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The tale of our speed racers

At the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the first Sunday of February was the biggest racing carnival the country could boast of. Rohit Bhaskar writes. Know more

india Updated: Oct 12, 2011 08:05 IST
Rohit Bhaskar
Rohit Bhaskar
Hindustan Times

At the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the first Sunday of February was the biggest racing carnival the country could boast of. An Indian Air Force airstrip with a distinct T-shaped straight, 20-odd kilometres north of Chennai, drew in crowds of over 50,000 year after year.

It made for a grand spectacle and many of the country's rich and famous raced there, the din of the raucous fans matched by the growl of the vintage cars. However, it was less an entry into the world of professional motorsport and more a venue for pure car-to-car racing. Akbar Ebrahim factfile

The drivers too, many of them wealthy industrialists and princes with garages full of exotic cars, weren't really eager to embrace motorsport as a profession.

When Akbar Ebrahim, the country's first motorsport professional to race extensively in Formula car series' abroad, competed there for the first time as a 15-year-old in 1978, the governing rules were so relaxed that he raced his saloon car, an 1800cc Fiat 128, against Formula cars.

"I had never seen Formula One, never heard of it, didn't have a clue what it was. It was all about the thrill of racing, getting in a car and trying to make it go the fastest it can. There was no concept of a racing calendar or organised racing, it was once a year and it was all out," Ebrahim told HT.

He remembers that first race well. It was a 50-lap race.

"All the Formula cars had mechanical faults after 20 laps, and I was the only one left. I kept racing for a further twenty laps after that and won," added the 47-year-old.

Career shift
Like almost any other racer at the time, Ebrahim didn't think there was a career in it. So on his father's insistence he focused all his energy on the other sport he excelled in - cricket.

By the time he was 20 he had shifted to English county Essex, where he would play in the Essex local league.

Primarily a batsman, Ebrahim's position in the batting order was two-drop. The man batting at number three was an Australian youngster, whose stay was sponsored by media mogul Kerry Packer, named Steve Waugh.

"I had forgotten about racing, and cricket was the only thing on my mind.

"I was on the verge of making the Tamil Nadu Ranji team (which he soon would). Steve and I spent a lot of time together at the crease, and we often talked at length both on and off the pitch," said Ebrahim. Their talks were often held over a pint or few.

"We also spent many nights getting drunk. It was great fun," he added.

Full 360
His cricket career never really took off, and he was at the crossroads. "I was almost 26 in 1988 (when the inaugural Formula Maruti was held), and I decided to get into motorsport again."

In 1991, he competed in the inaugural F3 race at the new circuit in Sriperumbudur, which had replaced Sholavaram as the de facto headquarters of Indian motorsport. The series again proved to be shortlived as escalating budgets saw it shut shop in three years.

In 1994, with funding from JK Tyres and partial funding from sponsors such as BPL, Ebrahim competed in a series abroad, the 1994 Bristish Formula 2 series and the Formula Asia series, in which he finished a creditable third.

Young blood
As Ebrahim's career was coming to an end, another Indian was climbing through the ranks. By 1998, Narain Karthikeyan was well on his way to taking over Ebrahim's mantle as nation's top Formula car racer.

Competing in the British F3 championship, the Coimbatore racer capped the season with podium finishes at both Spa-Francorchamps and Silverstone.

With no set order in place he travelled far and wide, from Europe to Japan, to get top-flight racing experience.

Karthikeyan recalls the early days on the road as a testing period.

"It was a very hostile environment - but I was able to showcase my abilities regardless and things took their course from then onwards."

As the years passed, Karun Chandhok followed Karthikeyan into the rarefied air of F1, aided by improving motorsport awareness and more doors opening up.

A host of other Indian drivers, the likes of Akbar's son Armaan Ebrahim and Aditya Patel are competing in racing series' aborad.

Beyond F1
The current generation of motorsport hopefuls has it better than ever before. A host of racing series' are already in the country, with plenty more primed to enter.

"There's the national rally championship, there's a national karting championship, there's the Volkswagen Polo Cup. Audi will start a racing series next year, as will Toyota," said Ebrahim.

However, he feels that most of the aspiring drivers lack the commitment required to become professionals. "There are many talented drivers in the country. Take the example of Vishnu Prasad. He's one of the best young racers in the country, but somehow his commitment is questionable. His attitude towards fitness is woeful, an aspect, and a very important one at that, which is lost on many youngsters," he said.

Ebrahim added that young drivers in the country should start looking beyond F1, the wide world of professional motorsport awaits.

"I never understood the obsession with F1. To pay a great sum of money, just to get a tag. What will one get to show for it? That's what I've been trying to drill into the minds of all young racers.

"They can make a career out of it, a profitable one too. Look at Aditya Patel, after a while he realized single-seat racing wasn't his forte and is now doing quite well in the Volkswagen Scirocco R-Cup."

First Published: Oct 11, 2011 23:52 IST

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