The reverberation of F1 engines can no longer be heard and the dust has settled on the Buddh International Circuit. What most people believe is India’s first and biggest international motorsport event is done with now. But there was a time when there was an even bigger event, that has now faded in people’s memories. Let’s rewind, then, shall we?
The year is 1980. The place — the mighty Himalayas. A lone man waits on the craggy edge of a peak overlooking a strip of road that snakes its way between snow covered mountain tops. Then, breaking the silence of the mountains comes the shriek of a car that thunders past, leaving in its wake a slight shiver in the air. The man picks up his radio, and transmits a message to the next marshal post. For now, his work here is done.
It might sound like the beginning of a John Le Carre novel, but the goings-on in the Himalayas every October for the 10 years between 1980 and 1990 were anything but sinister. It was, in fact, a celebration of motorsport, motoring spirit and the love of adventure — it was the Himalayan Rally.
“It started when the chairman of the East African Safari Rally, a gentleman called Bharat Bharadwaj, came to visit India in 1976, and suggested we run an equivalent event here,” says Nazir Hoosein, chairman of the Himalayan Rally Association. Hoosein then began visiting and studying the Safari Rally from 1977 to 1980. In 1980, a team from India was sent to Kenya to be a part of the Safari Rally itself, and later that very year, the first ever Himalayan Rally was flagged off with an excellent grid and world class drivers.
To hope that the rally would run without a glitch, however, was a little optimistic. Despite full support from the government and army, there were protests. The opposition party was unimpressed by the fact that the rally would guzzle away what they believed would be a copious amount of the country’s petrol and held demonstrations. Though the organisers refuted the claim and stated that the fuel consumed in reality if the rally ran in its entirety was equivalent to a Boeing 707 flying from Mumbai to Delhi and half way back, only certain parts of the overall course (which extended all the way from the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai to the Himalayas) could be run. Eventually, Shekhar Mehta was crowned winner of the event. “The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was very gracious at the prize distribution, apologised on behalf of the nation and said it would be ‘Roses, roses, roses all the way the next year’. And I’m quoting,” says Hoosein.
So, the rally grew steadily, even applying for world championship status. But with the number of applications pouring in from across the world, it wasn’t easy for the FIA to accommodate every event, and so they created the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, with the Himalayan Rally as one of the founder events.
And with the status of an international event, came the men and machines that people the world over looked up to. There were drivers like Shekhar Mehta from Kenya driving an Opel, Jayant Shah, also from Kenya, would compete in a Nissan, Rajeev Khanna would compete in an Opel Manta, while D Hendricks drove a works Lancia Delta across those very stages in 1988, and international driver Joginder Singh made it to the Himalayan on more than one occasion.
The Himalayan Rally also launched several big names in Indian motorsport. Farad Bhathena was a lad of 18 when he took part in the 1982 edition for Team Mahindra. And he won his class too, arriving on the rallying scene in style. A few years later, in 1989, Hari Singh made his rally debut at this very event when he drove for Team Thunderbolt. He started the rally dead last, was 17th by the end of Day One, and finished the rally sixth, making him one driver to watch out for.
President of the Federation of Motor Sport Clubs of India (FMSCI), Vicky Chandhok talks of his first attempt at the Himalayan in an Ambassador. He suffered a broken gearbox in Manali, which didn’t deter him one bit. “I bought a taxi then and there and plonked a new gearbox into my car. Of course, the car broke down eventually, but I had it towed to Kullu with the help of two bulls!”
But what of the men who would ensure that the rally ran and ran well? Kamlesh Patel might never have competed in the Himalayan, but would spend a month in the mountains before the event, finding new roads and checking rally terrain, driving through the treacherous passes in Maruti Gypsys and even a Standard 2000. “We would stay in the smallest dak bungalows and little hamlets. But we met interesting people, drank interesting liquor, and ate interesting food. It was an adventure,” he says.
Shrikant Karani, who was on the organising committee from the very first edition says “You had to push really hard, there were times during the rally when we didn’t get any sleep for seven or eight days at a stretch, and there was also the task of keeping the volunteers’ enthusiasm levels high and helping them remain motivated in the cold.” Another vivid memory is of the time he was double-checking the route before the start of the rally. Floods had washed away a section of the route, and crossing over to the other side to see if the rest of the road was acceptable was vital. And so, when his car couldn’t make it across, the forest department loaned him an elephant to ford the floods and check the rally route!
“A question I’m always asked, is why the event came to an end,” says Nazir Hoosein, “and the reason is very simple — the event became too big.” The Himalayan Rally was on the front page of every Indian newspaper for the duration of the event, and people found it convenient to stage protests and demonstrations during the rally to ensure their cause was noticed. “We ran the event over a series of stoppages and that was it — the last event was in 1990,” Hoosein says.
But where there is enthusiasm, there is still hope. “We’re looking at the possibility of what is termed a historic event,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes, before finally ending our talk with “The Himalayan Rally Association is still legally alive.” There’s hope yet for motorsport fans, then.