Former FMSCI President and national champion, Vicky Chandhok walks us through the life of the legendary S. Karivardhan, a man who changed the face of Indian motorsport. Kari was widely regarded as the pioneer of Indian motorsport. He was instrumental in developing the motorsport scene in the country, with the introduction of Formula Maruti.
Kari remains an enigma, even today. His passion for cars, motorcycles and anything propelled by an engine is rarely seen in another individual. From the initial days of building a Yezdi Road King-engined single-seater, which was essentially a go-kart with suspension, the FISSME (the iconic Formula Maruti), to the McDowell 1000, the Datsun special or even the Formula 2000 cars, his dedication and attention to detail in the construction of racing machines inspired awe. And it was not just cars; he started a very innovative project of building microlight aircraft with Rotax engines to export to France and sell to adventure units, and the Indian army – back in the ’80s! The race track in Coimbatore that bears his name was actually the runway for his microlights.
Kari was born into the illustrious Lakshmi Mills family, where he took on the responsibility of managing director, but his heart was always in motorsport. G Kuppuswamy Naidu founded the mills in 1910 which were an integral part of the textile industry of Coimbatore. Naidu’s oldest son, G K Devarajulu, was Kari’s favourite uncle, G K Sundaram was Kari’s father while G K Rajagopal was Kari’s younger uncle and father of R Gopinath, a very familiar face in racing and rallying. It was a racing family, and it’s little known fact that even GKS used to race. There are pictures of him, long-haired, on motorcycles in Santa Barbara, where he did a part of his education. I was not surprised when his family pulled the plug on biking.
Kari started marking his mark in the late ’70s under the umbrella of P&B (Pathy and Brother) and Super Speeds (which was formed with B Viji), taking on the preparation of tin-top racing cars conforming to A1A (modified with Indian components) and A2 (imported components permitted) classes, which included the Padminis, Marutis (800 and Gypsy), Sipani Dolphins and Ambassadors. His no nonsense approach, focused totally on the task on hand, included grinding and modifying various engine components like cylinder heads with his own hands. I recall occasions when he handed me the flexi grinder, marking out portions that needed to be modified on the Esteem I was rallying. It was challenging but that was the commitment he expected from us.
Kari was among the first to import a racing engine dyno and when the unit from Super Flow arrived in Coimbatore, he was like a kid in a candy store. Over three days and nights it was set up in a shed at the back of his house. That was where the great tuners, including J Anand and N Leelakrishnan, cut their teeth. He was always ready to share his knowledge and teach willing learners. He had no time for timewasters and called a spade a spade.
He also had no time or inclination to deal with the Federation and stayed as far away from it as possible. I once convinced him to attend a meeting in Pune, where racing regulations were to be discussed, after which he swore never to attend a meeting ever again. On his proposal of single-make Formula Maruti singleseaters – where he personally guaranteed 28 cars! – he was shocked when the powers that be actually turned around and told him that he would be curbing development. Nevertheless he went ahead and got the cars on the grid. He set standards and it was for the rest to align themselves with the vision or he’d do it alone.
From racing cars he moved to building his own Datsun special in 1984, a spaceframe chassis with a Datsun engine. We raced against each other (my competition number was traditionally 5, Kari’s used to be 65): his Datsun against my Formula Ford in ’82 and later the Formula 2 in ’83 and then we both switched to the Formula Atlantic. Along with the likes of Jim Crawford, Tiff Needell, Vijay Mallya, Maharaj Kumar of Gondal, Ajit Thomas, Harish Samtani, Nageshwara Rao, Kamlesh Patel and a few others, we had some of the best racing talents in Madras, Delhi and Calcutta back in the day. We were fierce rivals on the track, always had the sport in focus and that cemented strong bonds.
To give you an example, at the Safdarjung Airport races in Delhi in 1985, Kari, Ajit and I were driving F-Atlantic cars and were shocked to see the broken surface of the main runway which was converted into a race track. There was loose gravel all over and the surface continued to break up after a few laps. We decided that it was totally unsafe to race since, to add to the gravel issues, the organisers decided to repaint the runway markings, which were exactly at the point when we had to start braking for the hairpins. It was like steering on ice. In the interest of the event though, we decided not to pull out completely but put on a demo race. I will never forget the stunned look on Kari’s face when the organisers turned around and said that if we guys didn’t know how to drive, it wasn’t their problem. We were expected to deal with this! Three F-Atlantics with slicks on gravel! But this led us to create a larger grid of affordable cars, which resulted in the creation of Formula Maruti in 1987.
“Kari designed the spaceframe and in record time built 28 single-seaters”
The idea took proper shape after the historic weekend of racing at Sholavaram in 1986 with Kari, B Viji and I tossing ideas over a few beers (the camaraderie was always great). We were amongst the privileged few able to race exotic cars. We discussed various donor engines and at one point of time it looked like a Fiat engine would be ideal but then came the problem of the gearbox. Maruti was launching the 800 and I waited a long time outside Chairman R C Bhargava’s office to strike a deal. My persistence paid off. RCB agreed to supply us 35 mechanical kits of engines and gear boxes for Rs. 35,000. The Maruti 800 itself was retailing around Rs. 55,000, so this was a princely sum but it was fantastic of Maruti to give these kits which effectively meant the loss of production of 35 cars (it was all imported back then). Kari went to town designing the spaceframe and in record time built 28 single-seaters which were launched in the ballroom of the Taj Hotel in Madras in 1987. We roped in various corporates to purchase cars so that talented drivers would get the opportunity to showcase their talent without the worry of finding sponsors. All 28 cars were sponsored by corporates, and all 28 cars were assembled in that ballroom. A motorsport function of that scale has never been held in India since.
The Formula Maruti project was perhaps his biggest contribution to Indian motorsport. Everybody, including Narain Karthikeyan, Akbar Ebrahim, Gopi, Karun, Kamlesh and Parasuram, cut their teeth on the Formula Maruti (even the editor of this magazine). Where they would all be without Kari? The Formula Marutis were reliable, fast and most importantly, affordable. They ran for nearly 20 years before the Formula LGBs arrived (incidentally from the same Super Speeds workshop in Coimbatore; his legacy lives on!).
“His work resulted in the first fuel-injected Gypsy in motorsport”
His ability to work magic with engines and cars resulted in the first ever fuel-injected Gypsy in motorsport (around 1994!). Powered by the Haltech injection system, his Gypsy was stunningly quick, when it debuted in the K-1000 rally. Kari anchored the JK Tyre motorsport program from 1993, a responsibility I took over after his demise in 1995 and held till 2010. He had set the standard and it was left to me to keep his vision flying high – and the team saw great success in both rallying and racing.
Kari also had an eye for talent. When Hari Singh drove from Chandigarh to Kodaikanal to take part in the South India Rally for the first time, Kari asked me to virtually rebuild Hari’s Gypsy overnight. And Hari won his class! After the event, he impounded Hari’s Gypsy and took over the preparation and promotion of Hari as a rally driver. Anand and Leela will also have many such tales of support, while behind the scenes Rajaram silently made things happen.
Kari’s sense of humour was different, to say the least. During one of the Coimbatore rallies, when Manoj and I were driving Gopi’s group 2 Gypsy, the cam belt snapped in the middle of bandit Veerappan’s territory. We were running parallel to a canal and it was close to midnight. The organisers’ sweep decided to skip this section and hence had no idea of us being stranded. Kari in his Volvo station-wagon was looking for us for a few hours and we could see the headlights on the opposite side of the canal. Next morning when we were rescued, we found beer bottles placed along the route with notes saying, “You know I tried to find you, if you find these bottles.” On another occasion, when we rolled off the Karamadai ghat, he rushed down in the opposite direction to ensure that we were safe. These were rare and special traits of his.
He also had started on a fantastic road car project to build replicas of the AC Cobra, Ford GT 40 and the Lotus 7. All the tooling, body moulds et al had been imported for the Lotus 7 replica with the Contessa’s 1.8-litre engine set to go into production. But fate intervened.
Going back to August 24, 1995 brings back the most painful memories. Kari and I were chatting till 1.30 or 2am, and were to meet after his morning board meeting. Little did I know it was to be our final conversation. The news of his air crash had filtered down to some people, and I got a few calls about it. It is hard to recall the tragedy, but I am doing this since Sirish wanted me to share whatever I could.
Kari and his good friend, the captain, were killed instantaneously when the trainer aircraft crashed close to the airport. I was numb. We chartered an 8-seater and with my wife and friends flew to Coimbatore. It was a solemn and tearful funeral procession from Kari’s home to the crematorium. Every bystander, every vehicle pulled off the road to make way.
Nineteen years later in 2014, I am at the Madras race track for the national championship races – a fitting place to pay tribute to Kari. A packed grid of Formula Marutis were on track for the first races at Sriperumbudur. For nearly two decades, Kari’s car packed the grids at the MMRT, grooming racers and tuners, and kept the sport alive during the tumultuous 2000s.
At the race, the premier class is the Formula 1600. I couldn’t help thinking: if Kari was around, would we have had to wait so long for the F1600? Would there be more Indians in Formula 1? Would we have built a F1 car in India?
Words by Vicky Chandhok