No act this!

Ajith Kumar is zipping past milestones pretty fast. SUDHISH KAMATH catches up with the actor-racer

ALL CHARACTERS and incidents in this story are completely true. Any resemblance to fiction is purely co-incidental and unintentional.

He finished sixth in the last race after making it to the fourth position during his recent qualifiers. Ranked seventh this season at the Formula Asia BMW Championships, actor Ajith Kumar has another six races to catch up with the top four.

For someone who is making his debut at the international level, he's zipping past milestones pretty fast.

For someone who is older than most of his competitors by over 10 years, he's giving them a race for their money.

For someone who has undergone over half a dozen surgeries on his leg and back, he has a spring in his step.

For someone who has had no corporate backing whatsoever, to be part of the world's most expensive sport, he's done well for himself, all by himself.

Struggle. That's what stories of glory are made of. Let's go back to where the story started.

The flag-off. "1983. My father worked in a pharmaceutical company called Biddle Sawyer. One of the directors there, Vimal Shah used to race in the Sholavaram circuit. The office was in Alwarpet and during the season, the compound would be packed with Vijay Mallya's team cars, drivers, mechanics. I must have been about 11. That was my first tryst with racing," recalls Ajith, who is currently racing against time to wrap up his Diwali release "Anjaneya".

When he turned 18, the first thing the high school drop-out got himself was a driver's licence. Ajith wasn't into cars then. He was into bikes. "Bike racing wasn't all that expensive. I had a Yamaha RX 100, modified. Used to race in the Group E Class at the Irungattukottai circuit near Sriperumbudur."

No act this!

Ajith had to take up a job to to support his career in racing. Joining as an apprentice, he rose to be a merchandiser with a garment export company, doing small-time press ads and TV commercials occasionally. "I had put a lot of money into racing. I would go about borrowing tyres from my friends. They used to help when the chains wore out. But then, I knew my responsibilities, there was no money in racing then. Today is a different story, we are going international with the sport getting more prominence," he recalls.

But what put the brakes on his ambition, at least temporarily, was an accident in 1993 during a testing round. "It wasn't major.

It was more because of lack of sponsors than just the accident. I had to make a choice between films and racing. As the movies were happening, I began concentrating on my profession. It was a wise decision for a boy who was just 21."

"I had to wait for 13 years before I finally got to do what I always wanted to," adds Ajith.

Accidents have been haunting the actor over the years, more because of his stunts than racing. "I never had a choice but to move on. I've got used to pain," he reasons. "It's one of the harsh realities of the sport. We drivers understand that it could be the last time we are sitting in a car. But if you start to think about it, the thought of injury or death might make you lose 1/10th of a second which could be the difference between victory and defeat." In fact, that's where Ajith believes he has an edge over the younger participants. "A lot of people believe that 15-16 is the right age to be into Formula racing. At that age, you may be quick but lack maturity. You don't have fear, but lack consistency. Age has nothing to do with racing. As long as you are physically fit and mentally alert, nothing can stop you."

It's not just the sheer speed that thrills him. "It's the whole process.

Waiting for the red to turn green. The tension. The waiting and then the rush of adrenaline to race ahead of every driver. It's a beautiful world inside the car. The speed might be 240 kmph, but for a driver it's still slow. You can feel what's happening. Till the car is on the tarmac, you don't realise the speed. It's that feeling that makes it worth it."

Ajith makes it a point to ask speed freaks to take to the track and not the road. "Even today, I tell my friends, wear a helmet. We have to take responsibility for our life but we don't have the right to take another life." The actor's biggest grievance, however, is the sponsors' step-motherly treatment towards the sport. "But in two years, that will all change. It will be a sport that will be on a par with cricket."

For now, he's funding himself with help from producer friend. "It's only fair that I first prove myself before I get sponsors." Time. Isn't that a huge factor? "Let me tell you a story that few people know about. Michael Schumacher recently equalled a record of winning the World Championships five times.

That record was held by an Argentinian called Juan Manuell Fangio in 1957. At a time when motorsport was more dangerous and a driver was killed every Grand Prix. He started when he was 38. He went on to race till he was 52. Even MGR consolidated his lead roles and position in his mid-forties. What he went on to do is for everyone to see."

Ajith comes up with his mission statement: "I will get to the highest level possible. The strategy is to get into the F3 Scholarship class next year. My budget is over � 2,50,000 but I have the ability. As of now, I don't see any sponsors. But they will come along."

The journey has just begun, after all. The race has just started. Way to go, Ajith!

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