Akhil Khushlani, a former go-kart racer, returned home this week a satisfied young man. He led the rookies in the Malaysian leg of the Formula BMW Asia Series on Sunday, giving a boost to his dream: to compete in a Formula 1 race.
Khushlani is only 17.
The Hyderabad teenager’s rise from a nine-year-old go-kart driver to a serious racer is more than the story of his life—it’s the story of a programme that JK Tyre and Industries Ltd launched five years ago to unearth and nurture racing talent through go-kart competitions, Indian kids who would some day hit the Formula 1 circuit. But in India, where motor racing wasn’t quite developed yet, the company decided to start out small—both in the vehicle and its driver. Khushlani and fellow driver Saren Vikram, 18, represent the first crop of that initiative.
The aim is to spread racing through a grass-roots programme that will take the sport, currently followed by the affluent in India, to the masses, says JK Tyre head of motor sports Sanjay Sharma. But others associated with both go-karting and car racing say both have a long way to go.
While Khushlani comes from a well-heeled family—his father runs a firm that supplies electrical products to various companies—Vikram is the son of a garage mechanic in Chennai, the city of India’s ace driver Narain Karthikeyan.
“It proves our goal has been achieved, although it took us some 10 years,” Sharma said.
Sharma, a former JK Tyre-sponsored rally driver who competed in the 1980s and early 1990s, joined the company to head its motor sports programme in 1994. In 1997, the first JK Tyre National Racing championship was held at the Sriperumbudur race track in Tamil Nadu, the only one in India then.
But Sharma says he couldn’t address the issue of accessibility; not everyone could travel to Tamil Nadu. He teamed up with another former rally driver for Mitsubishi, Rajeev Khanna, who had set up Destination Point, an entertainment centre in Faridabad that also had India’s first go-kart track.
Over the next three years, similar entertainment centres that had bowling alleys, video game parlours, skating rinks and rock climbing facilities alongside go-kart tracks opened in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Goa, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bangalore.
Karting as a concept caught on during this time, says Meha Khanna, who managed her father Rajeev Khanna’s facility at Faridabad and later in Gurgaon for several years. “I remember a three-year-old and a four-year-old driving several laps,” she said. “It’s a relatively safe sport and anyone whose feet touch the pedals can participate.”
In 2000, the first JK Tyre National Karting championship was organized at Connaught Place in New Delhi, and was held every year at various places till 2005. Talented youngsters such as Khushlani and Vikram, zooming round the tracks at an average speed of 100 km per hour, were identified though the process. The top three performers are sponsored by JK Tyre to race the senior national championships each year.
The company put the karting championships on hold for three years in 2005 so that it could put its money in newer technology and developing new cars in association with automobile companies and other stakeholders. Last year, it teamed up with Coimbatore-based automobile ancillary company LG Balakrishnan & Bros Ltd to develop three new racing cars—the Formula Swift, the Formula Hyundai and the Formula Chevrolet.
But Sharma said the three-year “sabbatical” for karting championships has been cut short and the event could be back as early as this September or next summer, when schools are closed for vacations and children are free to go karting.
Khanna, who participated in rallies in Africa apart from India, says for the sport to grow here, there is an urgent need to have more go-kart tracks in smaller cities such as Patna and Lucknow, and also have more full-fledged race tracks for newcomers to graduate to. “People must see a career opportunity in racing,” he said.
At the same time, Khanna says, while go-karting is a cheap sport to pursue—one single session of eight to 10 laps costs only Rs100—it was unlikely tracks would mushroom across the breadth of India. It’s not a lucrative business; people with spare land would rather raise a high-rise and get instant returns than block their capital in a go-kart track.
Among racers, too, there is a fear of what the future holds. Khushlani’s budget for this year is $160,000, paid for by JK Tyre and the Hyderabad-based Sujana group of companies; he’s also supported by German car maker BMW, and drove a Formula BMW in Malaysia.
Yet, Khushlani is not certain of the future. On his return from Malaysia, the talented youngster said he was confident he would do well in racing. But at the same time the teenager admitted he was concurrently preparing to become an airline pilot. “It’s a back-up move,” he quips.