When Gaurav Gill was finally nominated for the Arjuna Award this year, it was a path-breaking moment for Indian motorsport.
The 37-year-old three-time Asia Pacific Rally Champion is the first Indian racer to get the prestigious award reserved for the country’s best sportspersons. The recommendation is not just a personal achievement but a national recognition for a sport still obscure in India. It was only in 2015 that the Sports Ministry recognised motor racing as a sport and including the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India in the list of national sports federations.
It is not a secret that he has been vying for this award for the last three years and now that it has finally come through, he hopes that it will herald the winds of change for the niche sport.
“I waited for it a few years but am very elated that it has come, this will be a big boost for motorsport,” Gill, six-time National Rally champion, said.
One of his hopes is to boost the sport by building the ecosystem for both competitors and their backers. Contrary to a long-held belief that India is not cut out for motorsport, the country actually has geographic and historic advantages when it comes to rally racing.
“Rallying has always been the flag bearer for Indian motorsport. Rally racing as always been in for more foremost discipline motorsport in India, it started way back in the 1950s and 60s and became one of the biggest sports in the 80s with the Himalayan race. Even if you go back a few decades the Himalayan rally used to be actually one of the biggest sporting events in the country. The Prime Minister, and the President used to come and flag off and give away prizes, it used to be that big... it has a lot of history,” Gill told Scroll.in.
Another benefit Indian racers have is the variety of terrain that makes rally racing more accessible than track, which requires specialised venues for practice. The variety makes it viable at the grassroots level as well.
“Our country is perfect in terms of how it is spread out in different regions, climatic conditions and terrains – from the sand dunes in Rajasthan to the salt lands in Gujarat. Coimbatore has pretty much been the hub of rallying the country, Himachal and the Ghats of Nashik and Pune are also great destinations. The sport is extremely popular in Karnataka and Kerala as well.”
However despite being more accessible, rallying – like any other motorsport discipline – is not popular among the masses. One reason is the perceived cost, an issue Gill hopes to rectify soon by asking the government to remove the taxation on equipment. He compares it to sports like golf and shooting that were once considered a rich person’s sport
“You can’t compare it to badminton or cricket because it is very, very expensive. Whichever sport requires a lot of funding is obviously going to be niche and unique. So we are in that same zone where a golfer or a shooter is,” he explained.
“[The cost] pushes the sport away from the masses, because people can’t afford to do all this. But when you have some sort of subsidiary then it helps. A country like Kenya, for example, has zero import duties. So Kenya has World Championship cars in their grid and India doesn’t and this is something very strange,” Gill added.
The Arjuna Awardee said he planned to talk to the Sports Minister and ask him to speak to the Finance Ministry to waive off the taxes. He gave the example of shooting, India’s most successful individual Olympic sport, to explain the importance of this move.
“What happened is that like shooting we have huge import taxes on our equipment. And as sportspeople, we should not be paying these taxes. It’s not fair because we are not using it for commercial purposes or to resale, it’s only purely for sport. It’s like shooting, why is it so popular now because they waived all the taxes and duties on the guns imported by the professionals. That is where you’re able to afford it now,” he explained.
The equipment needed for rally racing normally costs lakhs.
“We rally on different surfaces, the sport can be run on snow, ice, normal tarmac roads and gravel roads. Whatever you see, nature has to offer we rally on that. So what we do is basically we just change the tires, tires have been usually like I look at as providers with specific tires for those conditions. And, and suspension changes. The car remains the same as part of the equipment changes.
“I want to really push this matter and try and in order to the system, so that we can, you know, boost our level and our equipment,” said the 37-year-old.
But it is not just the equipment that makes rallying as difficult, it’s the very nature of the sport.
“Honestly, I think that track racing is far easier than rallying,” he said with a laugh. “In rallying, you have work on your car, do a reconnaissance of the geographical location, which you don’t know beforehand. It is an off-road surface, speed can be up to 200 kilometers an hour on mountain roads. It’s not like a weekend sport, it takes your entire week to prepare, to understand the terrain and survey the routes. It’s a big task,” he described.
On the bright side, Gill says the sport is slowly gaining popularity also because India is becoming the third-largest auto manufacturer in the world, which is directly linked.
“In terms of money being spent, rallying in India has definitely the most amount. There are about 60 to 65 teams participating in every rally. Everybody is spending about three to four lakhs per weekend. So you can calculate that most amount of money there’s no way that much money is being spent on the race. The prize money is also the highest in Indian motorsport.”
However, even at this level, the finances are still not enough making it a big goal for him.
“We need a pool where sponsors can come in and choose and pick up their discipline of sport, whether they want to have bikers or cars, that will help the sport grow in a very quickly.”
So the primary goal was to get it all recognised by the government and the Federation, with other important members of the community have achieved that. So that has helped us be where we are today, even with the Arjuna Award.
Now that I’ve been granted the award, I think that will be a massive boost for anyone to pursue this sport as a career.”