Sarah Kashyap doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. She wants to, as writer Mark Twain once said, “throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbour and catch the trade winds in (her) sails".
There are few better descriptions for the off-roader (someone who drives or rides a vehicle on tracks that are not tarred, in competitive races or for adventure) from Panchkula, near Chandigarh.
Still an active competition biker, Kashyap—the only Indian woman to finish all major motorsport rallies in India—now hopes to give young aspirants access to racing tracks with her Dirt Park on the outskirts of Chandigarh.
Earlier this year, she became the first woman biker in India’s history to complete the Desert Storm (in Rajasthan), Raid De Himalaya and SJOBA (St John’s Old Boys Association) rallies, India’s top three motorsport events.
Kashyap, 32, has been biking for 16 years, ever since she learnt to balance on her father’s scooter, though she only started competing in 2014, with the Royal Enfield Dirt Track race in Goa.
Her love for sports developed as a judoka who represented Haryana in the national championships in 2002. The thrill of riding her dad’s scooter changed her priorities, though she last participated in a competitive judo event as recently as 2015.
The psychology honours graduate began working as an assistant manager (rides and community) with Royal Enfield in Gurugram, a job she left in February. She was allowed to use their bikes, but it still wasn’t easy to compete in motorsports—expenses related to fuel, travel, transport of bikes, entry fees, crew, back-up, etc., around Rs10-12 lakh a year, can be inhibiting. However, support from her employer and Maxride Tyres kept her going.
But through the last three years of competing and winning accolades—like her three Coup de Dames trophies (given to the woman who finishes car and bike rallies), the latest of which she won at the Desert Storm earlier this year—Kashyap kept thinking of the need for financial and infrastructure support for motorsports. Other than Royal Enfield, Maxride Tyres and a few close friends, no one had come forward to help and support her. And this gave birth to the idea of the Dirt Park.
“There were different reasons," explains Kashyap. “One is emotional, because there is no such facility in or around Chandigarh. Secondly, I do see it as an industry and people getting interested in off-road riding. The best example of that is that the people who did not share my vision earlier, now look impressed and interested."
Initially, her project had few takers.
“My dad was the only person I could sell the idea to," she says. “He runs a small restaurant, Punjabi Rasoi. I was amazed how ready he was to put his savings into it. I knew it would take me a while to make it work, but he believed (in it). I knew it was going to be a massive project, but family support provided the courage this challenge required."
She leased 5.25 acres, full of wild bushes, at a monthly rental of Rs1.75 lakh. In about three months, by June, the Kashyaps had the facility up and running. The Dirt Park now houses an autocross track and a motocross track, and work is in progress to make it a complete practice facility for off-roading experts and enthusiasts.
Professional autocross track designer and rally driver Sudev Brar, Himalayan Motorsport Association president Vijay Parmar and national motocross champion Suhail Ahmed chipped in with their expertise in designing the circuit.
“There are many adventure parks in India which are for entertainment like go-carting, buggies, ATVs," says Ahmed, six-time national autocross champion in the 210cc category. “But there aren’t enough facilities where professional athletes can train for motocross, autocross and rallies.
“You need to be a racer to understand the whole dynamics (of running such parks). Not all racers open such parks because of high maintenance costs and it being a high-risk business model (annual cost estimates range from Rs40-50 lakh). I am aware of only two professional moto-parks—one by C.S. Santosh in Kolar, Karnataka, and the other, this one (Dirt Park) by Sarah."
So far, the Dirt Park has cost a little over Rs16 lakh.
At present, it offers a solitary bike on rent, besides the mandatory protective gear that can be used by riders who bring their own bikes or four-wheelers. “The response can be gauged from the fact that we have on average 40-50 riders for every event, besides the moral support," Kashyap says smilingly.
“We are encouraging them (riders) to bring their own vehicles, because they are used to their vehicles and thus have better control. However, I want to introduce a fleet of bikes which can be rented at the park itself." A dirt bike costs a minimum of Rs12 lakh, while a used one costs roughly Rs4-5 lakh. If you want to modify an Indian bike, it costs around Rs1 lakh per bike.
Kashyap is now hoping that talks with sponsors will turn into deals.
Jaspreet Sahni is a freelance writer with a decade’s experience in digital and print media.