The flamboyant JK Tyre rally team – A retrospective: Part 1
Before Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok with their F1 exploits, before Gaurav Gill in the APRC and WRC, before CS Santosh and Aravind KP in the Dakar, before all of them, there was Hari Singh. The Flying Sikh as publications had christened him, not that it took much in the way of the writer’s imagination since every picture of his JK Tyre Esteem was massively airborne.
He was the original superstar of Indian motorsport, to my generation at least. Of course, there were equally fast and talented drivers, Hari’s teammate Vicky Chandhok being one among the many who spring immediately to mind, but Hari Singh was the name that kept popping up in pages of the magazines I read as a kid. Pictures of the burly Sardar were always the most dramatic, whether behind the wheel of rally cars that looked like they were from the movie Mad Max: Fury Road or towering over his teammates and contemporaries.
“The Flying Sikh as publications had christened him, not that it took much in the way of the writer’s imagination since every picture of his JK Tyre Esteem was massively airborne”.
Work hard Party harder
His team was the most flamboyant. They partied as hard as they drove. ‘Win or lose, we booze’ was the unofficial motto. And they wore t-shirts that said rally drivers do it sideways. No wonder we all wanted to be Hari Singh, and drive a yellow car. Little did I know a few years later I’d be sitting shotgun with Hari on travel stories to the Rann, to the desert, to Ladakh, to Bhutan, setting a record through the North East and much more!
“Win or lose, we booze’ was the unofficial motto.”
We love our jobs
One of the joys of this job is you get to meet your heroes. And, no matter what anybody says, you should meet your heroes. The first time I met Hari was as a cub-journo at Overdrive. I had come up with the idea of 4×4 travelogues and the editor had roped in JK Tyre as a partner. And not only did we get JK off-road tyres, but we also got their star driver. It was the start of my reporting career, that coincided with the end of Hari’s motorsport career.
2001 was when the JK team got fed up of all the politics afflicting motorsport, the rally wins being adjudicated in the motorsport tribunal, and pulled out of rallying to only focus on racing. But let’s back the truck up to the early nineties and recount the early days of the JK Tyre rally team, through the memories of my hero Hari Singh, his co-driver G S ‘Bittoo’ Mann and JK’s rally team manager (and now head of JK Motorsport) Sanjay ‘Hardy’ Sharma.
“1990 was my first Himalayan rally where I finished sixth overall,” says Hari. And the result netted him his first sponsorship deal… 25 per cent off on a set of tyres. Those tyres were JK’s and thus began an association that continues, unbroken, to this very day. If medals were handed out for loyalty, Hari would have got the gold.
“Those tyres were JK’s and thus began an association that continues, unbroken, to this very day. If medals were handed out for loyalty, Hari would have got the gold.”
The beginning of an era, JK Rally team
Hari picks up the story. “The Himalayan didn’t happen in 1991, I am still waiting for the refund of my entry fee” and he laughs. “In March 1992 I was in America for my brother’s wedding and that’s when I got a call that JK that they were forming a rally team and would like me to join. I didn’t attend my brother’s wedding! and took the next flight back and Bittoo (Hari’s co-driver from the start to the end of his career) drove the Gypsy from Chandigarh to Delhi from where it was airlifted to Bangalore (airlifted!!!). I got to Bangalore, we picked up the Gypsy, drove to Kodaikanal, reached at 4 am for scrutiny, at 6 am, won our category and came third overall.”
“I didn’t attend my brother’s wedding! and took the next flight back and Bittoo drove the Gypsy from Chandigarh to Delhi from where it was airlifted to Bangalore (airlifted!!!).”
That was when JK team was born. Started by Vivek Singhania, and then Sanjay Sharma aka Hardy stepped in. “In 1993 JK Tyre took the decision of practicing rallying as the world does it,” says Hardy. “We set up our own team, our own workshop facilities, we tied up with a tuner, we bought our own cars and hired drivers. We were the first professional outfit to compensate the drivers, navigators and the crew for their services; no more a charity type thing.” Hari, Vicky Chandhok and Tirumal Roy were the first two drivers for the team. And obviously Hari won his first rally; it had to be a fairytale start. Well, no. “We came second, We kept getting lost in the night stages.”
Best of both worlds!
Hari’s pace, of course, was stunning and then he met Karivardhan. The man many consider to be the father of Indian motorsport. Kari offered to prep Hari’s Gypsy, “Kari asked me what needs to be done and I said, the roof is leaking.” And so Hari left the Gypsy with Kari and returned a month later for the K-1000. “We were sitting in Kari’s garage and we saw this new car, new roll cage, new cabin, new everything. And Kari said this is your car. In my head, I’m saying oh shit, and counting how much this is going to cost us. And then I saw Kari loading his Isuzu with fuel and spare parts. He’s going to give us service now I said to Bittoo. And we have to pay for that also.”
Bittoo adds, “The Gypsy was painted totally yellow, so we thought that the resale value is finished. Earlier we put white stickers and then put the other stickers over it so we could take everything off without damaging the paint. We had used the same vehicle for the Himalayan. And made the body in such a way that we could fit the back seat of a Maruti in the back for a co-driver. All that was gone”.
Kari, of course, was one of the finest tuners in the country. “At the rally, we had to go over this mud bank and when we landed we looked at each other. Earlier while landing we bounced 3-4 times. Now we landed and there was no movement, the suspension was so good. And he didn’t charge us for anything”. Kari saw Hari’s talent and took him under his wing, something Hari remains eternally grateful for. At home in Chandigarh, in the middle of all his trophies, Hari still has a framed photograph of Kari.
There’s a lot to know about India’s most hardcore rally team. Stay tuned for part two!