Eleven-year-old Ranvir Ranjit and his friends would spend all year counting down the days to February. On the first weekend of the month, they would troop down to Sholavaram. Packed into makeshift bamboo stands with up to anywhere between 40,000 to 70,000 other spectators, they would wait with bated breath for the highlight of their year.
The makeshift bamboo stands should have been a dead giveaway – Sholavaram wasn’t a cricket stadium.
It was a disused Second World War airstrip where every year over the first two weekends of February until the late 1980s, screaming engines, the smell of burning rubber, exotic machines, and the mad men who piloted them all came together in a heady carnival of speed that to this day remains the biggest celebration of Indian motorsport.
“I would say Sholavaram had a magic to it,” Ranjit told The Field, “It was something phenomenal.”
“You will not believe the people in the stands. Today [at] a good cricket stadium, on an average, you’ll get around 50,000 people. In those days imagine Indian motorsport attracting a group of 40,000 to 50,000 people. We used to wait for those two weekends the whole year,” he added.
To this day the races at Sholavaram, located about 25 kilometres north of Chennai, remain unsurpassed in scale.
Entries across all the various categories of motorcycles and cars together numbered over 800, estimates Vicky Chandhok who raced there in the 1970s and 80s. The state government would ply buses ferrying fans, who travelled from all over India, to and from the track. There was even a thriving black market for forged tickets.
A big part of the lure of Sholavaram were the cars and motorcycles that raced there. This was pre-liberalisation India. There was no television and certainly no Formula One or MotoGP beamed into people’s living rooms.
Sholavaram was where they got their racing fix and perhaps their only chance to see exotic cars in action, cars like Vijay Mallya’s Formula One Ensign or Chandhok’s Formula 2 Chevron B42 and a whole host of other thoroughbred racing machines.
“I remember back in the 70s when somebody said BMW your eyes would pop out,” recalls Anand Philar, a journalist who has covered domestic motorsport for about 30 years.
“So when the word spread that guys were bringing all imported cars including your Formula 3 and Formula 2 cars, you had some turbocharged vehicles, that’s one reason why you used to get such large numbers of people to the races.”
Philar, who lives in Bangalore, never went to Sholavaram. He was in college then and and his parents preferred he study rather than dabble in motorracing. But he recalls some of his friends riding to Sholavaram from Bangalore on their scooters, a journey that would take anywhere between eight to ten hours one way, often three of them on one scooter.
“You didn’t have any TV or any other such distractions, if you wanted to watch something you had to go there literally and watch it,” he said.
“But now over a period of time when everything opened up, you had access to information, you had access to pictures. Now, for instance I’m watching guys like Rossi and all these chaps. So I would rather be sitting at home and watching it than take the trouble of travelling 200 kilometres to watch a race,” Philar added.
Vintage cars, exotic drivers
Driving the rocket ships were a cast of characters who were just as varied and exotic as the cars they raced.
Apart from Mallya and Chandhok, there was the legendary S Karivardhan, who would later go on to build the Formula Maruti cars that turned hobby racing professional and gave young Indian drivers a base on which to build their racing careers.
Indy 500 regular Jim Crawford also raced at Sholavaram, as did Tiff Needell, who made a brief Formula One cameo and is better known for his role as presenter on television show Fifth Gear. Drivers and motorcycle racers from Sri Lanka also turned up.
“Then of course there was the great Maharaj Kumar of Gondal whose name was legendary with Indian sport,” Chandhok recalled.
“People used to come just to see him. In India, you know that royalty, people look at it through different eyes, and he would arrive with very exotic women and food and the most classic of clothes and sunglasses, the whole shebang. He would arrive with all the style and everything and then he imported the Surtees, the Formula 5000, incredible car!” he said.
It was hobby racing in the raw. The pits were little more than temporarily constructed, straw-roofed shelters. Holes in the ground served for toilets. But despite its amateur character, it was hard, competitive racing.
Drivers would tear down the bumpy concrete at speeds exceeding 300 kilometres per hour. They completed as many as 50 gruelling laps of the 3.5-kilometre long layout and friendly rivalries developed.
Chandhok spoke about one particular battle with Mallya. “In a 50-lap race we were leading by over three-quarters of a lap and on the 50th lap, the last lap, at the second left-hander, I remember spinning off due to a pure lack of concentration.
“He won and until today he never lets me forget it. He claims that he beat me. The reality of the situation is that he didn’t. I spun off and therefore he won,” he recounted.
Sholavaram may have been biggest event on the Indian motor-racing calendar but it was still hobby racing.
A product of time gone by
For the sport to progress, it needed a structured series that gave drivers a base on which to build professional careers. Formula Maruti gave it that structure with the likes of Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok honing their early skills in the series’ basic single-seater cars.
This “professionalisation” of the sport combined with the move in 1990 to the newly-built FIA Grade-2 Madras Motor Race Track was a step forward for Indian motor-racing. But it robbed the sport of the lure that drew tens of thousands of spectators to Sholavaram those two weekends every February.
“We definitely lost that mystique part, or the crowd-pulling part of the sport,” said Chandhok.
“But what we gained is proper motorsport now. Drivers can make careers, they’re going out, things like that. While people like me are hardcore historical guys, we also have to acknowledge the fact that the change was for the better ultimately. Yes, we lost live spectators. But we gained a lot in the sport,” he added.
There were now more races in a season. Some events, like the Formula 3 races of the early 90s which featured contemporary Reynards and Ralts flown in from Europe, still drew big crowds. But television had arrived and fans were able to watch better racing, live from their living rooms.
“Watching bikes racing at 300 kilometres per hour, you don’t attain such speeds on Indian tracks,” said Philar, “So there is a sense of let down.”
Indian motorsport today is more professional but, the romance of Sholavaram has been lost for good.
“No, it cannot,” he replied when asked if the magic of Sholavaram could ever be recreated.
“The only thing that might kind of work is if we literally have a revival day, just a nostalgic thing, picket fences and classic cars and racing cars. But you’ll never ever be able to create another Sholavaram atmosphere,” he said.
Sholavaram was a product of its time and that time is now past.