It would scarcely be inappropriate to term Chennai (or Madras), ‘the cradle of Indian motorsport'. From being a pastime of the elite, motor racing in India has made colossal strides: hosting a Formula One Grand Prix for the first time being the latest sign of the evolution.
Chennai, with its cluster of like-minded and fiercely passionate fans of the sport, has been the pace-setter for such progress. Credited for infusing the sport with professionalism, the city can also take pride in having unearthed some of the country's best drivers. Narain Karthikeyan, Karun Chandhok, Armaan Ebrahim, and Parthiva Sureshwaren have all served their apprenticeships here.
Vicky Chandhok, President of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), laughs heartily as he talks about “literally growing up in Sholavaram”.
“I remember watching my father (Indu Chandhok) race alongside G. K. Sundaram (father of late Karivardhan), G. K. Rajagopal, and Santaram.”
Motor racing was initially a hobby that was pursued on the streets. “The Rumedas service station on Mount Road owned by M. K. Belgamwala (he later became the longest serving president of the Madras Motor Sports Club) served as the starting point.
“From there, people like Genji Varugis, and G. M. Donner would race to the Harbour past The Hindu and The Mail offices. Soon, they decided to find a place to race. That's how Sholavaram came into the picture,” said Vicky Chandhok.
Birth of MMSC
Indu Chandhok, a doyen of Indian motor sports, now 80, has no trouble in turning the clock back to the 1950s. M. A. Chidambaram (MAC), the then President of the Automobile Association of South India, felt an organised body was necessary to promote motor sports. The MMSC was thus born in 1954 with Donner as its President. Varugis and K. V. Srinivasan were Secretary and Treasurer respectively.
During February every year, racing enthusiasts from across the country congregated at Sholavaram — an L-shaped circuit (which was later modified into a funnel-shaped speedway) — born out of an abandoned airfield. “All the four weekends in February were devoted to racing. After two weekends of races in Chennai, we would go to Coimbatore and Bangalore. There were fantastic bikers from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) such as Zacky Dean and Raja Sinathorai. There were separate races for women too,” said Indu Chandhok.
Even as the races enjoyed great popularity, corporate support played a significant role in ensuring that funds never dried up. “Companies like Castrol, Dunlop, Caltex, Goodyear, MRF, and JK Tyres provided tremendous support.”
The use of the Sholavaram track, however, had to be discontinued following differences between the Military Estate Officer and the Indian Air Force: they controlled the land and the airstrip respectively. “My only regret is that Sholavaram could have been developed. We only had short-term leases. We could have built a beautiful track here at one-fourth of the cost of the track at Irungattukottai.”
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu at the time, M. G. Ramachandran, agreed to grant 300 acres of land for the construction of a new circuit. “But we just wanted permission to buy agricultural land,” said Indu. “We built the Irungattukottai track on 200 acres. The remaining 100 acres were sold and the bank loan was repaid.”
On June 3, 1988, the foundation stone for the new track was laid and a new era was ushered in. S. Muthukrishnan, one of the leading lights of MMSC and presently honorary chairman, said the camaraderie among members is the reason for the club's longevity. “There is no place for ego. In fact, J. N. Patel, Anil Bhatia, Gopal Madhavan, Indu and C. Prabakhar were called the Pancha Pandavas of MMSC and I was supposed to be Lord Krishna to them.”