If the Manchester of the South is called the hub of motor sports in the country it is because of its mighty people and their rich contribution to the sport.
“They were very focussed and spent much of their valuable time, energy, money, facilities and knowledge base to put Coimbatore on the road to glory,” said veteran race driver D. Vidya Prakash.
“The other cities also had similar people and facilities but it is just that we put them all together. I must say that more than the passion for the sport, we showed patience,” he added.
Racing was at its best in the 50s and the 60s at the Sulur air strip.
“I remember drivers like Soundarajan (Dindigul), G.K. Sundaram in his Chevy 53, GVL, an uncle of mine, and Indu Chandhok to name a few, drive here before. The cars were run based on a handicap system,” said Mr. Prakash.
“It used to be quite exciting with the races being held at the long straight in Sulur with a T-shaped branch. We used to get a close look at the drivers and the cars used to fly past us. Big crowds used to come and watch these races, which were mostly one-day affairs,” he added.
He said the two-wheeler racers also attracted top riders and a decent crowd. “Krishnaswamy (Mettupalayam) in his Norton and Dhinnasena, a legendary rider from Sri Lanka, were some of the big names who took part in the two-wheeler segment.”
The other top racing drivers who brought joy to the crowd include L.G. Varadarajulu, A.R. Guruswamy, Ramamurthy, G.K. Rajagopal, R. Janarth, Bangalore's Freddy Webb, A.D. Jayaram, Haji and Hariharan.
“The races were run for only four laps of 2.5 miles per lap. There were no warm up or formation laps. Most cars did not have the roll cages, fire extinguishers and seat belts though I had all these,” he said.
Mr. Prakash pointed out that the last race held here was in 1967 (September). “It was stopped due to organisational difficulty, crowd control and want of venue. So, the focus shifted to Chennai.”
But that was not the end of the racing story for this city.
The late legendary Karivardhan conducted dirt track events quietly at the Palladam Lakshmi Card Clothing backyard.
“It was a closed circuit and lot of youngsters started participating in it. It was run in a closed circuit and there were some real close fights and huge thrills,” said Mr. Prakash.
Racing was not so hot in this part of the region after the 70s but rallying was at its glorious best.
“We had the TSD rallies (1500kms covering four States) and the Scissors Action Rally was another popular event that attracted big names. Into the nineties, we still had the competitive section rallies. The stages were on public roads and used to be held during nights as well. But, the last of the competitive section rallies was in 1996,” said J. Balamurugan of Spitfire Motorsports.
He said after that regulations changed and the special stages were held on controlled or regulated lands in the interests of competitor and public safety.
“Luckily, Coimbatore had huge portions of land in the windmill farms of Kethanur.”
“Those days the Super Special Stages were held at the Jail grounds. More than the competition there used to be real friendship and fun among the competitors,” said Sajeev M. Rajan of Spitfire.
“The intense rivalry in rallies came in only when the corporate backed teams came into the fray,” he added.
Even as the rally organisers and drivers made merry over the years, Kari, who gave his heart and soul for racing, came up with fresh ideas that suited modern day racing.
“He developed tuners and drivers, both racing and rallying, and brought in new technologies. I don't think any single individual would have done so much for motor sports. He developed kit cars such as the Lotus 7 and the AC Cobra and made replicas of them,” said Mr. Balamurugan.
“If rally driver Hari Singh (Asian Zone rally championship winner and five-time national champion) shot into prominence it is because of Kari. He tuned his car to glory,” said Mr. Sajeev.
“Kari's contribution by way of bringing the single-seater Maruti Formula cars is what kick-started car racing for youngsters. He made it affordable,” said Mr. Prakash.
True, Kari was instrumental in shaping the careers of many a driver. India's F-1 driver Narain Karthikeyan is one among them. Of course, G.R. Karthikeyan, a former national rally champion, played the role of a perfect father in realising his son's (Narain) dream.
Mr. Balamurugan said that racing did not throw up many opportunities as there was no real venue in Coimbatore. But in 2003, the city woke up to a new facility – the Kari Motor Speedway in Chettipalayam.
The brainchild of B. Vijayakumar, the internationally-approved racing track had former racing pro Akbar Ebrahim of Chennai on board. Mr. Vijayakumar's great desire was to make available a platform for more youngsters to get into motor sports. It is now used for testing, drivers' training and for the big championships.
He was not only instrumental in setting up the track but also developed formula cars with low costs, easily the most affordable in the world.
That certainly brought about great changes to the sport in the city.
“We still have many strengths. The city is the leader when it comes to tuning cars but what we need to improve upon is developing competitors. We, at Spitfire and LG Sports, have a big dream on this front,” said Mr. Balamurugan.
“Talent development is our biggest challenge and we need to quickly address that. We will be placing a lot of emphasis on drag racing, which is an ideal form of grassroots motorsport. We have already started conducting training programmes on various technical aspects of motorsports. We need to plan big so that youngsters bring further glory to the country through motor sports,” he concluded.