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City of speed

Apart from speed, what do Narain Karthikeyan, Naren Kumar and N Leelakrishnan have in common? Coimbatore!



COIMBATORE'S PRIDE (Clockwise from top right) J. Anand, N. Leelakrishnan and V R Naren Kumar

Racing began in the Coimbatore as early as in the '50s, when Fiat Millicentos (1100s), Standard 10s, Heralds and Studebakers competed with the likes of the Jaguar XK120. The power difference between these cars was quite large, but compete they did. The less powerful ones were given a headstart, and the best drivers were mostly put in lesser-powered cars. The races were close and many a time, you could see a Jaguar just about managing to pip a Herald or a Fiat.

The reason for Coimbatore's success as the racing hub came in an era when people had abundance of money and time - the textile scene was good in the '60s and '70s. Most of these businessmen were car and speed freaks. These industrialists, most of whom who had been to Europe and the USA, imported the best cars in the world - Fiat Spyders and Porsches included. The place was also a major force in engineering. In 1930, the PSG group was making complete pump sets and over time, major automotive groups sourced their components from the city. Their special gift of engineering and the dearth of fast cars in India meant that Coimbatorians worked hard and tinkered with what they had. Today, for instance, major Indian manufacturer, Maruti, sources about 40 per cent of its requirements from the city.

The Fiat story

The other reason that probably aided the growth of motorsport in the city was the Fiat 1100, a.k.a. the Premier Padmini. It was relatively cheap, could be tinkered with easily and in case you crashed one, well, you could easily afford a new one. Right from the '60s to the late '80s, the Padmini saw massive usage on the racing circuit. Racers and tuners learnt a lot from their experiences with this Fiat and how to extract maximum power from its small and underpowered engine. "Today's cars are a bit too expensive," says rally champ, Leelakrishnan.

Any mention of racing in Coimbatore cannot be complete without talking about a shy man called S Karivardhan. Kari, as he was popularly known, headed the Coimbatore-based Lakshmi Mills. He was a racing genius whose talents were in designing and creating race machines and he helped shape the careers of many famous names from Narain to Leelakrishnan. "If Kari saw you had talent, he would go out o his way to make sure you drove," says J Anand, whose first race at Sriperambudur was in a Kari-prepared Maruti 800.

In the late 1980s, when racing in India was going through a rough patch due to the lack of exciting new cars and spiralling costs, Kari came up with the Formula India, single sweater Maruti, which still forms the backbone of Indian motorsport. Karivardhan died in a plane crash in 1995, and his untimely demise, according to many, impeded Coimbatore's and the country's progress in motorsport.

Three years ago, the city got its first racetrack. It was aptly named the Kari Speedway. The track should now help in developing newer and fresher talent for the country and give us many more Narains and Narens. Here's hoping for the best!

ASHISH MASIH

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