Truck racing goes to Bollywood!
It’s crazy, wild … and utterly magnificent. CHARLEEN CLARKE joins 45 000 people for the 2015 T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship.
Being blonde in India has distinct advantages. It means that you can go places – literally. I have just discovered this at the Buddh International Circuit outside Delhi. I have a seat in the hospitality section, overlooking the circuit, but I want to be close to the action. I want to walk the track!
Alas, the pits and the actual track are the holy of the holies. One needs special accreditation to gain access – which I don’t have. Never mind. I march up to the security guards, smile and walk straight through.
I am in!
All around me, all I can see is colour; not in the sky, which is decidedly grey, but elsewhere is a sea of colour. There are beautiful girls everywhere … mostly wearing decidedly blinged-up outfits. The crowd of 15 000, which is exceptionally noisy, is growing by the second. They are blowing on things that sound just like vuvuzelas.
I chat to one of the race officials and ask him about the instrument they’re blowing. “Oh those are vuvuzelas,” he confirms. “They arrived here for the Commonwealth Games four or five years ago. About
50 000 were imported from China. In India, we associate celebrations with noise. Festivals like Diwali are always very loud …” he reveals.
Judging by the noise at the track, the crowd is in a decidedly celebratory mood – which is bolstered by the arrival of various forms of entertainment. Two marching bands take to the track (some of the members perform some quite impressive twirls) followed by lots of Bollywood dancers (all blinged to the nines). Harley motorcycles blast past, their exhausts almost drowning the vuvuzelas (but not quite).
Then the trucks go onto the racetrack … and the crowd (which has grown to 45 000) roars its approval.
It’s patently clear that they love truck racing. It’s also obvious that they love Tata trucks. I say this because the entire track is filled with Tata Prima trucks, driven by exceptionally experienced British racing drivers. The spectators in the stands are all special guests of Tata.
Surprisingly, given the visual spectacle and the clear enthusiasm of the crowd, there is no entrance fee. One of the Tata employees explains that government tax would need to be applied to the ticket sales. “We are taxed to death in this country. It would be a nightmare trying to administer the sales and then paying the taxes … it’s easier just to hand out the tickets and avoid all these complications.”
There are 12 Tata Prima trucks on the track, representing six teams (Team Castrol Vecton, Team Cummins, Team Tata Technologies Motorsports, Team Allied Partners, Team Dealer Warriors and Team Dealer Daredevils). Stuart Oliver from Team Castrol Vecton won the first-ever T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship (held last year) and everyone is wondering if he can do it again.
Once the Tata trucks have done a parade lap (accompanied by a marching band of course), the track is once again opened up to other entertainers – some with wheels, some not.
Those with wheels include a float of Tata trucks, depicting the world of Tata (one of the trailers is adorned with the pyramids, for instance) and my personal favourite … a truck and trailer combo carrying a special group of drivers.
Tata has paid tribute to these drivers in some sort of ancient ceremony, which involves draping a shawl over their shoulders. I feel quite humbled to witness this; it’s clear that Tata values the truck driver (I wish that more companies could apply this principle).
An army of Bollywood dancers floods onto the track. They are accompanied by some massively famous Bollywood stars – Badshah and Benny Dayal as well as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. These stars are celebrities in India … think of them as Indian Robbie Williams (sans the tattoos). Manish Paul, the rather dishy Indian television host, anchor and Bollywood actor is the master of ceremonies and appears to be doing a great job.
After I watch the entertainment, I wander over to the pits. This area is obviously closed to someone without accreditation, but I blonde my way in – again.
I chat to some of the drivers, who are honestly the most approachable and nicest guys I have ever encountered in motorsport. Despite the fact that they are gearing up for the eight-lap qualifying event (which will determine starting positions for the grand finale) they are hugely chilled and chatty.
I bump into Paul Alan McCumisky, one of the drivers for Team Dealer Daredevils, and start introducing myself. “I know exactly who you are,” he remarks. “I saw you dancing on the stage at the Tata event last night.” I remark that I hope that he drives better than I dance (I almost got dropped on my head). He chuckles and concedes that, yes, he hopes so too.
As I wander off, I bump into Ben Horne, the other driver for the same team. We chat about how positions are determined for the final race (in Europe the trucks swap order so, after race one, the winner of race one starts at the back of race two). “Sadly that doesn’t happen here,” he says woefully. “Last year, I got hit. I was punted into the gravel in the first race.” He got hit? “Oh sure, this is serious racing. We are very competitive. Sadly, that meant that I had to start at the very back of the grid in the final race last year. I had absolutely no chance. I hope my luck will improve today.”
My next port of call in the pits is Team Castrol Vecton, and I come across Anurup Chatterjee, head product planning and strategy for Tata Motors, who also happens to be in charge of this team.
The eight-lap race is about to begin, but, like most other people at the circuit, he’s relaxed and friendly. Although he does point out that I’m not allowed to be in the pits. “But never mind, so long as you don’t get in the way … it’s fine,” he says with a smile. I promise not to step in front of a truck.
Chatterjee kindly takes the time to explain all the rules and intricacies of the race to me. “The trucks that we are racing today have an output of 370 hp (276 kW), which is ten percent more than the trucks in last year’s race. They achieve speeds of up to 130 km/h,” he explains.
The trucks are prepared by Tata Motors, meaning they’re identical in all respects. “Obviously the teams can tweak things, like the suspension, to optimise their own trucks, but the ECU is sealed, so they cannot actually fiddle with the motor,” he reveals.
The pit crew also work for Tata Motors. “This is a wonderful incentive for staff members. All these people work at our head office or in our factory and they are specially selected to be part of the team. It is a real honour,” Chatterjee explains.
While the pit crew members are all local, I mention that it’s possibly a bit disappointing that there are no Indian drivers in the series. Chatterjee grins broadly. “Have you seen our roads? Here in India we don’t learn how to drive fast. Having said that, we will be starting an academy and we will be teaching Indian drivers to handle these trucks. I am sure that you will see local drivers behind the wheel in years to come.”
We have to interrupt our conversation momentarily – the Super Qualifier (the eight-lap race) is about to begin and there appears to be a problem with Stuart Oliver’s Prima. No one panics, however. Oliver, himself, sits in the cab quite patiently and even gives me a thumbs-up. Eventually he blasts down the pits. I enquire what was wrong. “Nothing serious. The nozzle spraying water onto the brakes had to be replaced. It was no problem …” Chatterjee explains.
I watch the Super Qualifier with utter fascination … largely because of the enthusiasm of the crowd. They go quite ballistic when the trucks blast down the straight in front of the main grandstand – cheering, clapping and blowing on those blasted vuvuzelas.
Steve Thomas of Team Allied Partners is first across the finish line, followed by Oliver and his teammate, Oly Janes. Thomas is understandably chuffed. “It was really good to have finished first in qualifying today. It’s my second time racing here in India at the BIC. One of the main things we’ve learnt is that the T1 Prima race truck is very reliable. All the race trucks competing today are evenly matched, making for a very competitive final race. I am delighted to be here and hope to finish on the podium in the main race!” he enthuses.
I beat a hasty retreat from the pits and race upstairs to catch up with R T Wasan, head –international business, commercial vehicles, at Tata Motors. He is just as enthusiastic as the driver, noting that the day is a huge success (I cannot help but agree).
Wasan explains that T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship was conceived as a platform to showcase the Prima trucks. “The Prima is an international brand. We had to create hype around these vehicles. There is no one else who has done truck racing in this part of the world – so our series is truly unique,” he notes.
Given the fact that the Prima is a global truck, does this mean that the truck racing concept could be exported to other markets? “Certainly, but not immediately,” he tells FOCUS.
“We are learning too; we are evolving. Once we have reached a certain stage, we will certainly consider this.”
The truck racing is obviously also cementing Tata’s leading position within the local market. “We have 60 percent of the market; Ashok Leyland is number two with about 20 percent. We will never be complacent, however, as there are people who are eyeing our market share. As such, we will always try harder and harder to please our customers. Transporters all over the world are demanding – and rightly so. They are looking for a return. Their customers are demanding too,” he notes.
Tata aims to meet those demanding requirements by offering an ever-improving range of product. “In the past we were completely dependent on the local market and we made products for the local market. Now we are making products for the international market, and we happen to sell them in India too …” he explains.
The Prima is a typical example. So too is the Ultra, a medium commercial vehicle that South Africans will see at the Johannesburg International Motor Show later this year. “We have tested this vehicle very thoroughly; we believe it will be competitive.”
His words spring to mind as I watch the 16-lap race finale. This turns out to be ding-dong battle between Thomas and Oliver. It’s one of the most exciting races I have ever seen, because the lead changes often. Every time the lead changes, the crowd bays its approval. I ask one of the Tata employees which team or driver is most likely to win. “Oh, the crowd doesn’t care; they just want to see them overtaking,” he says with a smile.
And they’re in for a treat; there are lots of radical overtaking manoeuvres – to the point that I’m convinced that they’re going to take each other out. There’s considerable contact too – Oliver loses both his mirrors in the battle. Ultimately, he crosses the finish line just a couple of seconds before Thomas, with Steven Powell of Team Tata Technologies clinching the third spot.
The affable Oliver is mobbed after the race … it’s akin to a Formula One event … but he takes time to chat. “It was an amazing experience. One thing I want to say is a huge thank you to all the fans coming out all this way, all the flags, all the caps, everything. It made such a difference this weekend. I really, really, do appreciate it. Both Steve and Steven were phenomenal competitors. They did an amazing job today of keeping me on my toes; pushing me all the way up to the podium.”
He says the Prima was a great truck to drive. “The Tata Prima race trucks are fantastic. It’s been an amazing championship, with so much improvement to the truck. It just goes to show the capability of the vehicle and how the sport can be scaled up. With more power and speed, it’s a delight for every motorsport fanatic. I was clocking 142 km/h in the straights and 132 km/h in the curves with my Prima, which is even more than expected,” he says.
I ask him about the battle with Thomas. “Oh, it was great fun. The problem was I couldn’t see him most of the time. He took out both of my exterior mirrors, but never mind. Right at the end I thought ‘what the hell’ and took out one of his mirrors just for fun,” he responds with a huge (and, it must be said, rather naughty) grin.
So that was the 2015 championship. An utterly brilliant affair. What does 2016 hold? Well, we can reveal that Tata plans to up the output of the trucks to 746 kW (1 000 hp). Some sources claimed that the trucks will run at 300 km/h. That won’t work … the brakes and tyres will never survive, although 1 000 hp could be good enough to see the Primas scamper around the track at 160 km/h. And that’s good enough for me.
I’m booking my seat for the 2016 championship right now. The blonde will be back!
Memories of India
My trip to India has left me with some fabulous memories. You had to be there to appreciate them … but allow me to share a couple of memorable incidents and memories …
• Driving through Delhi, we noticed internet cables up in the air next to the road, wrapped around poles and also wrapped around tree trunks.
• There is only one rule of the road: there are no rules whatsoever. If there is an empty space in front of you (or to your side for that matter), enter it. Otherwise someone else will.
• Hooting is a way of life. It is not done in anger. You’re telling fellow road users that you’re coming through. Even if this is clearly impossible, because the road is blocked.
• We were driving on the highway one day. Someone commented on a nice building. The driver stopped immediately – in the middle of the highway – and asked if we would like to take a photograph. We all thought we were going to die.
• It took us four hours to travel 200 km. And that’s on an express highway.