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Sunday, May 06, 2001

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Naren Kumar aims to be best in Asia-Pacific zone

By S. Thyagarajan

CHENNAI, MAY 5. Rallying is not spoken of with the same elan as F-1 racing, but the challenges it offers to the participants is no less. The rising graph of popularity the world over only testifies this assumption. That more and more rallyists from Asia, and hearteningly from India, are getting into the groove adds a new dimension to auto-racing. Thanks to the initiative and persistence of the Motor Sports Association of India (MAI), there is a growing presence of Indian drivers on the Asian scene.

Veteran Hari Singh carved a special spot for India on the Asian circuit last year. The baton has now passed on to the gangling, bespectacled 26-year old, Velappan Rajendran Naren Kumar, whose back-to-back win in the Asian Zone Rally Championship last week, at Palembang (Indonesia) makes him a champion in hot pursuit of the title. The sequence had begun with a comfortable win at Coimbatore.

Sporting MRF colours again, Naren Kumar, with Ramkumar as the co- driver, proved that the previous win was no flash in the pan. Braving hostile weather and the slush in the YOI Gudang Garm Rally International held around South Sumatra, at Palembang, Naren beat off the challenge posed by seasoned men like Karamjit Singh of Malaysia and Hari Singh of India.

``It was a fantastic atmosphere,'' Naren declared and added how thrilled was he to see as many as 5000 spectators at the start. ``This is the first year of my international rallying, and the pressure was really high on us. Everything was new, the atmosphere, the terrain in particular,'' Naren confessed.

True to his stature as the National Rallying Champion from MRF, Naren handled the special stages with ease and aplomb to win the admiration of one and all. Not fully accustomed to his new 138 bph Honda Civic, Naren Kumar was ahead of the 14 vehicles - contending with the more powerful Mitsubishi EVO VI, which was part of the National rally (jointly held with the Asian Zone event), and the Malaysian made Proton Satria GTI, driven by Karamjit Singh. Even a broken front strut on the third of the day's six stages did not deter Naren from cruising his way through to the finish.

Inspired by legendary deeds of Ayrton Senna and Ari Vatanen, Naren's goal is to conquer the top spot in the Asia- Pacific Zone Championship and is looking forward to the next leg at Thailand. The third leg should have been held in Kuala Lumpur on May 21 but has been postponed. It may be held in October.

Naren said there were 40 cars, (14 for the international class competition) with competitors from Malaysia, China and host Indonesia. A majority of the Indonesians drove the locally manufactured Timors. Naren admitted that he enjoyed the competition immensely, and asserted that the quality of driving by the Indians was far superior to the rest.

This he attributed to the intense competitions that Indian drivers faced amongst themselves in the National rally championships. He said the international exposure revealed how fine-tuned was the standard of Indian drivers.

Talking about the competition, Naren explained how he and Ramkumar were handicapped by lack of training sessions in Indonesia despite arriving two days before the championship. Heavy rain put a spoke on their training schedule and moreover, his Civic was only a two-wheel drive while the majority in the competition boasted a four-wheel drive.

Even in the first rally at Coimbatore, Naren had only 30 minute test drive on the newly built Honda Civic, said to cost around Rs. 25-30 lakhs.

Naren explained that the route, about 400 kms, was treacherous in some places on account of rain and slush. He drove merely on 'guesswork' through the rubber estate spread over 1300 hectares. `` The owner of the estate is a rallyist himself and has created the infrastructure for the annual rally,'' Naren added.

There were three Indian teams in the competition - Naren Kumar (navigator-Ramkumar), Hari Singh (Mann) and Arjun Balu (K.R. Kumar) of MRF.

A graduate in Business Management from P.S.G. College of Technology in Coimbatore and a diploma holder in Metallurgy from Perth (Australia), Naren acknowledged the inspiration he received from the previous generation of drivers and constructors who have given Coimbatore the distinction of producing the best auto- racing stars of the country.

From the indomitable Karivardhan to R. Gopinath, from the brilliant Narain Karthikeyan to J. Anand, down to the team of rallyists headed by Leela Krishnan, who is currently assisting the MRF teams, Coimbatore is now the home of motor sport.

Initiated into rallying in 1992, Naren has so far figured in 56 rallys and rates last year's Mumbai edition year as his best. He was unflinching in acknowledging the role of his sponsors - MRF, and the new US based company, Valvoline.

Naren trains diligently on Esteems and Honda Citys in Coimbatore to keep himself in competitive trim. He hopes to achieve greater comprehension over his specially designed rally machine, Honda Civic before the next rally at Bangkok in July.

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