to win ‘ it’s the experience that matters. And if we do get richer by Rs 10-15,000 by chance, we meet up with friends and other rallyists and blow up the money overnight!’
Money is not a consideration ‘ but the cost for a rallyist is not inconsiderable. You can end up spending anything between Rs 20,000 to Rs 70,000 for a trip, with costs including the expenses of souping up a car and registration fees. ‘Dishing out Rs 20,000 for a rally could be scary,’ says Saswati, assistant manager with Indian Airlines. ‘But since we do only a couple of rallies a year, we don’t really mind the expenses.’
Rallies, clearly, are here to stay. A promotional Indo-Asean rally is being planned all the way from Guwahati to Singapore by the FMSCI in November. ‘In due course of time, we plan to establish it as an annual event, on the lines of the Paris-Dakar rally,’ says Kunal Banerjee, secretary of the Bengal Motor Sports Club.
A great way to cap a hundred years of Indian motor sports, perhaps. And until that flag-off marks the beginning of a new chapter, it’s definitely life in full throttle for the 21st century rallyist.