25 January 2013 - 05:21
Man of the Year: Sarath Kumar S
How does a taxi driver from Chennai, a teenager of very modest means, end up competing at premier motorcycle racing championships across the world? And how do you tell Sarath Kumar’s story – still very much in the making, obviously – without being awed by his commitment to the sport?
It was hot and humid at the Irungattukottai racetrack near Chennai. Walking along the pits, I asked someone which of the practicing riders was Sarath. I was pointed to a guy lying on the tarmac in the pitlane with a 250cc bike on his right leg. As people helped him up, he just brushed his right knee, mounted the bike, and went on to do a couple of quick laps around the circuit.
I met him soon after, still wearing his protective gear and a smile. “These tyres are no good,” were the first words out of his mouth as he shook my hand. “They just give way... this is the second time I fell today”. Funny thing is he was saying this after spending the last five minutes on the track on the same bike with the same tyres. And he was leaning into a long curve at about 100kph, less than 10 inches behind the rider in front of him.
I guess it takes that kind of courage to be part of one of the most dangerous sports in the world and have a list of achievements to make Indians proud. Sarath is the first Indian to score a podium in the Italian 125cc GP-class Championships at Monza this year. He also became the first Indian to participate in the MotoGP 125cc World Championship in 2011. And he is the 2010 Indian National Champion in the 165cc Expert Class.
As remarkable as his achievements are, the story behind his success is even more remarkable. He started riding at age 15 on a TVS 50 moped. “I can still do a wheelie on that moped, probably for a kilometer,” he laughs. He still remembers the first time he went to race at the Kari Motor Speedway at Coimbatore. He didn’t have the Rs 72 that he needed for an unreserved railway ticket from Chennai. And he slept on the racetrack that night because he couldn’t afford accommodation.
I was a bit amazed that someone who won a national championship had worked with such financial constraints. Thing is, the prize money for winning a national championship is a generous Rs 8,500. Actually, it’s Rs 10,000, but the government takes away 1,500 bucks as tax; probably a simple way to compensate for the crores in tax exemption it gives to glorified shit like the IPL.
Given that he needs to spend up to 1,200 bucks on just his diet every day, you can understand why he would end up driving a cab on the side. He had to make all the money he could to support his passion. “I’m supposed to eat 15 egg whites in a day,” he says. “And as you know, each egg costs four rupees!” I could only smile at my ignorance.
His manager has now barred him from driving the cab. He needs to rest and be at his physical and mental best to race. By next year, he’s confident of getting a sponsor and participating in the Spanish CEV Buckler Championships in the Moto3 category – that’s 250cc, four-stroke. By 2014, he hopes to compete in the Moto3 World Championship.
Sarath may just be starting out, but his accomplishments over the last three years already mark him out as one of the most promising sportsmen in India. He is TopGear’s Man of the Year because his story, indeed the man himself, is an inspiration to Indians. After meeting him, I didn’t remember the hardships, the unfairness of the system, or the enormous financial problems he struggled through. All I remember is his triumph over these obstacles and his single-minded focus. He is a racer.