India Baja, an aspiring Dakar challenge, a new path for off-road racing

  • Sukhwant Basra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 20, 2016 11:25 IST
India’s premier off-road biker and Dakar finisher CS Santosh beat the rest of the field by almost an hour to claim the inaugural India Baja. (Photo: Vivek Mukherji)

Indian off-road racing has been on simmer for quite some time now.

The national rally championship comes and goes and so do a few cross-country events but these hardly create a ripple beyond the borders. Essentially, the same bunch of guys continue to beat another bunch which has been around for a very, very long time. Few fresh faces emerge, there is limited support and interest from automobile majors and overall sponsor interest stays muted.

To put it bluntly, the Indian off-road scene is akin to a puny merry-go-round which keeps chasing its own tail; it seems stuck going around in circles.

Last weekend the beautifully lackadaisical city of Bikaner — which doesn’t really jump off the map when it comes to excitement — hosted an event which has been by far the most exciting thing in Indian off-road racing for quite some time. The India Baja was a short 500-km affair that looks to grow into something similar to the cult Mexican Baja 1000, which is a non-stop 24-hour race.

Organising club Northern Motorsport aspires to make this a Dakar challenge event. That will allow winners a free entry into an event which in turn offers winners a free entry for the actual Dakar. The Dakar is the mother of all off-road events and, since 2009, has taken place in Argentina and neighbouring countries.

Cost matters

Now, a free entry is no small thing for a competitor as the Dakar asks 14,800 euros (Rs11.3 lakh) in the bike category and 25,100 euro (Rs 19.17 lakh) for a two-man car entry. However, to get the Dakar branding, the club will have to pay 25,000 euro (Rs 19.09 lakh). Given the limited amount of sponsor interest and the fact that the entry fee for events in India is a few thousand rupees (Rs 4,900 for moto-quad and Rs 12,900 for cars at the India Baja) it will be difficult for organisers to even recover costs, forget making a profit.

Northern Motorsport folk are confident they will raise the game next year. The Dakar branding would mean entries from abroad and a hefty dose of competition that is bound to shake up the lethargic Indian field. To take on the foreign invaders, Indian automobile companies may also wake up from their slumber. In fact, Mahindra has already done detailed costing for participating in an event like the Dakar and if a qualifying event is happening in the company’s own backyard, it may just be the kind of push that Mahindra needs.

After all, the auto major’s factory team has dominated events in India and now needs to showcase its ability abroad. South America, where the Dakar unfolds, is a key market for Indian automobiles. Completing the Dakar gives a manufacturer genuine bragging rights and can certainly be a marketing plus for any Indian company that manages to tame the sprawl it forces competitors to negotiate.

Of course, arcane Indian rules like civilian helicopters being forced to land only on designated helipads (which in turn scuttles the very idea of a rescue chopper), the hassles of operating a satellite phone (with many security aspects involved) and no clarity on registration of special vehicles purpose-built for such abuse do make holding an international-level Baja difficult.

Pleasant surprise

While Northern Motorsport ponders on whether it can muster enough support and will to bring in a Dakar Challenge event, as of now the Baja still serves as an ideal weekend event for the motorsport enthusiast. This writer has been long sceptical about the way speed events are conducted in our country but the Baja made for a pleasant surprise with its loopy format allowing for easy service access, and empathetic organisers.

Just how this event grows remains to be seen but the reintroduction of night rallying over desert sand is already taking Indian off-road racing into an altogether new realm. After all, just how long can things just keep simmering? Indian motorsport needs to explode out of its narrow confines and the Baja is a step in the right direction. That this was the first Indian event with live-tracking of every vehicle and enhanced safety as the loopy circuit allows for quicker hospital access, is all the more heartening.

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