Revisiting 'Sholavaroom'

A nostalgic look back at the birthplace of Indian motorsport

Six a.m., Madras. The very end of the fleeting winter. The air feels cool and crisp. Best of all, it’s Sunday. The first Sunday of February, to be precise. Time to go watch racing!

In Sholavaram, an airstrip at Red Hills, about 25 km from the city, the air thrums with the glorious sound of performance engines. The day will be hectic; hundreds of racing cars and motorcycles will be wrung out thoroughly. Vicky Chandhok, famous racing and rally driver (though yet to become famous as Karun Chandhok’s father — yes, this a flashback) is bustling about. His Formula 2 car is one of the fastest, hitting as much as 250 kmph during races. He wonders if his usual friends and nemeses — Vijay Mallya with his Ensign F1, Karivardhan in his ‘Black Beauty’, the Maharaja of Gondal in his F5000, Ajit Thomas in his Chevron F3 — will put one over him. Not a chance, he thinks to himself.
***
Young Subhash Chandra Bose has been up really early. He smiles as he skims the morning newspaper. There’s a picture of his motorcycle, the number 5 Yamaha TZ; the caption says, “Can anyone beat Bose this year?” He’s a proud man, but not arrogant. His father allowed him to go racing as soon as he had popped the question. A couple of races into the sport, he was flying. He’s already a legend at Sholavaram.
***
Back in Madras, Indu Chandhok, Vicky’s father is a happy man. His son is doing rather well in the races. The Madras Motor Sports Club, an organisation that grew along with, and because of him, is doing well too. The races are popular and the line of succession looks strong and stable. Ahead, there’s a tremendous day out with the family and the racers and his club friends at Sholavaram. Life couldn’t possible get better than this.
***
Jaikumar, a college student, rushes through his routine. His friends will be waiting; he hopes they’ve got tickets. The race is now sold out, and black-market tickets are all that are available. Jaikumar and his friends wait for the bus;  the government is running Sholavaram Specials. There are families all around, complete with picnic gear, bawling kids, slightly bewildered wives and excited-looking husbands. The traffic on the narrow roads to Sholavaram will swell to epic proportion, as something like 30,000 people funnel into the small airfield.
***
These are but four figures of a cast of thousands who saw and took part in motorsport in an era India hadn’t seen before and or since. Sholavaram and the All India Motor Race Meet (AIMRM) was the pinnacle of Indian hobby racing from the mid-50s to the early 90s, when the arrival of the Sriperumbudur track flicked it into recession as racing got altogether more serious and result-oriented.

A full 30 years later, the place couldn’t possibly be more underwhelming.

I smile at the statue of the (original) Subhash Chandra Bose when I turn off the highway. Four clicks later, I spot the now-leonine head of the boy named after the freedom fighter. Bose is waiting patiently so he can direct us on to the airstrip.

Say “Sholavaram” and eyes sparkle. To fade when you talk about it in the present tense. Chunks of the concrete are missing.  The army runs in tanks, they say. They tear up the surface. It’s overgrown, they tell me. Grass everywhere.

I turn off the road and in less than a hundred metres, the smooth scarlet ground gives way to an impossibly upward sloping, incredibly bumpy, damaged, worn concrete runway. Bose smiles at my reaction. We’re here, he tells me.

The parking lot is chock-full of exotic and normal cars alike. Ahead are the enormous stands. Beyond the forest of bamboo are the sounds of engines being revved, announcements being made over the PA and the  bustle of a seriously large racing event.

Jaikumar enters the premium Rs. 50 ticket stand. Sholavaram is a great place to watch racing. The chaps at the end of the runways are rewarded with cars hitting nearly 300 kmph and motorcycles howling into the braking areas at 240 kmph. But the rest of the runway is simply too wide and too long for great visibility. Jai’s stand is best. It’s bang in the middle and offers great views of the full racetrack.


They don’t know each other, but Indu Chandhok passes within a few metres of Jai on his way up. The second storey of the stand is where race control sits. There are almost a 100 people in there. Mechanical stopwatches keep time. Ten judges handle the decision-making and monitoring. Sholavaram prides itself on running more or less on schedule, with two-minute breaks between the series of races.

In the bamboo pole pitlane, at two ends of the main runway, Bose and Vicky are setting up their vehicles.

Bose is interrupted by a competitor who is having a little trouble with his bike. Without so much as a pause, Bose is up to his elbows in a competitor’s grease.

Thirty years on, he explains: “Sholavaram was a hobby racer’s paradise. We didn’t go there to win as much as we did to be there.  These were the very people we would hang out and trade stories with in the night. People we’d meet at other race meetings. Every racer at Sholavaram was on the same team, almost.”

Jaikumar settles in for a day of full entertainment. He will see everything from racing mopeds — Bose would hit 115 kmph! — scooters, motorcycles, Dolphins, Fiats, Ambassadors, Heralds, Studebakers, Cadillacs, a Ferrari, some MGs, a Mercedes or two, specials built in India and abroad and some deeply impressive Formula racers. And in many cases, these cars would be raced together.

When Indu Chandhok started racing in the 50s, Sholavaram was all about handicap racing. Stock Fiats would race against prepped Jaguars. Faster cars would start later — his Jag started four laps behind the Fiats — and had handicap times: Too fast, they’d get disqualified. His first race was a blur of acceleration that ended in disqualification. At his next race, the team told him to start slowing down. He came in fourth but won, because the three racers ahead of him had gone too fast.

It was a completely different world. The racing itself started after a Brit and an Indian, both armed with MGs, engaged in a friendly duel on the then deserted streets. They enjoyed it so much that it led to the creation, first of the Madras Motor Sports Club and then to the main event on the Indian racing calendar for three straight decades, Sholavaram.

As the popularity and seriousness of the racing grew, classes emerged and the business got a lot more purposeful. Vicky recounts classes with as many as 50 machines taking the Le Mans style run-push-starts that were used for the motorcycles.

I watch a grainy video from the last meet in 1986: In the Premier Padmini class, despite the 35-foot wide track, the first car rounds the first U-turn while others are still entering the braking area for that corner with more still to come. The stands were packed, the racing grid was full and the action was fast and furious.

One of the reasons the action was fast was because of the track layout. In the beginning, Sholavaram used a simple L-shaped layout that meant two U-turns and a chicane to slow the vehicles up a bit. Then army tanks churned up some other part of the track, so  alterations were made; the full T-layout arrived. From the parking lot, the T was upside down.

Vicky talks me through the lap. “We’d start from about halfway down the one-kilometre straight, brake hard and take a really wide U-turn. Accelerate hard up to the chicane, make the left-right into the sweeping left that took us into the leg of T. Then give it everything you’ve got till you made the second U-turn at the end of the runway. Shoot hard into the open left-hander that brings you to the back of the main straight. Again, full throttle to the final U-turn before you accelerate hard into a super-fast, bumpy straight that stretched to the horizon.” That’s the lap.

Bose says the simple layout kept crashes and injuries to a minimum. On the leg of the T, the racers would be separated only by hay bales. (They tried cotton bales but they proved too hard to crash into.) Rudimentary, colourful: Racing at its best.

The original airstrip was British-built for WWII; after independence, it was abandoned. The Indian Air Force took over, but never really used it.  When a tank factory came up on the outskirts of Madras, Sholavaram became its test track. Club officials valiantly tried to keep racing at the track in the face of all manner of problems. Indu recalls that they asked for permission to repair the runways and to create run-off areas. The IAF declined permission.

Today, the runways are a shortcut for people in the area: I saw autorickshaws, cars and motorcycles putt-putting across the cracked concrete. Years of monsoons, ignorance and abuse have left the surface in pretty bad shape.

I drive a lap of homage; the Mitsubishi Outlander bucks and weaves as we tear around at the fastest pace possible without putting a wheel into some serious potholes.

I could go slowly but I remember that a chap named Jungoo Nicholson was once reprimanded for just that: He was so slow into a corner that Karivardhan and Mallya had to spin out to avoid crashing into him. The ghosts of the timekeepers and marshals would black-flag me if I went slower. I keep the throttle pinned. and my eyes peeled. This is worship.

By the time we pull in, I’m blown away by the sheer length of the tarmac. As Jaikumar would have been. Imagine hearing the full-bore howl of an F1 car at full tilt. It’s a sound Indian enthusiasts have only heard once in recent history, when David Coulthard blitzed the Mumbai Sealink. We’ve come a long way from Sholavaram. Forward or backwards is debatable.

In the mid-70s, the Club realised that if racing was to grow in India, Sholavaram’s popular but amateur format wouldn’t work. It offered thrills and great racing, but no way into the future. The first steps came when Karivardhan (see page 101) created the Formula Maruti class, India’s first purpose-built racecars in a one-make format. The cars would tip their hats to the series of specials the Indian enthusiasts churned out over the years, but it was the first concerted attempt at level playing field racing. The last of them, in fact, are still racing.


Thus, the plan for Sriperumbudur was set into motion. When the racetrack started operating in 1991, Indian racing took a big step forward. It takes full credit for creating not only both the Indian F1 drivers, but also fostering every other racing hopeful we have today. But it would never have the Sholavaram’s grand spectator experience.

Racing became more serious. Racers were in it for careers rather than just joy, and it changed racing. This was compounded by a grandstand that looked out at the main straight. Of the 3.7 km, only 400 metre was visible to the spectators.

Plus, there was no government rest house in the vicinity where racers, mechanics and tuners could raise merry hell after a day of racing. (Arrak was smuggled in in cycle tubes, they smile and tell me, and the nights were wild. By morning, though, it would be back to business.)

Vicky Chandhok blames three things for the change. First of all, he points out, there was no television back then. With government buses and shady stands, Sholavaram became a great family picnic.

Further, it was held once a year. Which made it a much bigger event, much more special than racing series which run every other weekend. That’s why, he says, they got people from Bangalore, Coimbatore, Calcutta, even North India, and as far afield as Sri Lanka and the UK.

Finally, he says, it was hobby racing. They went to work in the very vehicles they brought to the track. This made every car and motorcycle on sale in India a potential racing vehicle. Racing was cheap and possible.

None of this applies today.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the airfield is deserted. The concrete runs from my feet to the horizon in all four directions, devoid of life, almost devoid of purpose. (Bose tells me that Pushpak trainer aircraft still land at the strip now and then, and that Sunday sees the Chennai aero-modelling community come out and play. What about racers, I ask him excitedly. Does anyone still come here? He shakes his head and tells me that he himself hasn’t been there in more than a decade.)

Air Force trucks roll up. A rotund gentleman in regulation aviators quizzes me about what we are up to. I give him a snapshot of the history of Sholavaram. His boys gather to hear the story of glory days told by one of the newly initiated. I think I see Bose standing on the side smiling.

Having heard the story, they revert to their usual selves and tell us to pack our stuff and get moving.  Aye, aye, sir!

I spot the jagged metal sticking out of the scrap yard that now occupies fully half the original parking lot. That’s appropriate I think. Sometimes the history of the place must be bigger than the place itself. That’s the right way to remember it.

Courtesy Overdrive. Read a longer version in the magazine’s September issue.

Photographs: Chandhok Archives, Bose Archives


KARI’S LEGACY
by Anand Philar  mg_35762_kari_280x210.jpg

He was MD of Lakshmi Mills; a wealthy man with a passion for engines. S. Karivardhan not only raced (on circuits and in rallies) and led racing teams, he also designed and built race cars. Lke the FISSME (Formula India Single Seater Maruti Engine, also called “Formula Maruti”), an open-wheeled race car with a Maruti 800 engine, a low-cost vehicle in which many of today’s stars made their bones.

Sanjay Sharma, head of JK Tyre Motorsport, says that Kari spent his own money on the FISSME because he wanted racing to come to India. “That was his passion. He became part of Vikrampati Singhania’s motorsport programme that eventually evolved into the [national] championship.”

But Kari was not just a pioneer. He was also a well-loved human being.  When Akbar Ebrahim, former national champion, speaks of him, he still chokes up. “All that I was able to achieve in my motorsporting career was down to him. His presence in the motorsport arena was his greatest contribution.”

S.C. Bose, former bike racing champion has fond memories too. “I don’t think you will ever see a man like him. When he spotted talent, he did all he could to encourage it without asking for anything in return, and rejoiced when we succeeded.”

Narayanaswamy Leelakrishnan, seven-time national rally champion and one of the country’s finest tuners, says, “I went to him to learn the basics. He had sound engineering knowledge and answers for everything. Even today, when I am stuck with a problem, I think as to how Kari would have solved it.”

Vicky Chandhok, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, and former national rally champion, was perhaps one of his closest friends. “We competed hard, argued hard and provoked one another, but remained close friends. He was a very simple person who shunned the limelight.”

Kari died in an air crash in 1995. He was just 41. His memory lives on, though, not just in Narain Karthikeyan (who happens to be a relative), Karun Chandhok and Armaan Ebrahim (sons of two of his close friends), but also because of his massive contribution to Indian motorsport.

Now, with Formula One coming to India, racing fans should doff their monogrammed caps to Kari, the father of Indian motorsport.