Ravi plays racer for a day, and realises that there aren’t many things in the world that give you as strong a rush as racing.
As you wait for those five red lights to go out, you suddenly feel your mind clouded with thousand thoughts, and your heart . . . well, anxiousness, nervousness, excitement, fear, curiosity, wonder and everything else that I’ve missed are still not enough to adequately describe the tsunami of emotions you feel in that moment. Ayrton Senna once said, ‘You’ll never know how a driver feels when he wins a race. The helmet hides unfathomable emotions.’ I could relate to the quote more than ever. But two things were different. First, I was riding and not driving. And second, I did not win the race. In fact, I was far from it. Nevertheless, the intensity of everything that I felt was as strong. So, how does it feel to be a racer? Well, read on.
As auto journalists, we often witness all sorts of motorsport action and criticise a racer’s performance. But, we almost never think about the rider, his state of mind and his feelings and emotions. The kind folks at Suzuki wanted us to experience that there’s more to racing than just final standings. So, they decided to lend us a race suit and Gixxer Cup race bikes to give us a taste of what it feels like to be a racer. And while they were at it, they got the impish idea of making it an endurance race.
The format was simple – twenty-five minutes of practice and qualifying would determine the grid positions for the sixty-minute race on the short 2.2-kilometre Kari Motor Speedway circuit. Teams of two were formed using chit draws. I was paired with Preetam Bora from NDTV. During the sixty minutes of race time, one rider was not to ride for more than 25 minutes at a stretch, and one rider switch was made mandatory. Doesn’t sound very demanding, does it? Well, it was.
Qualifying didn’t quite go as well for us as we would have liked. Neither of us had ridden at Kari before. Of course, to seasoned racers, it would’ve made no difference, but I am not one. I gobbled up the first 15 minutes just trying to stay on the track. I missed the braking markers, took the worst possible lines, went on the throttle too soon or sometimes all this in a single lap. Preetam managed a slightly better time, but grid positions were based on the average time of the two racers. The qualifying times reflected our endless blunders on the track. But there was hope of not repeating the same mistakes in the race. And I didn’t, but I managed to make new ones there.
Since it was an endurance race, we also had a running start. Riders stood on the short side of the start/finish straight with their respective team-mate holding the bike on the other end. As the lights went out, everything began to move – a rush of emotions, a sprint towards the motorcycle, a swing of a leg and the race was on!
I may not have been the fastest guy in the qualifying, but I surely had a quick run towards the motorcycle. Things were looking positive so far. But it didn’t last long. Soon enough we had a slip up! And then, the motorcycle refused to start. After a few attempts, I noticed the position of the engine kill switch and felt like a moron. But it was too late now – we’d already lost some valuable time. Fortunately, I realised a few other teams made the same error, which meant I could still gain a position or two at the start.
First corner chaos is something I have always found exciting to watch as a motorsport enthusiast. Living it, however, is not as exciting to say the least. With nine motorcycles trying to gain an early advantage, it’s hard not to panic brake, but I resisted the temptation for as long as I possibly could. Thankfully, there were no mishaps here, but the places I’d gained were once again lost. Clearly, I’d braked too soon. I still had another 59 minutes to recover.
The first few laps were great, but fifteen minutes later, my stamina was vanishing, and fast. I somehow managed to gain a position before I saw the pit board calling me in at the end of the 22nd minute – what a relief it was!
I couldn’t decide what was making me more anxious. Waiting in the pits, while Preetam was out on track or the racing itself. It didn’t help that he had a fall on C2 in the second lap. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt nor was the motorcycle, and we continued our campaign. The remainder of Preetam’s 20-minute stint went relatively smoother.
During my second stint, lap times were more or less consistent, but I was still far from taking the right lines. It was only much later that I realised that things happen so quickly on the track – yes, even at my slow race pace – that racing is as much a game of the mind as it is a physical sport. Even with my handicap, for the rest of the race, my lines and lap times improved, but relatively. In one hour, we lapped the circuit 31 times and took the chequered flag in eighth place.
Sure, we didn’t quite have a result to be proud of, but I have a new-found respect for racers. Apart from the obvious scuffles out on a track, everything else that a racer battles in his head is often left unsaid. The way to the top rarely comes without a few crashes and broken bones. And they still manage to look unruffled. I think, it’s the bittersweet symphony that really gets them going. But you won’t quite understand it until, in your leather suit, you wait for those five red lights to go out.