Hurtling is a good word. A strong word. An apt word to describe a Gypsy hurling itself down a rally stage with extreme violence and extraordinary decibels. That’s just what we’re doing, hurtling down the first stage on day four of a rally they call the ’Dare (as in “tumhe hain daring?” according to the North Indians). We are 43km through, just 2km from the finish. My pace notes show a 700 metre straight followed by an easy right. “Step on it”, I scream to Ryan. We’ve equipped ourselves with fancy helmets with even fancier noise-cancelling headphones, except there’s no amplifier to make any of it work. Ryan steps on it. We’re flat in fifth, as fast as our Gypsy can go. We might be nudging 80kmph, which is even more terrifying than 300kmph in a Lamborghini. And then the rear catches a bump.
Before the Parsi half of me can do something about it by abusing the ancestors of every single person who has ever walked through that forest, our Gypsy indulges itself in a spectacular bout of what is referred to as fishtailing. This is not something I recommend you experience, particularly not in a forest that is full of what forests are usually full of. Trees. I remember thinking that this isn’t going to end well but, mercifully, we are spared a test of the bending properties of hardwood trees. Like poor fish caught in a net, we flip. Once. The Gypsy is on its side, the window on Ryan’s side is shattered. I’m suspended mid-air hanging over Ryan looking at the road sideways, and his Parsi half kicks in, recommending a startling variety of ways in which to pleasure myself in the woods for enthusiastic pace-noting. Thank god for noise-cancelling headphones.
I take stock of the situation. Leaking fuel? Check. We’ve been leaking fuel since day three. Electrical cut-out in the off position? Check. Warning triangles and flash OK sign to the next competitor? Check. Competitors heeding our warning and slowing down past our stricken Gypsy? Oh yes, by 0.0000756kmph. Fearing far worse outcomes than the Parsi half of our editor recommending something inadvisable with the wheel spanner and a bucket of grease, we use all our might to push the Gypsy back on its wheels. Optimistically Ryan tries starting the Gypsy. I stand by with the fire extinguisher and inquire about the nominee on his insurance policy. But the Gypsy starts. No really, it bloody starts! I jump back in, a shard of glass says hello to my posterior, clench my teeth, strap up and scream “Go! Go! Go!”. It’s not the end after all!
See, it’s simple – you live your life the way you choose to. You could sit in an air-conditioned office making PowerPoint presentations, marvelling at the irony of the noose round your neck but no ceiling fan from which to hang yourself. Or you could be strapped in a rally car, on a rally stage, experiencing the true meaning of the word hurtling. Your choice: remain within your comfort zone and simply exist or go out there and actually live a little. You could swim with sharks, jump out of a plane, climb active volcanoes – whatever floats your boat – but since you’re reading this magazine I assume you’ll be more inclined towards hurtling down a rally stage at great speed. And if I can have your attention for the next 15 minutes I’m going to build a case for why you should build (or rent) a rally car, leave your nine-to-five life behind for a week and drive 2000km through some of the most beautiful parts of this country. As fast as you can. My colleague Ryan and I spent a week at the Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare, and here’s what we learned.
Slightly obvious, but let me tell you why. Driving flat-out on gravel, slush, mud and tarmac with no room for error forces your brain to work harder, react quicker and sharpen reflexes. In a way it’s self preservation. Make a mistake and it’s going to hurt and no part of your body wants that. So your brain goes into super-learning mode, like when you were a child playing with clay. Every mistake goes into the memory, never to be made again. Every deft move, no matter how inadvertently made, goes into the memory, to be deployed on reflex. You have to master left foot braking and so you master it. You have to heel-toe to get quicker times and so your brain wakes up to ensure you do it on time, every time.
From the co-driver’s seat, I could see Ryan getting better and better. From overworking the transmission on the first day, he had figured out how to rev-match and was nailing every downshift by the end of the rally. And on the loose stuff I could see him grow in confidence, deftly dialling in opposite lock, staying harder and longer on the gas. Plus, now when we see long straights, we have our eyes peeled for bumps.
Boy oh boy, does it make you punctual. If you’re one of those who stick to Indian Stretchable Time, you sure as hell need to come down to one of these rallies to understand the value of being on time. Penalties are handed out for tardiness — a minute for every minute you are late, two for every minute you are early. And when the difference between first and second place after over 2000km of rallying is a measly six minutes, you absolutely cannot afford to goof up.
When penalised, you’ve just got to accept it and get on with it. Sometime during the first stage of leg 3, we managed to puncture our fuel tank and were leaking fuel like no man’s business. We made it to the end of the stage and in to where our service crew was waiting. No spare fuel tank meant resorting to all sorts of jugaad to contain the leak. M-Seal, stuffing soggy soap into the leak, more M-Seal – all this while the clock was ticking. We finally made it to the stage 36 minutes late, accepted the penalties slapped on us, and proceeded to put our best foot forward. It is a five day rally after all — anything can happen, your competitors can run into more trouble than you, who knows.
There was a Swift running in the rally — they broke their axle in the same stage and started the next stage as late as us. But by the end of the rally, they were still running while most of the other 2WD cars had broken, so they managed to get on the podium. Rallying teaches you to soldier on and never give up!
Like Shahrukh. Not the Khan, but this chap called Shahrukh Mohammad who was riding the new Royal Enfield Himalayan in this year’s Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare. Let’s forget the fact that he’s doing rather well on a stock bike in his first season of rallying. When our transfer case jammed in neutral, he insisted on towing us to service. We laughed him off thinking he was joking but he was dead serious and he insisted we hand him a tow rope and let him pull us along! What a great guy! And it wasn’t just him — every time we were stuck or stranded, competitors came up to us to lend a helping hand even if it meant losing a few precious minutes or even running foul of the rule book.
That is the thing about rally drivers — they’re all here to compete, yes, but not at the cost of helping a fellow rallyist out. The Ed came back from a weekend at the track last month with more enemies than friends, and the exact opposite is true about rallying. Sandeep Sharma and Suresh Rana are in a league of their own, but always help out the newbies, giving them advice wherever possible. And the co-drivers are equally generous with their time and expertise. When a fellow co-driver found out I wasn’t using any navigation gadgetry he hooked me up with an app on my phone that worked just as well as a Garmin. No secrets here!
The thing is, these guys are deeply passionate about the sport. And they know people sacrifice a lot of time and money just to make it to the starting line. They don’t want people going back without enjoying themselves, and more so if you are a newcomer! They want people to compete, but at the same time have a good time and hopefully come back and participate the following year as well. Whether it is on the stage, or sharing the day’s stories over a beer in the evening, rally guys are by far the best people to hang out with.
The service crews are absolutely relentless. If you thought a rally driver’s routine was tough, you should see what these guys go through. They don’t sleep at night, that’s when they’re beating the cars back into shape for the next day. They don’t sleep during the day, that’s when they’re rushing from stage to stage to catch us competitors and affect any repairs required to keep us going. A couple of days into the rally they look haggard, ready to nod off at the slightest chance. But hand them a broken car and they’ll draw into their reserves of energy and work on it until the car is ready to roll again. Not one car would be able to complete the rally, forget about staying competitive, without the brilliant work ethic of the service crew. There’s so much to learn from them, not just about the mechanicals but about dedication and the willingness to keep working no matter how bleak the situation seems.
If you’re loaded with lady driver jokes, you desperately need to watch one of these rallies. These women don’t just drive, they drive. A total of 16 women participants in the Dakshin Dare this year, and some of them like the team of Anu Rana and Poonam Rana even made it on to the podium in their Gypsy. Then there was Harshita Gowda and her co-driver Haritha who participated in their Baleno — and she bested her father who was driving a Cedia! Bani Yadav put up some really competitive times even though her co-driver had just made the jump from TSD to stage rallying. And then there was Aishwarya, doing her first rally, on a bike. Every biker falls on a rally but you just have to pick yourself up, check for broken bones, and keep going. She fell ten times on the first day, eight times on the second day, and then couldn’t be bothered keeping track on the remaining days. But every time she got back up and carried on – and finished every single stage of the rally, something we couldn’t even do on four wheels! Talk about being an inspiration.
Trust me when I say your weekend road trip doesn’t show you a tenth of what you’d see on a cross-country rally. Where you’d stick to national and state highways to get to your destination, even the transport stages of the rally stay away from major roads. The road book takes you through obscure villages and desolate roads that Google Maps is yet to discover. No restaurants, no restrooms, none of the stuff a seasoned highway traveller is accustomed to – just stunning views and a surprisingly good coat of tarmac.
The special stages are equally special, not that we have much time to appreciate them. This year’s Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare started in Coorg where we had a whale of a time slipping and sliding through the incredibly slushy coffee plantations. After that we moved to wind farms around Hosadurga in Karnataka. Starting at the base of one of these hills, we’d drive the rocky, loose roads up to the top where we’d find long fast stretches, weaving in and out of the bases of the massive windmills. Then we’d take another rocky trail down and head to the next mountain — for 50km straight. These stages were particularly harsh, with not just the two-wheel drive cars facing issues, but some of the Gypsys giving up as well. Then finally once we were done with the stages around Hosadurga, we headed towards Goa.
Something that really surprised me though is the enthusiasm towards motorsport in these villages down south. This year, the Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare tried something new — they included two Super Special Stages in Hosadurga. These stages were little more than a kilometre long and the times clocked here wouldn’t do much to the overall classification. But what they did do was charge up the crowd and give them a spectacle to watch. The track was made of loose mud and that meant there was plenty of drama with mud and dust. The competitors did their best to put up a good show as well — sacrificing a couple of seconds here and there but pulling wheelies and sending an extra bit of dirt flying towards the crowd. And the people loved it! They were hooting, cheering, taking selfies with the cars and their race-suit clad drivers. An emcee ran them through the event, introducing the competitors and their cars. The town even had its own ‘motorsports club’ that had put up hoardings and banners welcoming us all over the place. It was wild! Sitting in your cushy first-world bubble wondering whether to order regular tea or green tea at the next meeting, you’d never imagine the passion and enthusiasm that people in these smaller towns have. It is something you have to get out and experience, and only rallying will show you that.
Let me break down the costs for you. At `35,000 (early bird, late entries `60,000) the entry fee for the Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare might seem steep but that takes care of your hotels and even food for a full week. Then there’s your car. We rented our Gyspy for `75,000 which, we were later informed, was on the steep side even though it included service. A leaking fuel tank meant our fuel bills rocketed to `18,000. And… erm… we flipped our car so we had to pay `25,000 for the damage. Split those costs between you and your co-driver and you’re not looking at anything more than what you’d have to shell out for a decent holiday, except this holiday has loud cars, sideways action, crazy people and enough of an adrenaline-high to last you till the end of the year. Still looking at hotels in Bangkok?
In the week you spend on a rally, you learn things that would otherwise take years. Break an axle. You’ve got to be quick to figure out where to source another one in the middle of nowhere. Run out of fuel? No point sitting with your hands on your head blaming the service crew for not repairing your tank. We were 5km from the end of a stage when we ran out. We assumed there would be some fuel to be had at the finish line, and so we jumped out of the car and started walking to the finish. As luck would have it we found a rally bike mangled beyond repair a kilometre up the road, took out two bottles of fuel, and lived to fight another stage.
The biggest obstacle we overcame this Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare were our own demons. Flipping a car for the first time is a mildly traumatising experience to say the least. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of glass, a little blood and the terrifying feeling of hanging by your seat belts. Our car was okay but we were properly shaken, ready to give up. “You are sportsmen”, screamed the Ed. “And sportsmen do not give up.”
In hindsight, despite the transmission giving up, the leaking tank, the windscreen shattering in our faces (yes, that too!), boy are we glad that we didn’t give up. It turned us boys, terrified of what our Parsi moms would have to say when they heard we’d flipped, to men, terrified of what our Parsi moms would say when they saw the gash on my forehead from the shattered windscreen.
Over that week we dug in to everything we had. It took some steely resolve and insane amount of reserves to strap ourselves back in to those racing seats every morning, pick up our time card and head to the stage knowing we couldn’t push to the limit as either fuel would run out or the car would break. We barely slept, staying awake while the mechanics sorted out our team’s lead cars and then, as the birds began to chirp, turned their attention to our car. So many times we said “f**k it” and were ready to give up, only to get energized by a pep talk from a fellow competitor chasing his own demons.
It is a different story that our car gave up on us between stages on the last day, the transfer case getting stuck in neutral (the service crew sorted it out in five minutes with a screw driver later on… aaaaargh!), but we pushed as far as we possibly could. And at the end of it, when we reached the finish in Goa, in the back of the service truck, there were no regrets, just an overwhelming sense of triumph. We came nowhere close to winning. But we didn’t back down, not once. We don’t have a trophy to show for our Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare adventure, but that doesn’t matter. We grew as individuals, and that’s more precious than a shiny piece of metal can ever be.
Words by Aatish Mishra