Tamil Nadu has been the biggest contributor to motorsports in India, both in terms of infrastructure and talent
It is not the quality of drivers alone; it also has to do with tradition and the passion for motor racing that southern India, in general, and Tamil Nadu, in particular, is regarded as the cradle of Indian motorsport.
It is difficult to argue otherwise, when both Indians to have raced in Formula One (F1)—Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok—are from the southern state, as are other prominent drivers, notably Armaan Ebrahim, who is competing, with Chandhok, in the FIA GT World Series.
While Karthikeyan is considered the path-breaker after the Coimbatore-based racer became the first Indian in 2005 to race in F1—seen as the epitome of professional four-wheeler circuit racing—to those closely-involved, it was also the fructification of a long-cherished dream of those who paved the way.
The late S. Karivardhan had envisioned that the day would come when India would be on the global racing map. Kari, as he was known to friends, apart from being a top race driver in the 1970s and 1980s, was also a car designer and constructor. A mechanical engineer with a specialization in machine design from the University of California, Los Angeles, US, Karivardhan, who was managing director of Coimbatore-based textile major, The Lakshmi Mills Ltd, was the man behind the FISSME (Formula India Single-Seater Maruti Engine) single-seater. It was India’s first purpose-built race car in a one-make format that would for long form the backbone of the country’s four-wheeler circuit racing.
Car designer J. Anand, managing director, Jayem Automotives, in Coimbatore
Karthikeyan, whose family is closely-related to Karivardhan, Chandhok and Ebrahim, honed their skills in this class, as did the newer lot like Aditya Patel, who is currently competing in the German ADAC GT Masters series; Parth Ghorpade, racing in the Renault series in Europe; and Raj Bharath, testing his skills in the Formula Masters in China.
It was in his memory that a racing circuit—the Kari Motor Speedway—was built in Coimbatore in 2003, joining the Madras Motor Sports Trust track in Irungattukottai on the outskirts of Chennai as only the second such professional facility in the country, until the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida that hosts the F1 Indian Grand Prix came into being two years ago.
Blast from the past
The Madras Motor Sports Club, Coimbatore Auto Sports Club and Karnataka Motor Sports Club were among the primary clubs along with Calcutta Motor Sports Club and Mumbai’s Indian Automotive Racing Club organizing motorsports events in the country before they came together in 1971 to form the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), headquartered in Chennai, to ensure common regulations and orderly conduct of events.
Until the Irungattukottai track in Sriperumbudur was built in 1990, race meets were held on abandoned airstrips and the competition at one such in Sholavaram in Chennai is regarded the original Mecca of motor racing. Sholavaram was invariably packed with spectators, with the government organizing special bus services to the venue on race weekends, recollects Indu Chandhok, the father of FMSCI president Vicky Chandhok.
“It was the place for the young and happening," recollects Mussi Mohammed, a Sholavaram regular. “It was like a carnival, with modified Fiats and imported cars. It was new for us back then, it provided that adrenalin rush. The crowds you see now at Irungattukottai is nothing compared to Sholavaram days."
Looking back now, Karivardhan’s words in an interview in 1994, a year before his death in an air crash at age 41, subsequently published in The Hindu, has proved prophetic. “We are on step two on a scale of 10 in circuit motor car racing today. The Sriperumbudur race track is the beginning. We will need to import Formula Three cars into India and corporate sponsors can make that happen," he had said.
Apart from tyre majors MRF and JK Tyre, which have traditionally supported motor racing, and which run their Formula series in India, global car manufacturers like Volkswagen and Toyota now conduct their own single-make series. Volkswagen had been running their Polo Cup series concurrently with the National Racing Championship from 2010 to 2012, while Toyota just completed their first season as part of the MMSC National Racing Championship.
India’s national car racing currently comprises two championships—the MMSC FMSCI National Racing Championship and the JK Tyre Racing Championship. The five-round MMSC-FMSCI event consists of the MRF F1600 single-seater, the Toyota Etios, the Super Saloons, and the LGB Formula 4, the indigenously designed and built single-seater. The other one comprises the JK Tyre racing Formula single-seater series, a LGB Formula 4 single-seater series and the Polo Cup.
Indian racing took a serious form only after the construction of the Irungattukottai track and Karivardhan’s FISSME that would give direction and shape to future drivers, constructors and tuners.
“It is because south India was always passionate and supportive of motor racing," Vicky says. Even during the time of Sholavaram, Sulur airstrip (Coimbatore) or Agram (Bangalore), the south always offered these venues at reasonable rates.
“Irungattukottai obviously became central to Indian motor racing, and the sport just grew from there. Easy accessibility enabled drivers from the south to be adept with speed. One also needs to understand that in south, motor racing is passion-driven and not economy-driven, and has always been so. A young driver could go to any of the top tuners, and they would help," says Vicky.
Engineering precision also made a big difference, he adds. “It was in this that Karivardhan revolutionized Indian motor racing. Kari was an enigma. He was a visionary in Indian formula car racing. It’s 25 years now since he built the 28 FISSME cars, and we ran some of those until recently. He showed the way."
Karivardhan’s engineering legacy continues with J. Anand, whose car was once tuned by Karivardhan, and is himself now a leading race-car tuner and designer. “The other aspect that makes south Indian drivers good at racing is that it is a family sport. There is guidance, which is important for any youngster," says Anand, who designed and built the MRF F1600 and F2000 cars.
“It is the case with most of the top drivers from south India, be it Karun, Armaan, Aditya (son of former rally driver Kamlesh Patel). Since we are in Tamil Nadu, the back-end work for the cars is easier," adds Anand, whose family is also related to Karivardhan.
Anand agrees that there exists a close link between Coimbatore’s mill industry and racing. “I guess it is primarily passion, and yes, there is the financial support that is so needed for the back-end work on the cars. The landscape is changing now, which is a good sign. Several good racers are emerging from other parts of the country, and this will help Indian motorsport in the long run.
“Engineering-wise, Karivardhan possibly did (to motorsport) what Viswanathan Anand did to chess. He changed the face of Indian motor racing," says Anand.
Such was Karivardhan’s engineering precision that N. Leelakrishnan, seven-times National Rally Champion and one of India’s finest tuners, says: “Even today, when I am stuck with a problem, I think how Kari would have solved it."
Akbar Ebrahim, India’s first F2 driver, and the go-to man for all emerging Indian drivers for advice and coaching, says young driving talents are no more restricted just to the south. “Karting has changed it. South India provides a steady stream of drivers because of the racing infrastructure and culture, but with the introduction of karting, a lot of talents emerge from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolhapur, Mumbai and they move on to circuit-racing."
Karting is globally regarded as the first step to motor racing, and it caught India’s imagination in the late 1990s after viewership for F1 had risen considerably. Karting tracks began to emerge across the country as it was commercially viable, and subsequently corporate houses like Amaron batteries, MRF and JK Tyre instituted championships, effectively taking the sport to the masses. Almost all of India’s new-age drivers cut their teeth in karting.
“This certainly was part of Kari’s vision, who always wanted to make racing affordable to youngsters, which was why he made the low-cost FISSME," says Akbar. “Honestly, all that I was able to achieve in my motorsports career was down to him. His presence in the motor-racing arena was his greatest contribution."