What's the best advertisement for an Indian auto company? Tata Engineering is putting its money on the world's fastest Indian, Narain Karthikeyan.
For the second year in a row, Narain Karthikeyan has been sponsored by Tata Engineering as India's entry into the World Series motor car racing.
Last year, the Maruti Suzuki-sponsored Auto Cross rally had only 30 to 40 participants. This year, the demand was so great that it held three similar rallies where 276 people participated.
Is motor sport finally moving into the fast track in India? As the auto industry becomes more competitive, the bigger companies are slowly putting money on to the racetrack.
Already, Tata Racing, the motor sport division of the Tata group, is said to be shelling out around Rs 3.5 crore (Rs 35 million) annually on Karthikeyan. Maruti has an annual rally outlay of Rs 80 lakh (Rs 8 million).
Other car makers like Hyundai and Ford are keenly tracking the motor sport market in India. And MRF Tyres and J K Tyres who have been at it for decades have become more active.
"These manufacturers have brought in more money, and there's been at least a three-fold increase in spends in the last four to five years," says Sanjay Sharma, head of the JK Tyres' motor sports division.
Today, the market for motor sports in India is Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million).
Mind you, that's chickenfeed for the motor sports industry where the cost of running a team can be sky high. But there's no doubt that the big companies are about to hit the accelerator and spend more.
Motorsports in India has come a long way from being just a sport for 'rich kids' like the UB Group's flamboyant chairman Vijay Mallya or Vicky Chandhok, who is now the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India president.
In the mid-'70s, Mallya, a motor sports freak, provided the cash to establish the McDowell Grand Prix. But automobile racing in the country still wasn't run professionally and didn't have any corporate sponsors worth the name.
In 1980, with the establishment of the Himalayan Car Rally, things changed. However, aspirations of making it at an international level were still several pit stops away.
Now, with Karthikeyan, Hari Singh and Karun Chandhok making a mark in the international circuit, the sport has changed tracks.
Suddenly, corporates like Tata and Maruti are willing to go that extra mile to promote the sport. "Their participation is making a big difference," says JK Tyres' Sharma.
In the past seven years, JK poured Rs 35 crore (Rs 350 million) into the sport.
Just how important are the bucks is evident in the high cost of organising sporting events.
Of the annual spend of Rs 20 crore, around Rs 2.5 crore (Rs 25 million) goes towards organising the karting and racing championships. Rallying costs another Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), while smaller events like Autocross have a tag of Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million) to Rs 6 crore (Rs 60 million).
Then, there's the money spent on Indian participants at world events. The Tatas continue to back Karthikeyan while JK Tyres is sponsoring (Rs 2.5 crore) Chandhok. That does not include travelling expenses.
As Vishal Jhunjhunwala, senior manager, Tata Services corporate affairs department, says: "India is looking at Karthikeyan as a potential F1 driver. If he reaches that level, audience interest will zoom. After that, the sky is the limit."
The ride would have been much smoother, though, if not for an administrative clash.
Over the past decade, the government-backed FMSCI and the Motorsports Authority of India have been at loggerheads. The MAI is recognised by Federation de Internationale Automobile, the global authority.
So when FMSCI-affiliated drivers want to race in global events, they have to get MAI's nod.
The result of this schism? Both Karthikeyan and Chandhok, associated with FMSCI, had to pay Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) to MAI for turning professional.
According to Vicky Chandhok, the two associations are negotiating to pool their resources together for a common platform.
"We're on the verge of resolving our differences. We need to first create a base for motor sports in the country, and only then worry about governing it," he says.
Nazir Hoosein, who heads MAI, is optimistic. "The Indian league of the FIA Asian-Pacific Rallying Championship is being held in December. Many foreign cars will be seen on Indian tracks then. This will provide the impetus for the India-based manufacturers to get into sponsorship," he says.
He claims that MAI is also running 10 karting championships with MRF. "Leisure karting is dominant in India, but we want to give the racing aspect the promotion it needs.
Youngsters must be encouraged, since this is the first step towards motor racing," says Hoosein. He says that plans are underway to establish an official racing circuit, with FIA authorisation soon.
JK Tyres' involvement with the sport has intensified over the years. Since the early '80s, it has been the main sponsor of the Himalayan Car Rally.
"Until then, India's terrain and climate favoured rallying. But with racing being popular globally, we constituted the National Racing Championships in 1997," says Sharma.
In fact, corporates are aiming for the grassroots to remove the sport's exclusivity tag. The Maruti-sponsored rallies begin with Treasure Trails and Woman Power Drive rallies.
The next level is Auto Cross, where artificial dirt tracks are created on five-acre grounds.
"The final, and highest, level is the Raid D' Himalaya, which is among the top rallies in the world," says Shashi Kapoor, divisional general manager at Maruti.
On the racing circuit, Maruti is associated with the National Racing Championships, where the Formula Maruti car (a Maruti 800 with a racing chassis) is used.
Last year saw the launch of the 1300 CC Formula Esteem. Kapoor says 53 people participated in Jaipur's Auto Cross Rally, 80 in Chandigarh and 143 in Delhi. That's because participation has also become cheaper.
"Now, for Rs 50,000, you can take part in three to four rallies a year," says Kapoor. That money goes mainly into preparing vehicles with F1 specifications like roll-cages and crashguards.
But is the common man interested? Motorsports is the second most watched sport on television after cricket, according to Sharma. "It is very popular in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Pune," he adds.
"To promote the sport in India, we are building a community of race lovers," says Ramesh Vishwanathan, general manager, United Breweries Limited.
It has started a Team F1 club in Bangalore, with about 2,500 Formula One lovers. This motley crew assembles on race days to watch F1 on giant screens over a mug of Kingfisher.
Meanwhile, MRF sponsors the National Motorcross Championship and the National Karting Championship. The MRF Team participates with two Mitsubishi EVO 7 Cars in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship and fields a five-car (Honda City) team in the Indian National Rally Championship.
"We are far behind in the two-wheeler category, but motor sports is growing in the four-wheeler category in India," says Philip Eapen, executive director, marketing, MRF Tyres.
Driving on this demand, even Formula One Management -- which manages all Formula 1 events in the world -- has offered telecast rights to DD Metro along with a two-hour programme, 'World of Motorsports.'
Combine that with DD's reach and FOM knows that India has more potential viewers than many European countries.
As an exclusive deal, all the advertising revenue generated from this programme will be used to sponsor Karun Chandhok, who recently became the youngest Indian to win a Formula Asia Championship.
Surely, motor sport in India is moving only in one direction -- to the fast track.