One reason why I couldn’t do a photowalk in March was I was travelling, on work. I put a quick trip to Coimbatore to meet Narain Karthikeyan and interview him for the Inbox 1305 magazine. That interview is the cover story in 1305’s April issue. Grab a copy and read it, please. Below the fold is my version of the interview. Some slight editing has been done in the print version.
“As a 15-16 year old, you don’t realise how hard the journey can be.”
A bookshelf that has, among others, Drucker and Paramahamsa Yogananda is my first impression of one of India’s best, and perhaps least hyped-up, sportsperson.
The bookshelf is in a small out-house converted into an office. From there, I stare with equal parts jealousy and admiration at a house that was first begun in 1912 and then improved in 1940. One of Coimbatore’s landmark addresses, this house boasts a minimum of 8 cars, one of which just happens to be a Porsche.
Welcome to #14, Huzur Road, Coimbatore. The home of the Karthikeyan family. Home to the fastest Indian – Narain Karthikeyan.
Hemant, the photographer, and I are in Coimbatore (a welcome respite from Madras’ mid-March heat) and Pavarna, Narain’s wife, treats us to a sparkling cool juice. NK is at the gym but is expected in a moment or two. Scotty, the family’s pet Golden Retriever prances about with a slipper in his mouth, while the gardener prunes the large lawn.
Delicious chocolate cake follows the apple juice, just as Narain Karthikeyan’s car rolls into the driveway. Soon, we are talking.
The man I’ve come to interview is getting ready for his next A1GP race – to be held in Portugal. That’s on the 12th of April 2009. But what is really driving him these days is his aim of taking part in perhaps the hardest car race in the world – the energy sapping, back-breaking 24 hour Le Mans
Endurance is essential, he says.
For someone who’s been racing from the age of 9, and who’s come up the hard way, endurance shouldn’t be a tall ask. The son of a racer, and a scion of a family that’s had racing in its tree for long, perhaps it is natural for Narain to take to the sport.
“It’s all in the family…” he agrees, and adds “Coimbatore, you can call it the hub for motorsports.”
But, mere long association or access to the sport is not enough. Narain also had ambition – to be the first Formula 1 driver from India, and talent – oodles of speed and skill to make it happen.
“Speed is something I enjoy… it gives you a rush” he says, just as I expect him to say it. “But raw speed alone is not enough. Fitness matters”
In Chennai’s Irungattukottai track near Sriperambudur, Narain had a podium finish at the Formula Maruti. It was his first race ever. By 1995, Narain had graduated to Formula Asia, after successful runs in UK, Portugal and a stint at the Elf Winfield Racing School in France. “We’re still in the 70s when it comes to racing. Cars are very basic…and it’s still cheap to race here…but as they say, something is better than nothing. Without this…there’s nothing. ” “To aim to be a professional driver becomes that much more harder for us Indians”
For one, the availability of a professional racing circuit is limited. And sponsors, or the lack of it, isn’t helping matters either.
“In the best of times, finding sponsors was difficult” Now, needless to say, is tougher.
A wry smile plays on Narain’s lips as he continues. “A lot of money goes into cricket. If every other sport got, like, 2% of that, things will be Ok. But that’s not the case in India”
“In my case, I’ve been lucky.” The Tata group supported him on his F1 dreams, and Bharat Petroleum – Speed have been good too. His association with the Tata group is 10 years old now, and 6 years with Bharat Petroleum.
That gives me the perfect segue to the next question I ask him. About SpeedNK Racing academy, set up 2006. “I was a test driver then…didn’t do much racing. I wanted to give back to the sport. Had the support of my sponsors – Bharat Petroleum invested in it. So we picked up 6 drivers and trained them up.”
“It’s the only grid in India that can boast of taking the sport to the next level.”
Coming back to the issue of sponsors, Narain gives proof of his Business Administration degree. “I am sure they do get some returns on their investment. The advantage we have is it’s not a cluster of sponsors who get lost like in the cricketing world.” “When the companies do their marketing right, they get good returns on the investment.”
I want to talk about F1. In particular the question a lot of people want to ask.
“Interest is there…when I went to F1, there was a huge peak obviously. And then you know, it just stagnates”
Exactly. Go Kart tracks that used to dot Chennai’s landscape are now no more, just ‘real estate’ in NK’s words.
“I’m not aiming at F1 now…” says Narain. My face falls, as do, I am sure, the faces of a lot of his fans. “because the economy is difficult and some teams are almost in a state of collapse.”
A1 Grand Prix – sometimes billed as the World Championship in racing – is where Narain’s seeing all the action now. “A1 teams, India has become pretty strong. We have a good profile.” “Ferrari has come to the championship as the sole supplier of chassis and engine…worldwide recognition has gone up”
So, how does it compare to Formula 1?
“Intention is not to compare it to F1. It’s a unique championship. It’s just 5 years old.” “We’re competing with countries…a nationality perspective. When our drivers do well it gives us pride” “Take countries like India and Germany – in their home turf I beat them.”
That was news to me. “Just not publicised well enough”, he explains.
Fitness. That’s my next question. “Yeah! I’ve realised being fit is very, very important” “In my early career, I should have concentrated much more on fitness.”
“The hot races are tough – you lose a lot of body fluids. But the 24 hour endurance (Le Mans) is going to be quite challenging.” Which’s why Narain is spending good time at the gym. He says that the equipment and the massages available in India are still at a very basic level.
From fitness, I move to injury and hospitalisation/recovery.
“Cars have fortunately become a very safe now. But there are accidents…there are injuries though they have come down drastically. But the element of risk is high”
“But the danger also gives us the rush!”
I was going to ask him about his insurance premiums, but that would be too sensitive a piece of information. Given the lack of sponsorship and sustained institutional support, how does Narain cope with things?
“My father always supported my career…obviously. He was into it. Everyone in my family – my mom, my wife, everyone.” “In the early stages, because it wasn’t done in India to be a professional driver, maybe the didn’t, hmm – not approve of it, but, a little cautious.”
“But now it’s done and it’s good.” Narain smiles.
As a hobbyist photographer, I’ve been waiting to ask him my next question. Wildlife Photography? “I used to, a long time ago. Now I don’t have the time.” Narain lists wildlife photography and trap and skeet shooting as hobbies. We talk about his camera. As a long time Nikon fan, I am disappointed he chose a Canon EOS. To each, his own.
These days Narain drives up to Coonoor to meet friends and wind down.
F1 in India. What with Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai competing with each other to announce their plans, when will India get its first F1 track?
“Nobody is fighting for it, let me tell you. There is talk about Gurgaon. One company – JP Group who want to construct this track. Hopefully. 2011 is the target. Bernie Ecclestone (the President and CEO of Formula 1 management) thinks it will happen, so let’s go with that.”
His most memorable moment, predictably, was his debut in Formula 1. To be the first Indian ever is added pleasure. Over his long career, he’s had many successes, including the first A1GP win for India. “We put India on the map. It was a big thing you know. The Prime Minister comes out to congratulate and we were invited to tea.” Quiz him on his worst moments, he says “Well…so many times I’ve had to sit out because of no budgets.”
“It’s a sport very few people in India understand.”
One thing he’s learnt in this is “given the right equipment, we are as good as anybody worldwide. It’s just that you need to believe in yourself and you need to keep up the dedication and commitment and you’ll come out on top.”
Amen to that!