Mr. Sanjay, thank you so much for your time. I wanted to interview you because I, being a long distance rider, am taking part in the JK Championship for the second time and you take care of the Motorsports division. So, here’s my first question.
JK Tyre was initially associated majorly with passenger car tyres and such. What made you people think up the championship and was there any other motorsports event before the championship?
Firstly, the credit for most of the motorsport activities be it carting or rallying, it goes to MRF because the initiative was theirs. But besides that, JK Tyre is the one who has kind of invested and created all the properties. Starting from rallying. We graduated to racing and brought karting into India and then the off-roading. We were the initial sponsors endurance events too, be it Raid de Himalaya or Desert Storm.
Is the scenario still the same in regards to your presence?
Yes, but not like the earlier days. Initially we were partners of the greatest game in Mahindra and all those marketing initiatives. We were the ones who started Baja and then the vehicle making initiative for students and such. Our vision is motorsports and we do not relate it to our business as such. It’s not like I have to sell tyres so this is the only platform I have. The promoters here had a vision and that is why we were the principal sponsors of Himalayan rally which happened way back.
When did the first thing that you did in Motorsports happen?
I’d say it was way back in 1985. As I said, we were the sponsors of the Himalayan rally which still is ‘the’ iconic event that India has. In 90s, I was also one of the participants and JK Tyre was my sponsor. That was the beginning of my association with the brand. 1993 is when we actually thought that this country needs someone. Ideally it should have been the manufacturers who should have taken the lead but at that time it was quite a monopolistic situation and Maruti was the only manufacturer which was worth kind of talking to because the Mazdas and Fiats were on their way out and new generation cars were yet to come and the situation that Maruti was in, I don’t blame them but they need not have taken those extra steps to invest in motorsports. Because everyone who will practice motor sports will necessarily use their product so they were in that governing situation so that was one of the reasons that they did not venture. Eventually they did but not at that time. So it was left for ancillary manufacturers and we were the ones who took the lead and MRF also joined the fray but their mission was slightly different than ours. We concentrated more on grass root level activities as well as putting the basics in place, including infrastructure in India. They had a slightly global vision because at the same time when they were practicing rallying in India, they were also ambitious to go out for Asia pacific rally championship they were also venturing out with their products internationally. The point is we both came into it and we both started it.
Weren’t you competitors?
In motorsports, yes, because we started out as participants. The same goes when it comes to tyres. On the ground we were competitors because initial participation started as participants. We had a JK Tyre rally team which used to participate in events of that time. This is how we started. But as I said that, we decided that somebody will have to work towards infrastructure as well because if there is no programme in place, if there is no infrastructure in place, what good is this participation today?
Infrastructure as in Racing Tracks?
I was coming to that. This is when we kind of deviated and we divided our funds because you only have a set budget available. We had a situation that 25% of our advertising budget was allocated for motorsports. It changes year on year. Out of the 25%, 50% was used to invest in the infrastructure and the balance 50% was used to practice motorsports. We couldn’t have become the sponsors of the rally because we were participants and you cannot have a JK Tyre rally championship being won by a JK Tyre rally team so we kind of stayed away from that situation.
But come 1997 is when we also wanted to revisit whether all that we are doing is in the right direction or not and we kind of discovered that India is still not ready for motorsport. So, we need to first need to get into a situation where we teach people or where we educate them how to follow or why to follow. Or why it is beneficial. And racing is a very simple property although it had its own technicalities attached to it but for a layman to watch it’s very simple, a guy who reaches the chequered flag is the winner. Whereas in rallying you start from an X point and you have a nigh horse somewhere else. You have stages which you can’t actually reach because they are in the middle of a jungle. So without criticizing, these are a few of the issues that it never becomes either media friendly neither it becomes viewer friendly. So these are the basic problems in rallying per se. Not Indian rallying, not Asian rallying but rallying in general.
Racing kind of is much friendlier because it’s a stadium sport and everything happens in front of you. It catches your fancy and you start following people even if you can’t make out if it is Hardeep driving or Mandeep, but you can make out the red helmet from the yellow helmet. And then you can relate with the scoreboard and check and it is telecasted as a live also that’s why I said it’s far easy. That’s when we switched and in 1997 we started this racing programme.
So since then we are running this national racing championship. ‘98 was the actual first rally championship programme because first year you have to run it as a contender because you have to prove to the authorities that you have the capabilities to be a good organizer who runs safe events. That’s all what they look for. At the same time we realized okay we have got 20 cars on the grid we have certain amount of bikes on the grid. But we only had two tracks at that time Kari and MMSC and that is where we started. So, this doesn’t serve the purpose of reaching out to the corners of the country. And that’s why in 1997 we brought Karting to India. We started putting karting tracks and this was part of the infrastructure investment. In 2000, we launched India’s first Karting National Championship. For the first 3 years we invested all on how to popularize it. So we started local track events and local championship events. Then we positioned it as a sport for anybody from 8 to 80. Because we had a micro kart for 8 year olds and in India, an 8 year old does not step out of his house all alone, he is escorted. So we saw in 80% of the cases they were escorted by their grandparents. So we started the senior citizen championship.
How many tracks did you have in 2000?
Now there are many more. It’s not the same as earlier, because we don’t own them all. People have understood that this is a fantastic business to be in. They have started making the tracks for fun activities. Like for me, it was Destination Point in Faridabad. But these were all in the entertainment sector. But they are also doing almost the same job as us, popularizing it. Whether they run championships or not, but they are still exposing, say, 500 people to the sport every day. And that is how it goes. Positioning and popularizing. And thus, we started Inter-School Championships, Inter-City Championships. A lot of local stuff and then in 2000 we launched the National karting Championship. It was held at 7 places on the 7 tracks that we had. After that all the winners were flown in to a virgin track which we’d create and the winner there becomes the national champion. This was done to eliminate home field advantage for any racer. In our 1st year, we did it in the streets of Connaught place. 2nd year we did it at India gate.
We created artificial tracks so that nobody has an advantage of knowing the track. And obviously we positioned it very crazily because we used to have rock concerts and we used to have big concerts like Sunidhi Chauhan was with us, Remo Fernandez was with us, Sonu Nigam was with us. We used to have concerts in between the races, so this was another trick to kind of reach out to masses. Imagine, in those days in Connaught place finals, we had 20000 people in the inner circle at 1 AM.
Is all that still happening?
Not anymore. Now this has all gotten serious. I was talking about how we started. But we’ll go back to this. Because once this crop which is now peaking we’ll have to go to the same drawing board again.
And this strategy will work again, in parallel to serious motorsports?
Yes, because this only generates the crop for the next generation. People can’t come to tracks straight away. So, you come to our karting tracks it costs you nothing. 100 bucks for a cart at that time and you find your way up. You keep winning and keep progressing. We never used to give prize money. It was like, if you won today’s race, your next round is free. And thus we used to encourage them to take this further. Every year we used to generate 2-3 guys who were sent abroad and we’d setup a thing for them like maybe a test in F3 or a drive in an f4 or a drive in Renault World Series and such. Thereafter, it’s their luck. And then, you didn’t need to be a rich man to be in our programme. You simply enter as kart racers, you show promise and you go forward. We have two examples, Saral Vikram and Jitesh Mandaudi. They both come from extremely humble backgrounds but they kept winning and they kept going.
The revolution started in 2007 when General Motors joined us and we created our first Formula car with a wing, from Rolon. And after that, we brought over the FIS formula BMW which we rechristened as JK racing Asia series. So then we had the technology as well because we suddenly had the paddle gear karts, telemetry etc. So what kids used to go abroad to learn, we had it in our backyard. So it’s all been about progression. We didn’t do anything overnight. So for the past few years, we have invested far more in the packaging of the game than technology. Any sane guy would say that you don’t have to spend that much for a domestic event, but that isn’t like us. We want 30000 people to take home some memories. But change is needed again now. We need to invest in technology again like for the 4-stroke carting to get into the newer crop.
That was a very good insight indeed. But how did you get into motorcycle racing and then the 1000cc?
Oh yeah, I missed that point. After putting everything in place, I was told by the management that we were open to get into the two-wheeler business. They told me because this is what I am known for, because I got Volkswagen Polo cup to be my partner before Volkswagen came to India. I went to VW, when they hadn’t even thought of coming to India. I gave my presentation and it clicked! That too over 10 minutes of coffee. But when it came to two wheelers, since we didn’t have a product, so by going with our experience, why not launch the superbikes straightaway because it catches the attention of the public 100 times more than the 100-200cc bikes do. But coming to this level, things changed multifold. And all the more reason, at that time BIC had happened. And all you crazy guys, had already started your Sunday rides. I was not part of your system. But I was watching you and I’ve been seeing the kind of determination that lot had. They practiced even when there was nothing remotely like a championship in the vicinity. Nobody compromised on safety. Nobody compromised on gears. So that was a very promising thing from a sport point of view. And also, business point of view as I’ve already told you. And first year we just tried as a one race you know, even and my God! I couldn’t believe it. It was in 2014. We opened the entries and had to close so early. We never realized the potential. And then I started getting calls. Approach through a minister that how can you deny my so and so from entry. So that excited me.
And then the other thing was this new breed of people we have related to-The riders. They are very different. Hard nuts. They are genuine adventure freaks. I’m comparing them with the ones I was dealing with already. So they were much more kind of go to people, lively and they are not fussy about where I’m sitting and how clean is my toilet. They are a different lot. That kind of caught my attention big time. I started relating with them and started making friends as well. I would hang around them on Sundays at the track. So that’s how we started and the results are in front of you.
So after this came Gixxer Cup. Right?
Now this is all business. This is only a beginning. I’m not in for one make championships. I would be the happiest man if these manufacturers could compete with each other. That will be the fun day. But as of now, everyone is playing safe. But that isn’t necessarily bad as ultimately the sport is benefitting from it. More and more riders are getting an exposure, opportunities, racing experiences, so let that continue.
There is an international tyre company that is thinking of doing something similar in India. But we don’t see any international marquee making a move to create a championship like this?
Just like you are in this business, you know everybody. See their balance sheets, they are all setting up their shops here. Priority is, business. Go back in time as soon as they are in their comfort zone, first thing they do is come is into motorsports. At what level? I’m not comparing. Somebody comes with big money, somebody just rides on someone and so. But they don’t stay away from it. So that is a positive sign.
And the day all these guys have their business models in place, you will see this happening. I will give you an example, since you were a part of 2014 championship, you would have noticed that we were all new to it. Organizers were new, participants were new, the entire concept was new. People didn’t know what they were looking for. You still had Ducati and Triumph giving you some tidbits here and there. For the triumph riders, all the bikes came from Triumph. For other Ducati guys, Ducati took a go on their own customers. Even if they were not in this country, their involvement was there.
So I should not be saying that “they didn’t invest their money yet” because that would be stupid. Because whatever they can, they are doing. So let’s appreciate that. And every passing year, their business is setting up and they are also increasing their presence at these places.
I also got another set of 200-300 guests, which were not from my guest list but thanks to these guys, they were there. So, I also could reach out to relevants, so it is eventually beneficial. So everyone is doing their bit in whatever their business modules at this given time can allow them. If they are away from it, then yes, we may criticize, but they are not. So that’s the best part and we should be positive about it.
Is the government of India not conducive?
Unfortunately, somewhat yes.
It’s not like that they are not conducive. I’ll blame myself also for it. Maybe we have not been able to present a case strong enough. They are being liberal to so many things. Why would they not listen to me? If they have restrictions on bringing ‘less duty paid vehicles’ from abroad, I can give them a guarantee that it will come only in the federation’s name. And it will only be used at the track and not be registered in India to go on the road. Then they may allow it to happen. But have we approached them? Never. So, it goes both ways.
We had a chance as WSBK as well. We lost it.
You missed my point. WSBK wanting to come to India was a commercial proposition. They wanted to evade duty. Government had a right to accept or reject. You want to race here so you have to have a bike. And you have to have a track. The track is already there, now to buy a bike, you’re paying how much duty on what you are buying? So the least we can do is to get you a duty free bike and government has a right to ask on what basis we should give you a duty free bike. And then I should convince the government that this kid could become a race driver. He will only use this bike at the track. He’s not going to use it with his girlfriend on the road. He will not be allowed to register it. The FMSCI stands guaranteed for it. So, I’m being on both sides. I’m saying that it’s very easy to criticize what the government is doing and what we are doing. I think together, we have not cracked it so far. There is a lot that can be done. Okay why go into bikes? Why not the basics? Even a helmet can cost a lakh and twenty thousand bucks! Which, if you can take the duty out, is only of 60-70 thousand.
How about the new ‘ISI only’ rule?
That’s another thing. That’s ignorance. Unless you can show the authority, the helmets that you use, they will not understand. Because in their day to day life, they only know ISI. It should be criticized but I’m saying that I’m not that kind of a guy who would start criticizing right out of the gates. I think we all need to pull up our socks. We all need to do whatever we can. And then if it doesn’t happen, then we should criticize.
So what about special races like only for women?
We are working towards that. We have started a racing team, only for girls called Ahura racing. Same thing is in bikes also. We are keeping a watch on everything. You will be surprised to know that I’m keeping a tab on Neharika’s gang and others as well. So it’s all there but they are not ready to race. They are quick, they are good at their jobs but they are not ready to race.
What about pitting them against each other?
I’m talking about against each other only. Now, you go and pickup any three riders which you have on your radar. Pickup their timings, get all three of them and tell them to race each other and then you will see the results. They are ready to ride on the race track with a good speed, adhering to the norms of run-offs and braking points and all that, but they are not ready to race yet!
And if you are able to find 8 riders, that doesn’t solve promoter’s purpose. Because on BIC, if you are not 20+, you are making a joke of yourself. Not only that, if you are less, you will be scrutinized more. In 30 you will get lost. So don’t forget that in the media’s eye, there are correctors like you who are watching. The guys, your predecessors, were not as educated as this breed is. Because you test yourself, you ride yourself, you do everything. None of your predecessors did that. They would actually go by looking at your race and then make an opinion. But now, the game is changed. A journalist standing there can turn around and say, “I can ride better than him!”
Rather than a race a show can be done, showing them riding around for 2-3 laps. (?)
Yes, that can be done. And why it did not happen in the past? Because most of the girls did not have their own bikes or they did not have similar bikes. And that was unfair on my part to showcase a girl on a 1000cc, a girl on a 400cc and a girl on a 150cc, because the girl on 150 will make a joke of herself not because the girl can’t ride but because the viewer doesn’t understand. So, it demeans the whole purpose. Therefore, now we have tied up with manufacturers who will help us with the bikes. And that’s when we will do these demos. Because it’s in our own interest.
How about doing another show kind of thing with children less than 10? Or 10-15?
We do that in karting. And as far as it goes with the bikes, there is the Red Bull Road to Rookies Cup which is for 14 and above.
But in Europe, these kids, below 14 use an RC 390 to race.
For this, something else has to be done. Because first we need to identify where this breed will come from.
I was there on a track day and I saw two kids, definitely below 14.
What I’m saying is we will have to work. Because if I have to answer this question for cars, I know I’ll get this breed from a certain place, but if I have to straightaway get them for bikes, we need to understand a few things. Who will to identify them, who will train them and who will get this breed going? I’m open to everything. If I can race an 8 year old in a kart why would I have a problem with the bikes? I’m only saying that I was more than delighted when I found those 12-14 year olds for the Rookie Cup in Mizoram, but that was by default, not by design. Because what’s happening in Mizoram is not because of us, it’s because of the locality. Because of the government who has given an old air-strip to the local guys to party.
So maybe next time we will have something like this. Right?
Now that you are on the subject, you meet so many people, if you crack something, please let me know! I want to put it together but I’m very particular about the safety side. So where these kids are coming from, whether they are capable of affording the equipment, where they are practicing etc.
Yes, ultimately the world champions start at a young age. Rossi started racing when he was 4-5. Will it help if we have more tracks like BIC?
Let’s be optimistic, till you are not talking about the superbikes, you should pray that more two-stroke karting tracks are made. Because up to 250 cc, you can even race on these karting tracks. Because they are all 1.1+ kms, they are all minimum 20 meter wide and they all have the required run-off areas. So you can race there.
This will also help you in grass-root level training for your kids to start racing. As of now, there are a couple of tracks on the radar. One is the Aspi Bhathena’s track which is being made somewhere between Bombay and Pune. Then there’s another one on the border of Andhra Pradesh, which Anindith Reddy is putting up. And there’s one more somewhere else. So, there are three tracks on the radar already and these are proper racing tracks.
So what is the next step since we are about to close this particular session?
As I said, for us it’s about technology. Now, we need to be working on Superbike tyres as soon as possible because the kids are spending a crazy amount of money, by getting them from abroad because of the duties and stuff.
Or at least the tyres for the entry-level premium segment like for the 400cc bikes.
That’s what I’m saying. This is our agenda as a tyre manufacturer and the promoter of this championship. But coming back to, I never wanted to touch that point of government vs this, but there is a representation which is being worked upon thanks to our new chairman, Gautam Singhania. Because he has a passion for this sport. He is not there for politics or because he is an industrialist. He loves the sport. So he has instructed the federation to move in the direction. So very soon we should be able to address this issue of getting the safety equipment into India through proper channels by paying lesser duties or negligible duties.
One last question. Are you looking forward to get any celebrity in India? From MotoGP or from WSBK?
Not me, but I’m ready to host them any time. I’m not globally involved in this sport. So I’ve no access to them. But if Suzuki wants to bring their international stars to India or my other partners like Ducati or Triumph , if they help us, getting these big stars here, I’d be more than willing to invest, to host and do whatever is required. I think Suzuki is getting one of their stars this year as they have already informed me. So these guys have to help us. If you would have asked me to bring a four wheeler guy, I’d have said yes straightaway. Because I’ve access to them. I exactly know how much they charge so either I have the money or I don’t. Here, I know nothing. In fact, if I have to invest, I’d first invest on an instructor. If I can invest on an instructor and put up a 6 day training camp, it will help me more. I’m talking about my championship only, because if I can improve 2-3 seconds of my existing grid, it would be amazing.
So there are a few academies, which have come up. They have come up with their tracks on which they instruct people on how to ride fast and safe. Is JK planning to do something similar?
You must have noticed that in our system, the people we have are all ex-sportsmen like Hari Singh, Ex National Rally Champion. We do not have bikers here yet and we have a dearth of knowledge. So as of now, we patronize Anil’s Apex Racing Academy. So, if anyone else wants to take our help, we are open to it. Till such time, we ourselves are fully equipped with the instructors and the knowledge.