When you think of automotive racing, India isn’t exactly the first country that comes to mind. Despite its modest beginnings, automotive racing in India has been around for over a 100 years. That’s not a typo by the way. Motor cars were definitely not a common sight in the country. Maharajas, and the really wealthy ones at that, were the only people who owned cars. The scarcity of cars on Indian roads made people flock towards them whenever they did catch sight of one! Think of a bunch of people flocking towards a spaceship these days… that’s what it was like back then.
The first Indian road race was held in 1904 by the Motor Union of Western India. The race ran from Delhi to Mumbai, a distance of 1300 kilometers (about 810 miles). The purpose of holding such a race was three-fold. One was to convince the Indian public that cars were now suitable for their country, second was to attract tourists who would bring their cars and lastly to introduce the car manufacturers in Europe and else where to the country’s motoring needs. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the then Viceroy, gave his consent to the event. Only amateur drivers were allowed to participate, and each was to be accompanied by an observer to record the number of stops made en route. The car which made the least number of unauthorized halts was declared the winner. Doesn’t sound like a race now does it?
When automotive racing made its official start before World War II, there were no rules, no central governing body to administer the sport, no national competitions and prize money. Unfortunately the start of World War II prematurely put an end to racing by the country’s enthusiasts. But once the war was over, several unused air strips would be converted to racing tracks that would later become famous – Juhu, Sholavaram, Barakpur and Yellahanka. Also during this time, several clubs took birth, The Madras Motor Sports Club, the MG Car Club in Mumbai and the Bangalore Motor Sports Club. Even though the country did boast of auto clubs, no uniform rules or regulations governed them. In 1971, the Madras Motor Sports Club, the Bangalore Motor Sports Club, the Calcutta Motor Sports Club, the Coimbatore Auto Sports Club and the Indian Automotive Racing Club, became the founder members of the Federation of Motor Sports Club of India (FMSCI), India’s first national governing body for auto racing and rallying in the country. The FMSCI became affiliated to Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1979 and to the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) in 1986. Fifteen years after its inception, the FMSCI was recognized by the Government of India as the sole authority to control and conduct motor sport events in India.
South India has been considered the cradle of motor sport in the country. Sholavaram stood out as the Mecca of Indian motor sports though it no longer serves as the venue for professional events – Sriperambudur holds this distinction today. Madras and Bangalore were the forerunners of modern day rallying in India. Taking part in these rallies were both stock and modified cars. In the first Sholavaram to Mahabalipuram road rally, competitors were reminded that the rally was in the nature of a reliability test where speed was to be constant, would not average more than 30 mph and all road rules were to be followed. The competitors were also told to make their own arrangements for lunch. The punch line – if you could afford it, you were requested to contribute towards the rally’s expenses. The total prize money was Rs. 100 (about $2!).
In 1972, the 7000 kilometers (~ 4375 miles) All India Highway Motor Rally (based on the Monte Carlo Rally) was conducted. The rally was to be completed in a week’s time and formed part of the silver jubilee celebrations of India’s independence. It was sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and backed by all motor sport clubs in India. The rally attracted 120 entries and the competition started simultaneously from Madras, Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay. They were all Nagpur bound but nobody knew the route from Mumbai to Nagpur, except for three people. One could attribute the inadequacies to the teething troubles of a new event!
Since then, auto racing has really taken off in India with several high profile events being conducted on an annual basis like the Himalayan Rally and a race in the Formula One calendar at the Buddh International Circuit. India also boasts its own Formula One team in Sahara Force India. Indian drivers have are also racing in the most competitive auto racing series all over the world. With all the infrastructure and technological progress India has been making lately, and the introduction of several of the leading automobile manufacturers in the local market, the popularity of auto racing has no place else to go but up.