Fifty-two years of motor racing

If Sholavaram, and to some extent, laying the race track at Irungatukottai were the high points for the Madras Motor Sports Club in the past five decades, attracting corporate sponsors and taking the sport to the grassroots are the formidable challenges it faces today.

The Madras Motor Sports Club (MMSC) came into existence as an offshoot of the Automobile Association of Southern India. Founded by a few racing enthusiasts, it has had tremendous success in organising racing and rallying events. Working together with the Madras Motor Sports Trust, the Club put up India’s first race track that adheres to international standards at Sriperambudur, and has organised some of the biggest motor racing events in India. The Club has not only played a pivotal role in motor racing but also conducted many rally championships – the Himalayan rallies in the initial years – as well as events for the blind and ladies rallies.

In 1952, whilst a 1948 MGTC (model of a sports car) was being cleared from the Madras Harbour, discussions on motor racing and rallying between the owner and R De’Souza were what eventually led to the idea of the formation of a motor sports club. The following year, two MGTCs chased one another from Chesney hall to the parking lot of Catholic Centre. The two drivers, Englishman Rex Strong and Indian K Varugis felt that racing would be more fun if organised off the roads. Strong had been a member of the Calcutta Motor Sports Club and the MG Club and he and Varugis began scouting for motor racing enthusiasts.

One evening, sometime later, a small gathering of motorists arranged a motor scavenger hunt – the objective was to get together and pass a formal resolution for the formation of the MMSC. MA Chidambaram and SVB Rao, legal advisor of the AASI, assisted in drafting the constitution of the Club, which was then registered under the Societies Act. Chidambaram, then chairman of AASI, felt that AASI should concentrate on motoring activity and a separate organisation would help develop the sport of motor-racing. He also wanted a separate unit to be created by MMSC to conduct races and thus the first race committee was formed in 1955 with Chidambaram as the first chairman. The committee included Govind Swaminathan, BI Chandok, FV Arul (then IG of Police) and A Sivasailam.

MMSC came into being in 1953; it was registered in 1954. The first office bearers of the Club, with GM Donner at the helm, were KV Srinivasan, Varugis, the Rajkumar of Pithapuram, Raja DV Appa Rao, JH Dye, P Mathen, KA Silick and Strong. Altogether, there were about 40 founding members. Five early members of the MMSC, the ‘Panch Pandavas’, who actively participated were Gopal Madhavan, Indu Chandok, Jayendra Patel, Anil Bhatia and C Prabhakar.

Soon, an area for a track was selected at Sholavaram, a Second World War abandoned air strip belonging to the Indian Air Force, about 30 km from Madras. It comprised the south and west wings of an L-shaped area. A tight left after the start and a fast right after two U-turns completed the two-mile circuit. There were two chicanes, one on each side of the straights. Once, on practice day, a car missed the right turn hand and nearly ran into a crowd at a corner. Immediately, it was decided to shift the public stands further south and away from the run-off area. The pits and paddocks were located on the western side of the track that had several potholes. For the following few years, this L-shaped track was used for all the races.

The Sholavaram land belonged to the Military Estate Officer and the track to the Indian Air Force. Sometimes, new Army tanks were tested on southern section of the track. Its surface soon got destroyed and MMSC was forced to use the east-west straight; to make races interesting, the Club used a portion of the northern runway. The track was now shaped like a T. The stands were located on the southern side giving spectators an excellent view. On the northern side were the time keepers and lap recorders – 50 each. The medical centre and pits were located at the northeastern part of the track and the approach was by a narrow road that led to the Sholavaram dak bungalow. The southern runway had enough space for a car park, police outpost and ticket booths.

The track at Sholavaram has also had another non-motoring connection. The Sholavaram track was used to store wheat when no space was available in government godowns. The wheat was stacked right in the middle of the T-track. The track was so wide that there were many crashes at the U-turns. The problem was discussed with the Royal Automobile Club, London, and MMSC was advised that the track width should not be more than 35 ft. The track was so wide that there were many crashes at the U-turns. The problem was discussed with the Royal Automobile Club, London, and MMSC was advised that the track width should not be more than 35 ft.

The first regular motor sports event was held in August-September 1953 at the Sholavaram airstrip. There were only two classes of cars – six MGTCs and other stock cards. The events included ‘standing starts’, ‘flying starts’ over a distance of a mile, and some parking tests. Donner in his Mark 7 Jaguar averaged 84 miles an hour over the measured mile. The first race meeting was held on October 25, 1953 at the Sholavaram air strip. There was a five-lap race for motorcycles (handicap), a five-lap race for sports cars, a three-lap relay for motorcycle teams, a four-lap handicap relay for cars, and a driving test. John Dye, who clocked 72 miles an hour on a Triumph Twin, was the fastest man at the meet. Enthusiasts present included JD Jones, DJ Hopley, Ravi Sharma, Ven Sellick, Philli Clubwala and KV Ranganatha Rao. At the end of the day, a dinner was held at the Madras Club.

The first rally was organised in 1954 when the Rajkumar of Pithapuram was the president. It was the popular ‘time and distance’ rally to Mahabalipuram and back, covering a distance of about 100 miles with disclosed check points. There were 100 participants. BI Chandok won in his Triumph Mayflower with Captain Patankar of the Merchant Navy as his navigator. This rally was followed by several others – to the Poondi Reservoir, Sholavaram and other places of interest. A few years later, a longer version of the rally, to Pondicherry, was introduced.

Encouraged by the public response, and assured of sponsorship by oil companies such as Burmah Shell, Caltex and Castrol, the first Day-Night Rally was conducted in 1956. The Madras-Bangalore-Mysore-Ooty-Coimbatore-Dindigul-Trichy-Villupuram-Madras route covered a distance of about 800 miles. Forty-two cars participated and the prominent entry was that of General Thimmiah in his Mercedes (Govind Swaminathan was his co-driver and Nosy Muthanna the navigator). After a few years of this rally, which always started from Union Company, Mount Road, the route was changed by new teams. One experiment was to begin from Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore simultaneously with a free run to Trichy; the rally would finish in Bangalore or Madras.

Good timing equipment was not available in those days. The Railway-Lever pocket watches were the only timing devices available and the marshals had to listen to the All India Radio time pips to set their watches. The marshals would also ring up the rally headquarters an hour before the expected time of arrival of the first vehicle and set his watch accordingly. It was only later that the Club got Omega Seamasters and complaints regarding the timing were reduced.

In February 1957, competitors from Bangalore and Ceylon took the field alongside participants from MMSC and thrilled the spectators with their excellent performance. Zacky Dean, who had competed in the prestigious Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, was one of the main attractions and he lived up to his billing with some brilliant riding. The Junior Open Championship event, over 14 miles for motorcycles up to 350 cc, saw a hard-fought race between Dean and Madras rider Hari Rao. Rao took a good lead and maintained it for six laps but towards the end Dean’s experience showed and he won by a narrow margin.

Raja Sinathorai, another young motorcyclist from Ceylon and the youngest competitor in the meet, had to seek special permission to compete. It was his first attempt at racing. He, however, made a great impact on the spectators and won his event comfortably in spite of staring 80 seconds later than the first rider. Two other riders who caught the public eye were from Bangalore – KS Vijayapai in his BSA who came first in the Senior Open category for motorcycles up to 500 cc (14 miles), beating VK Gupta and Dean, and PS Hariharan in his Jaguar XK-120.

Since the races in Sholavaram were held mostly during December-January, the group from Ceylon found it difficult to arrive in time because the ferry service was closed November onwards up to the second week of January. MMSC, thus, decided to shift the annual All India Race Meet to the first Sunday in February. Crowds of over 30,000 would throng to watch man and machine fight for supremacy. The Sholavaram racing weekends (two consecutive Sundays) used to be the biggest racing show in India, with racing drivers and riders coming from across the country; it even became part of the international racing calendar. The Sholavaram success story helped the sport grow in stature from year to year. Drivers from Sri Lanka, Britain and Europe were regulars at Indian events.

Meanwhile, while the IAF was happy to give the track to the MMSC on lease, the Military Estate Officer did not agree. The track was in a state of disrepair and the villagers were encroaching on the land and breaking up the runway. There were no funds even for a watchman. MMSC was willing to connect the ends of the three U-turns and build a track with one-way traffic as against the two-way track the Club was using. However, with the surface breaking up, the Club had no choice and alternate arrangements had to be made. The Club decided to buy 300 acres of land and a ‘search committee’ finally zeroed in on the present site at Irungattukottai, Sriperambudur, 40 km from Chennai. Since it was agricultural land, the Club had to seek the permission of 100-odd farmers; Indian Bank sanctioned a loan of Rs 10 lakh. While Suresh Patel and Gopal Madhavan worked on laying out the new track, they realised that 200 acres was enough and so, 100 acres were sold to the members. The proceeds were used to clear the loan. It was while plans were being drawn up for the new track that the Club decided to form a Trust to hold its properties; the trust deed was drafted and the Club’s land was given to the Trust on a 99-year lease.

With McDowell and MRF contributing Rs 50 lakh and Rs 40 lakh respectively, amongst other contributors, work for a new track began. The foundation stone was laid by Jackie Stewart. Indian Bank provided an overdraft facility of Rs 50 lakh. Gherzi Eastern were appointed architectural consultants. Larsen & Toubro won the construction tender. Madhavan supervised the design and construction and ensured that they conformed to international standards. The track, 3.7 km long and 11 m wide, was approved by FISA and FIM.

MMSC was incidentally a founder-member of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, in the 1970s. The first racing meet at Sriperambudur was the 33rd All India Motor Race meet in 1990. When McDowells stepped into motor racing in a big way, Vijay Mallya, a keen racer, was the first to race a Formula-1 car at Sholavaram in the Open Class. The annual racing event became the McDowell Grand Prix. Mallya not only spent money on running the event but also chipped in with a team of five cars. The rivalry between MRF and Mc Dowell added more thrill to racing. In 1994, JK Tyres entered the racing arena and the fierce competition between JK and MRF ensured one of the best eras in Indian racing. Unfortunately, Sriperambudur could never attract the kind of crowds that Sholavaram did. One reason was that Sholavaram had a T-shaped track which afforded spectators a view of the entire circuit.

The men, the machines (box-item)
Some of the stalwarts responsible for building the Madras Motor Sports Club include KV Srinivasan, one of the founders of the Club and the Trust; MA Chidambaram, whose vision created the Club; the Rajkumar of Pithapuram, the first Indian president; V Chidambaram, chairman-races for many years; M Nilakantan, who was instrumental in bringing discipline into the events; R De’Souza, who provided inspiring leadership; Suresh Patel, who put rules into place; and Minoo Belgamwala, who, during his 18 years at the helm, ensured the Club remained active.

There were several others responsible for the Club’s success – RP Bhimani, ND Patel, Col SS Choudhary, K Bhaskara, Roshan Ali Currimbhoy, Dr Saboo, Babu Mathen, Ranganatha Rao, Ravi Mammen, R Dayanidhi, S Karivardhan, BV Ranganath, Freddie Webb, John Webb and Gopinath Shiva. Govind Swaminathan, AC Muthana and SS Sivaprakasa guided the Club on legal matters while DSS Jayatillake and Gamini Jaya Surya helped develop interaction between the racing fraternity in India and Sri Lanka.

Donner was MMSC’s first (1952-53) president. He was followed by the Rajkumar of Pithapuram (1954-56), MK Belgamwala (1957-63, 1968-80), R Ratnam (1964-67), R De’Souza (1980-81), BI Chandok (1981-85), M Nilakantan (1985-86), S Muthukrishnan (1986-99), and KD Madan (1999-2002). Ajit Thomas, who took over in 2002, is now the president.

The old racing fraternity in Madras consisted of Genji Verugis in his MGTC, Ranganath Rao in his Citreon Special, Babu Mathen in an SIAC Special, Mike Satow and Kinny Lal from Calcutta, K Rajagopal and K Sundaram from Coimbatore, N Soundararajan from Dindigul, the Maharajah of Gondal, PS Hariharan and Haji Sattar Sai in their Triumph Jaguar 150s, Kumar Siddanna in his MG Twin , AD Jayaram, Loganathan in a Buck Fiat, Freddie Webb in a Jaguar Mark V, John Webb in a 1952 Chevy and Palaniappa Chettiar from Salem in his Cadillac Automatic, and Damodaran. The leading two-wheeler competitors were Sheriff Dyan, Bullet Bhasky, PD Sathy and Bose, all from Madras, Tyrewala from Bombay and Krishnaswamy from Coimbatore.

As the old guard moved out, the void was filled by drivers from Ceylon – Mike Rauf, David Pieries, Priya Munasinghe, Shanti Gunaratne, Rally Dean, Zacky Dean, UD Jinadasa, Fricky Khan, Chandra D’Costa and Raja Sinathorai. Daljit Chaggar was the lone Kenyan. Other Indians who made an impression included Bhaskar Rao, Ashok Krishnan, the Hebbar Brothers, Farhad Cariappa, Aspi Bathena, Rajendra and Rajkumar.

The cars spectators usually saw at the starting grid in the early years would include a Buck Fiat, Chevrolet Studebaker, Cadillac, Standard 10, Fiat, MG, Mercedes 300 SL coupe, Ferrari V-12, MG Twin Cam, Jaguar Mark V and VII, Fiat Spyder, Triumph TR-3, Austin Healey and a modified Jaguar. In the early 1980s, two-wheelers would include a Luna, TVS-50, Lambretta, BSA Falcon, Kinetic Spark, Ind-Suzuki, Hero Honda, Yezdi Roadking, Ideal Jawa and Rajdoot Yamaha.

Since handicap racing had its own problem, it was decided to encourage the building of a Formula India car. The first indigenous racing car, the ‘Qumari Special’, was a two-seater developed around an Ambassador engine by Kinny Lal and Suresh Kumar from Calcutta. Adi Malgam developed a frame around which Vicky Chandok developed the first indigenous racing car in Madras with a Herald engine. Suresh Naik, Nazir Hussain, Mohinder Lalwani, Malgam (all from Bombay), AD Jayaraman and Karivardhan were the pioneers in the construction of the indigenous motor car who turned motor sport around in India and gave it stature.

Several automobile ancillary units such as India Radiators, Brakes India, Rane, Gabriel Shock Absorbers, Union Company and Wheels India donated components which helped to reduce the cost of the car. The companies used the track to test their components. Interestingly, while racing enthusiasts in Bombay and Coimbatore built cars with Fiat engines, Calcutta experimented with Ambassador engines while Madras and Banglaore relied on the Herald. From the Formula Ford, Chandok, Karivardhan, Vijay Mallya and Akbar Ebrahim went on to develop the F-2000. Ebrahim trained at the Sholavaram track before racing in the Formula-3 in the UK. It was only later that Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandok entered the scene. Karivardhan developed the real Indian racing car engine but it was not a single-make car. His death in an air crash was a sad day in Indian motor racing.

Dim future without government support (box-item)
In the 1950s and early 1960s, motor sport enthusiasts started racing with the cars they had. Those who had sports cars found an opportunity to race once a year. Once the Standard Heralds, Fiats and Ambassadors came in, the cars were classified. There would often be rallies between Madras and Bangalore. The Karnataka Motor Sports Club was active; the Yelahanka air field and the Agaram army training ground were the venues in Bangalore. Raymonds was one of the early sponsors in the early 1970s.

“It was only in the 1980s that the spectators got something to see something rather than the usual Fiats and Ambassadors. Even then, nobody explored the commercial aspects of the sport,” says Kamlesh Patel, vice president, MMSC, and Suresh Patel’s son who has been associated with motor racing in Madras for 35 years.

“Sholavaram was a once-in-a-year event. Today, people are not willing to travel that far. Also, television has invaded most homes and there are other forms of entertainment,” says Ajit Thomas, president, MMSC. Adds TT Raghunathan, past chairman of the All India Motor Race Meet committee and who has been on the MMSC committee for many years, “The time-speed-distance formula was what made the South Indian rally popular. To conduct a speed event on closed roads in India is virtually impossible.”

Asked what MMSC’s high points were over the past 50 years, Thomas and Patel listed a few: taking the initiative to conduct motor sport in an organised manner; conduct of the premier South India rally every year from 1958 to 2000; producing the Sholvaram magic; and getting the world-class track built at Irungatukottai.

“However, we seem to be stuck in a groove and are unable to scale up. Look at Bahrain, Brazil and China who are running Formula-1 races today. We have never worked to better our events. Lack of funding is a major constraint; even now, we struggle to make profits,” says Patel.

“Governments elsewhere look at it as a tourist proposition. People talk about Malaysia after the country has hosted the Formula-1. India is home to several multinationals who would like to come and advertise. But we have not been able to evince the interest of even our car manufacturers. Except the TVS Group, and the Tatas who are sponsoring Narain Karthikeyan, motor sport in India has not seen big money,” adds Thomas.

Both Thomas and Patel agree that it is a chicken-and-egg situation. “To professionalise the sport, we need to raise resources and that can happen only if we scale up operations,” says Patel. The real challenge, they say, lies in developing motor sport at the grassroots level, pushing go-karting to a higher plane, make the sport attractive for newcomers, and to bring large crowds to the race track. “In the West, for example, there is a whole ambience created around the race track, with amusement parks, hotels, tourist spots etc. All that requires enormous amounts of money,” Thomas points out.

“If you look at the success stories of China, Malaysia, Bahrain and Turkey, you will see 100 per cent central government commitment; without such support, you cannot have motor sport which needs about Rs 1,200 crore to be spent. I don’t see that happening in our country,” says Raghunathan, adding, “Motor sport is sponsorship-driven. Unless the stakeholders see motor sport as an avenue for promoting their products, the sport will face stagnation. It is an expensive sport. For an individual, the entry barrier is cost.”

Raghunathan feels that MMSC has provided step-motherly treatment to the two-wheeler industry. “The TVS Racer Bikes Scheme has given about 600 youngsters from all walks of life the opportunity to race. The top 20 racers in the past few racers have come from this scheme. For Rs 500 or so, any child can apply to join; TVS provides nearly 40 bikes, MRF the tyres and MMSC the instruction. Two-wheelers bring in the crowds. Isn’t it strange then why this segment is not being promoted? Unfortunately, MMSC is not interested.”


Anonymous said…
The article was good and informative but not accurate. There were some great drivers from Coimbatore like R. Janardhan, R. Santaram (who raced abroad even in the 70's long before the younger generation of today). And what about the women drivers of the 80's? The very first ones to brave the male dominated sports of both Motor racing and Rallying? It would be good to see the real credit go for the pioneers of motor racing of both sexes.
Anonymous said…
Some of the names you have neglected from the scene of Motor racing are
D.Vidhya Prakash
B.Vijay Kumar(dominated in the Fiat's and now building the Formulas under the Super speed banner)
R.Gopinath (son of K.Rajagopal)
Among the women drivers are
Deepa Janardhan (first to race in the male dominated men's class)
Vijayshree Karivaradhan (wife of S. Karivaradhan)
Anitha Nanjappa (Rally driver)

Remember also that Karivaradhan was the first to design and make the Go Karts and bring them to Sholavaram for exhibition races in which some of the above mentioned women raced as well. Further these women also competed in the Dirt races held in other parts of India and won some of them.

It would be a great article if the women drivers were mentioned and if all that the city of Coimbatore has done for this sport is portrayed accurately. Hope this info will be added or the entire article re written with accuracy.

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