The ground is wet. The dark slush makes the road more slippery than snow. Misshapen rocks and boulders seem to be the only protection from fierce curves and deadly troughs. Just then, a sturdy wagon comes around the hairpin bend, its big tires making short work of the road. Despite the odds, a pair of helmeted drivers confidently make their way through this dangerous, impassable route.
This is not a film set. Those are not CGI obstacles. When off-roaders take part in a monsoon-themed challenge, driving a 4×4 vehicle or motorcycle over rough surfaces and naturally rugged terrain, it’s the kind of adrenaline rush that movies can’t offer.
Indians are developing a taste for it. Trade analyst Research and Markets estimates that India’s ATV and UTV market is expected to grow 6.8% from its current size to a $536 million business over the next five years. Sports is no longer a closed rich boys’ club. It is now a playground for anyone who wants to get down dirty and dangerous in the name of fun.
“Off-roading is basically trekking with your vehicles,” says Chennai-based Arkaprava Dutt, co-founder of off-roading group Terra Tigers and organizer of the 17-year-old Pallar Challenge, India’s oldest off-roading competition. “It’s a mix of adventure and motorsport,” he adds.
It is also a growing cause of concern for the environment. Picking up all that trash, driving through pristine terrain can wreak havoc on a sensitive area. “We avoid driving in frozen water used for irrigation,” says Dutt. “We don’t drive on grassy or leafy land because cattle graze there. We also check in nearby villages to see if it is safe to drive in the terrain, as it is mostly classified as a reserved forest.”
Dutt was bitten by the adventure bug during his boarding school days in Dehradun. So, when a group of Jeep enthusiasts gathered in a Yahoo group in 2005 to discuss and organize off-roading challenges, he became an enthusiastic member. A year later, he launched the group’s Chennai chapter and organized the first off-roading challenge in the country, following the treacherous terrain around the Palar River.
Since then, every monsoon 30-40 vehicles navigate through seven strategically placed points to showcase their skills, dexterity and mental acuity. What started as a recreational activity has evolved into a profession. Through its Terra Tech vertical, the group specializes in vehicle prototyping, vehicle testing, and conducting training programs for emerging off-roaders in the sport in general, and how to recover vehicles after they get stuck.
The Rainforest Challenge (RFC), organized during Goa’s Hariyali Monsoon, has a large following in India. It is the official India chapter of the world’s toughest motorsport events. “We adhere to RFC Global standards, which makes the competition very challenging. The winner of RFC India gets a free automatic entry to the RFC mother event in Malaysia,” says Delhi-based Ashish Gupta, Director, Cougar Motorsport, the company organizing RFC India.
Participants spend months preparing themselves and their vehicles for the week-long event in July. “People go out of their way to help and support each other,” says Gupta. “Lifelong friendships are forged, and people look forward to spending time with each other and exchanging notes while off-roading and when they meet in Goa.”
Monsoon wet roads are a kind of attraction. For others, it’s crossing snow-capped peaks in impossible conditions. Kongkon Talukdar, 25, from Guwahati, Assam, is a superbike enthusiast. He creates content (@kongkon_talukdar) about his adventures with his Kawasaki Z900. In January, Talukdar and his friends braved extreme winters to climb a 13,700-foot rocky trail up to Sela Pass in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. He says, ‘It was the hardest ride I had ever done. “The roads were muddy and the cold wind made us numb. That ride convinced me. Now I can go anywhere.”
But instead of pursuing organized challenges, Talukdar roams the country, living rough with his bikers: friends, neighbors, and people who hear about their journey and want to join. “We want to explore India, especially the beauty of the seven sisters in the Northeast,” he says.
Off-roaders are spoiled for choice in India. There are snowy peaks, arid deserts and everything in between. One of the most popular off-roading challenges is the Ultimate Desert Challenge (UDC), held every year in Bikaner, Rajasthan, which attracts more than 100 participants with off-roaders and superbikes.
Gurugram-based Arvind Balan, director of MaxPerience, a boutique motorsport marketing agency, and founder of UDC, puts it down to the ease of participation. Other challenges require a 4×4 stock vehicle straight from the showroom rather than the souped-up frippies required to qualify. “You don’t need to modify your vehicle. It puts full focus on the driver’s ability and skill set and makes it cheaper to participate,” he explains.
Since Balan entered the field in 2014, he has watched Indian off-roading change. Motorsports used to be dominated by rallies, which test speed in specific vehicles. Today, off-roading events test skills on stock vehicles. “UDC and other challenges have given people easy access, so off-roading has become everyone’s game,” he says.
They are trying to make it a sustainable game for everyone. “We follow international standards to ensure environmental protection while managing our challenges,” he says. “Off-roading challenges are better for the environment than cross-country rallies, because they are organized in smaller spaces. We can control the environmental impact of our tracks and vehicles.”
The average age of participants is 35, although Indians aged 18 to 65 sign up. Vehicles are tested and participants go through training sessions before major events. The challenges call for skill and maturity – so as to navigate physically and mentally demanding routes. A handful of women have joined the ranks in recent years.
It’s still an expensive game. Cars aren’t cheap to begin with. They are often outfitted with special gear to participate in certain challenges. Preventive maintenance can also be costly ₹8,000 per month, to complete 30-40 off-road drives in a year. And, in three to five years, the vehicles are seen to be sufficient. They’ve got what Dutt calls “Grandfather’s Axe” and are scrapped and rebuilt, the muddy ride now a distant memory.
From HT Brunch, May 20, 2023
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