Sunday, May 22

Airtel One India Challenge

Putting aside our tight schedule for the rest of the week, we decided during a meal at a 24hr coffee shop in Chennai.

Our hunger was made to wait at the side at 2:30 in the night (nearly early morning) when we decided to try our hand at the qualifying session for the Airtel Rally the next day.With groggy eyes we reached the Madras Gymkhana Club the next morning to try out for ‘India’s Largest Car Rally’... the Airtel One India Challenge. The rules were very simple.... TSD... time-speed-distance.... “maintain it and you will win” they said.

25 odd kilometers and about 2 hours later they said we had done very well... with just 1 penalty point... wow!

We had never done so well, so we decided it was a ‘sign from above.’ Easier said than done... Casting aside thoughts of how we were going to take off a week from work, putting to the side decisions of who/how was Yoda (our dog and our only child) going to be taken care of and most importantly, thoughts of finance were asked to ‘wait for side’, as we made our decision to take part in the main event from Chennai to Delhi with 199 other cars from all over the country!

The toughest thing was to call close relatives who were to visit us the next week and tell them to reschedule their visit.

The rally kicked off with a great loooong briefing on sunday, 8th May, with a host of freebies from the sponsors including a mobile phone from Sony Ericsson, with a free sim card from Airtel and a big fat discount on tubeless tyres from Apollo. We had our own sponsor (exclusive to our team) - Aura alloy wheels from Hindalco.

Most of the questions by the teams at the briefing revolved around the GPS data oggers (from Bannari Infotech) that the cars were all going to be fitted with, those that would keep a tab on our every move... every minute and every second of the day.

A rather intimidating thought... but in a rally as competetive as this... and with rally standards geting higher and higher everyday this was the only way they could ‘find a winner’.

When we got flagged off the next day there were atleast 5 non-starters... either they decided the GPS-based-rally was ‘too much’ for them or they thought the free mobile phone was ‘paisa vasool’ and they skooted.

The first leg from Chennai to Vijaywada was pretty ‘easy’. Keeping to the awesome 4-lane tarmac highway - the just completed NH5 - made driving a pleasure.

Some sectors made me ‘sleepy’... keeping a constant speed of around 64.47kmph on this superb road was very ‘difficult’! It was the Red Bull that kept me awake on that day and helped us stay energised during the entire rally.

When we reached Vijaywada it was nice to see that all the cars that had started off had made it... without any major incident. A good night’s rest and wonderful idlis (with peanut chutney for breakfast) later, we were off on the next leg to Hyderabad. Having grown up in Hyderabad and having to constantly do the Chennai - Hyderabad drive at least twice a year, I was very confident.

We regularly drive to Hyderabad to visit my parents. We normally take the Renigunta-Kadapa-Kurnool route to get from Chennai to Hyderabad but I guess we will take the Vijaywada route from next time... the road is ‘just too good’.

As we neared the city I was all excited and yelling out to Prabha - “we are going through Uppal, my old school is right there, just off that junction.... we are near Usha aunty’s place... we just passed Sangeet cinema.... ”

But, Prabha was too busy calculating... for her it was just a series of right turns or left turns... or a ‘landmark’ to watch out for... there was no school, no Sangeet
cinema and definitely no thoughts of Usha aunty on this trip for her!

Her dedication to navigation was also the reason we reached the destination, Hotel Fortune Katriya, on time and in one piece... traffic in Hyderabad can be a nightmare sometimes.

There has not been a single trip to Hyderabad when we have not treated ourselves to ‘Hyderabadi Biryani’... a visit here seems incomplete without it, and we were not going to let the tight schedule of the rally change that. After a couple of hours of lazing in the room, meeting my parents, chatting with the other contestants and organisers, we were off to ‘Hyderabad House’ to grab a bite of the famous Nawabi delicacy... not to forget ‘mirchi ka salan’ and ‘qubani ka meetha’.

A software glitch on my laptop later that night saw us staying up late trying to figure out the calculations for the next day.

When they use the phrase “from the frying pan into the fire”... they must be refering to the drive from Hyderabad to Nagpur.

Starting from a cool 36 degrees celsius in the morning to the scorching 43 degrees by the time we reached Nagpur taught us to believe that proverbs and sayings were the result of a wise man’s ‘experience’.

Though not as good as the 4-lane tarmac we had gotten used to, the road was 'acceptably’ good.

When we reached Nagpur, teams from the other zones - north, west and east - had already checked in. The whole area had a big ‘party’ atmosphere. We met some of the folks who had been on the Raid de Himalaya in October 2004 with us... in 6 months we had all travelled from a freezing 26 degrees below zero at Pang Transit Camp near the Tanglang La (the world’s second highest mountain pass) to a scorching 43 degrees above zero... what a range!!!

With nothing much to do in the heat we decide to pack-up early so we could get a headstart the next day... by now we had mastered the calculations so Prabha was busy the entire evening making precise calculations for the next day based on the flag off time.

Our car was numbered 446 - the 46th car in the 4th (south) zone - this meant that on the Nagpur-Bhopal sector we would be the flagged off almost 2 hours after the first car... so we were getting ready to cook in the hot Nagpur sun till 11am... atleast, that is what we thought!

At about 10:45, just as we were lined up and getting ready to get flagged off, we were told there had been an ‘incident’ on the road (a few kilometres from the venue) and all future flag-offs were suspended till further notice.

This was a last minute thing from the very start... it came down to the ‘last second’ during the entire rally...
The ‘incident’ turned out to be quite serious, a rally vehicle had been involved in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident... apparently he hit a cyclist and skooted fearing the gathering crowds... but the crowds got hold of the next few vehicles and blocked all rally vehicles that passed that way.

The police had to interfere to maintain law and order... till the guilty driver was caught by the organisers and handed over to the authorities. Aparently the ‘victim’ had only a few injuries.... but, as far as the mob was concerned - he was dead... we were all ‘maniac car drivers’... all rally drivers!

This meant we were all cooking in our cars (read ovens) till almost 4pm. I must have doused myself with a full ‘dabba’ of prickly heat powder... and I was still cooking in the car despite the aircon running ‘full blast’. The only guy enjoying all this was the ‘narial pani vala’ (tender coconut vendor) who was doing brisk business.... with over 300 people there he must have sold atleast a 1000 nuts... I was watching as he called for reinforcements and his brother landed up half an hour later with an entire truckload... only to be sold out before the end of the hour!

I’m sure that on the way home that night he went to the temple and prayed that there should be more rallies in Nagpur.

Eventually we were escorted in a convoy to the outskirts of Nagpur and flagged off from there. This new ‘starting point’ meant that we had to recaliberate our odometers and all calculations done the previous night was all a waste... poor Prabha.

This also meant that we would be having a ‘night’ stage... when we were warned about
this at the drivers briefing in Chennai, we did not talke it seriously.... “we are never going

to have to drive in the night, with just 500 kms to do in a day” we had thought... and how wrong we were!

Map reading lamps, torches, ‘Hella’ lamps all were going to be finally put to good use.

The next thing to worry about was that we would hit ‘truckers’ - the ‘kings of the road’!

In the day the Indian lorries are so slow and quiet on the roads.. but come nights and they love it... literally. They really prove their superiority, oh, so often, that a nudge from them was all that even a fully loaded SUV needed to ‘finish’ the
rally then and there! Also with the weather the way it was... I could well understand why these lorry drivers loved the night... only a fool, or a very enthusiastic rallyist would drive in the hot sun.

If there is one state in the Indian union where there are no roads... it is Madhya Pradesh. Not that they ‘forgot’ to lay them... just that the last time they laid the roads, I probably was not born! And they forgot to repair them after that.

Six months ago when we drove from Chennai to Shimla (to get flagged off for the Raid de Himalaya) we had driven through almost the same route... and we found that no matter where you enter MP from... there are no roads. In fact, Prabha could, without
seeing the map, guess whenever we enter MP, just by this!

The approach to Bhopal was the biggest surprise of the entire rally. We had all expected Bhopal to be a ‘village’ after our experience with the roads in MP.
But, to our pleasant surprise, it turned out to be a very beautiful city... atleast the parts of the city we saw. Wide roads, avenue trees, jogging tracks, ‘lake view’ hotels... an ‘upper’ lake and a ‘lower’ lake.

We reached our hotel by midnight and after the customary... “how did you do today?”.... “how much odo error did you get?”.... “I saw the Lancer guys had a flat... in a competetive stage... poor chaps”... “did you see that WB team... they were having lunch at a dhaba during a ‘timed’ section... crazy guys” .... we crashed out, too tired to even think of the calculations for the next day.

The next morning called for an early start, to take the longest leg of the entire rally; Bhopal - Jaipur... almost 600kms. So with our ‘mandatory’ sleep behind us, we were in the line-up ... this time I was also working on the calculations... to save time... not an easy job.

All the math, all the formulae, all the calculations could not help me get
the job done on time...

I was glad I had the easy job of just driving the car... all I had to do was follow Prabha’s instructions... and be at the right place (down to the last few meters) at the right time (down to the last second).

I’ve heard so many things like “women can’t read maps”... and that they are always “back seat driving”... I’m glad they are both not true of Prabha... She can read maps and navigate very well... our 200,000 kms of travel all over India stands testimony for that.

Reaching Jaipur was a relief, it meant the next day would be a short hop to Delhi and the end of this rally... it was getting very tiring... in fact the next morning there were a couple of drop-outs... “my navigator can’t take it anymore”, one of them said.

Tempers were also rising, the organisers were not able to announce the results everyday - too much data from the GPS, and then calculation, evaluation, verification and finally certification... was taking too long.

It is said that only during trying times, birds of a feather flock together. How very true!

At the beginning of the rally, we were almost ‘ignored’ by the ‘all male’ teams who thought we were here to ‘just have fun like a married couple on a vacation’. By the time we reached Nagpur and then towards the end of the rally now.... with language being a barrier for a number of these teams from down south and with Prabha and I being able to communicate with the locals and holding on strong till now... we were being taken seriously. ‘Gangs’ were being formed... everyone in the south zone was a part of the “Madrasi” gang ... they were eating together, hanging out together, helping each other with the vehicle repairs, maintenance.

Interestingly, in the first leg from Chennai to Nagpur, we had ‘Andhra gang’, ‘Tamil gang’, ‘Mallu gang’, and ‘Kannad gang’. Then when things hotted up at Delhi, the entire ‘south’ got together... I have no doubt that if this was an international
event, all us Indians would have ‘ganged-up’ together! Unity in diversity can actually be experienced indeed!

Also, people had mastered the art of eating ‘on-the-move’ or with ‘one hand’. We were given lunch packets (sometimes breakfast also) when we left the hotel each morning and we had to ‘manage’ to eat it. Sometimes we got sandwiches, fruits and frooty... but some other hotels decide to pack us naan with paneer butter masala (india’s ‘world famous’ national dish) with pulao... imagine eating that at 67.81kmph with one hand.

Thank God (and the organisers) for “free zones”... where there were not much calculations to be done and we had time to eat our meals. The rally was so well planned that we invariably got a ‘free zone’ near lunch time.

Every morning we were given a crate of Aquafina, ‘packaged drinking water’ (read
mineral water). While Prabha and I were content with drinking it at room temprature (or car temprature if you please), there were teams that had great ideas... they stopped at the first dhaba in a ‘free zone’ and exchanged their ‘hot Aquafina’ for a ‘cold Aquafina’.

The dhaba guys soon caught onto this and started charging them ‘two rupees, cooling
charge’ for every bottle... smart guys... the ones in the car as well as the ones in the dhaba!

Among the people burning midnight oil were the Apollo tyres staff who inspected the tyres of all the cars (even if we were not running on their tyres) and stuck a ‘status report’ on the windshield. One less thing to worry about when we got the the car the next morning.

Encounters with rural India were a part of the itenary everyday... herds of cows and goats crossing the highway (cloning must be a regular thing for the remote villagers in India who herd about 100 animals - all looking exactly the same), monster buses with milk cans, macho riders on their donkeys and silver Scorpios sharing a national highway... a sight to see.

The last leg, Jaipur-Delhi, was the easiest, the speeds were higher, the road was great, expressway-like conditions.

Higher speeds also meant, more dedicated driving, and caution.

To ‘help’ me stay alert, I had a large black Tata Safari (SUV) on my tail... competetion number 147 who was flagged off 30 seconds behind me decided he was ‘stuck on me’... he was driving 6 inches behind my rear bumper!

It was quite intimidating... seeing him in all my 3 rear view mirrors. At one manual time-control, the navigator of 147 came up to me and said he was glad that he was ‘following me’... “you drive very well, bhayya”... poor fellow did not understand he had to be 30 seconds behind me.. not 6 inches behind!

As we reached our last ‘free zone’ we decided to take a lunch break. Just as we were opening our lunch packets the black giant (No. 147) came up to me and offered me cold water as a gesture of gratitude... “we have a fridge in the back” he said.... cool eh? almost like they came on this rally to enjoy a picnic... way to go guys!

As we neared Delhi things really heated up. People were getting very anxious about the results which were due later that day and with a price money of about rupees1 crore... everyone wanted a piece of the cake.

There is a story in Indian mythology of a certain Shravan Kumar who used to carry his aged parents on his back and walk everywhere. His life was an example of obedience and respect to the elderly. Once, on one of their many travels, they reached Indraprastha (modern Delhi) and he immediately asked his parents to “get off his back” and walk the rest of the way... his old mother assured his elderly father that after they had crossed Indraprastha, things would become normal.... truly, he put them on his back again eventually. That is what Indraprastha can do to you. It has a history of turning the most ‘sadhu’ people into ‘shaitans’.

We saw this effect on some of the participants on the last day as we entered the National stadium near India Gate in Delhi. They protested about the delay in the results. Even as the organisers were trying to explain the reason for the delay, there was ‘trade unionist’ slogan shouting and ‘name calling’. Someone even suggested we ‘share’ the entire 1 crore... they even did the math and came out with a figure... “each finishing team gets 56 thousand bucks... give it to us now” they shouted.

Some others decide they wanted a shot at the limelight and they gave interviews to the press, tv and other media. One guy even boasted to me, “I will be on Aaj tak, India Tv and NDTV tonight, I have ripped apart the organisers”... the poor guy did not realise that the channels would only show the official ‘word’ and analyse the truth in my poor friend’s claims before they would telecast it.

The official line is that the results will be declared only on 24th May as the data from the GPS systems was still being analysed, validated and verified... We decided to give the organisers a chance to get the job done right and left them to handle the ‘rowdy’ crowd.

Despite the delays and the slags, this has by far been the ‘best’ organisational effort motorsport has ever seen in India...Organising India’s longest rally, not withstanding handling 200 teams (almost 600 people) with all their differences, the sponsors, the media and the public! Cheers to all to people who made this happen... keep it going guys... we will see you next year!

We packed a few cans of beer, moved on to Centaur Hotel and hung out with the other teams till late that night. The usual “keep in touch... here is my card”.... “call me when you are in town next time”... and “we will meet next year” were exchanged.

When we first left Chennai, some of the teams walked up to us and said we were ‘very brave’ to drive a rally on alloy wheels... when I tried to educate them on the advantages of alloy wheels they just would not listen. After 6 days on the road, with hardly a few stolen moments of rest, I must say that our car, wheels and tyres all
stood, rather, drove, by us.

The next morning we were back on the road... we had to get back to Chennai in time to celebrate our dog’s birthday... on the 19th may, so we were weaving our way through the traffic... this time via Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Bangalore...

... and the one thing that flashes in front of my eyes, even as I write this, every moment of the day, something I will never forget, is a sign I have been looking at for the last 11 days - Wait for side.


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