The story of off-road racing in India


When PV Sindhu won the badminton World Championship in August, the entire country cheered for her. She has been honoured with the Arjuna award, Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. She is in the Top 5 in India when it comes to earnings from brand endorsements.

Biker CS Santosh has completed the Dakar rally, which is considered the most gruelling off-road competitive event in motorsports in the world, three times. He too has sponsors, but his earnings are nowhere near that of the badminton ace.

Their journey in sports began around the same time. Around 16 years later, both are iconic figures for their fans. The difference is that Sindhu is now a national hero while Santosh began as a lone wolf and continues to be one.

That is the story of off-road racing in India, a sport that is fuelled entirely by passion and quest for glory. No national honour, or prize money to speak of. Despite this, enthusiasm is on the rise. Registrations at rallies have doubled over the last five years. Those who have emerged winners in Indian competitions multiple times are now itching to compete on the global stage where the ultimate challenge is the Dakar rally.

The story of off-road racing in India

Their appetite has been further whetted by the likes of Santosh (the first Indian to compete in and complete Dakar rally), Aravind KP (only Indian to complete Dakar rally in 2019) and Aishwarya Pissay (first Indian to win the FIM Bajas World Championship). Off-road bike activities are seen as an expensive hobby that is also looked down upon for the risks involved.

Injuries are common. Neeraj Samarth, 33, says, “I got hooked in 2009 when I was in college. I competed for the first time in 2010. I thought it would be easy. But a rally is very different from driving on smooth surfaces, like roads. I completed the race, but met with an accident towards the end and suffered a ligament tear. That was a big learning experience.”

According to former racers who have been involved with the sport for decades, enthusiasts get to know where they stand in the first few races. Then, it’s either a quest for glory or likes on social media. Many bikers post pictures on social media. The serious ones cater to their fans. The rest try to garner likes and impress girls.

Drive to succeed
  • Top gear: CS Santosh
  • Santosh has won almost every major trophy that is up for grabs in India and can be called the face of India at international bike races. In 2015, he participated in the Dakar rally for the first time. Since then, he has finished the rally thrice. Now, his aim is a Top 20 finish.
  • 4th gear: Aravind KP
  • This year, Aravind became the second Indian to complete the Dakar rally. It was his third attempt.
  • 3rd gear: Aishwarya Pissay
  • Is winning trophies in the national and international circuits. Has set her sights on the Dakar rally.
  • 2nd gear: The talent pool
  • This is where most talented racers are stuck. They compete in as many national events as possible, hoping to get sponsorship so that they can leave their day job to concentrate on racing full time.
  • 1st gear: Newbies
  • The newbies on the block are getting younger by the day. Their biggest advantage is the easy availability of good bikes, kit and accessories in India. With Santosh repeatedly raising the bar over the years, the newbies have to aim for nothing less than a podium finish at Dakar.

The boys practice mostly on weekends. There are two off-road tracks for practice around Bengaluru — Big Rock Motopark in Kolar and Tribal Adventure Cafe at Devanahalli. The other option is to ride in the countryside, either in the land around a farmhouse or some estate. ‘Tribal’ Sanjay, who began racing at the age of 33, says, “We have the talent to participate in the Dakar rally. But this is an expensive sport. The Dakar requires a lot of preparation and good equipment, for which you need sponsorship, which will come only if you can show trophies.”

There are several opportunities for racers to showcase their skills and win trophies. Shyam Kothari, a champion racer who has now moved on to organising the Indian National Rally Championship (INRC), says, “Besides the INRC series, you have the Dakshin Dare, Desert Storm and Raid de Himalaya. Youngsters start in local events. The talented ones attempt the national races.”

Everyone in the circuit is in awe of Santosh, who has almost single-handedly raised the profile of bikers in the country. He is the biker everyone wants to emulate. Earlier, youngsters would be satisfied competing in local events and being a hero in the neighbourhood. Nowadays, several are looking at local events merely as stepping stones to Dakar.

With more bikers in the race, the competition is getting tougher. It’s just a matter of time before Dakar succumbs to the skills and tenacity of Indian bikers.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 3:44:35 PM |

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