The idea of an unconventional profession is still limited to a handful. In sports like motorsport, India is eventually making a mark in the global domain, surpassing the conventional thoughts. In an conversation with leading Indian racing driver Karun Chandhok, we spoke about his early years in motorsport, his incessant urge towards this sport, making race tracks in childhood and racing with the likes of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Chandhok won his first championship in the Formula Maruti 2000. Subsequently, throughout his journey, he has exhibited exemplary wins and has taken Indian motorsport to the international domain.
What inspired you to begin your career in motorsport?
My family immensely influenced me in my early years of motorsport. So I grew up around race tracks and race events. My grandfather founded the Federation of Motorsport Clubs of India which exists even today. He began racing in the 1950s. Later, in 1970s my father began to race as well. I was three years old when I told my parents I want to become a racing driver. Fifteen years later, I was doing exactly what I had told my parents years back. But my parents never forced me into choosing motorsport as a career. It was my decision.
Can you tell us about the early years of your career as a racing driver?
For my sixth birthday, I received a go-kart. That was the first time I drove a vehicle by myself. Around that time, we used to run a car repairing workshop. I would make the mechanics park the customers car in such a way, so as to make tracks to race!
I was eleven years old, when I drove on a race track for the first time. Sometimes I would go to the race track with my father at the end of the day, just to drive for another three or four lapses. I would hang around all day waiting for my five minutes in the end. I just knew I never wanted to stop.
In 2001, I won my first international tournament at the Formula Asia Championship in the Philippines. The tournament happened after I won the Indian National Championship. As a reward, JK Tyres sponsored me for the next two races in Philippines. After I won those two races as well, they decided to fund another two races in Malaysia, which I won as well.
After the win in Malaysia, JK Tyres decided to sponsor me for the rest of the championship. Vijay Malya from Kingfishers came on board. In the next year, I moved to Europe for Formula 3.
When I started out in India I was in school. I remember reaching the race track before 5: 30 AM, finish school and later again return to the race track. I would stay there until dark. Also at that time I was extremely overweight. I was ninety six kilos! To be able join the sport, I had to undergo a very stringent fitness regime. I lost 26 kilos in 10 months. Alongside that, I continued to practice on the racing track.
tell us about the most pressuring situations on track.
It was definitely Formula 1. That is when I understood that things around me got serious. Competing alongside, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton was one the most pressuring things I had ever faced. It was a lot of pressure, almost culmination of everything I had prepared for.
When I started out in India, motor sport was not so well known. Often when we are doing press conferences, we have had to educate the media with the hope that they will educate the people about motorsport.
You started your career at a very early age. Getting success at such a young age, what helped you to keep your feet on the ground?
By the time I was 20 years old, I was negotiating contracts worth crores! It is important to keep your family and friends close to yourself. I’ve had a lot of friends outside the motorsport industry who have helped me to maintain balance. In this sport, if we have one accident, our lives can be over. So, it is very important to keep our feet on the ground. Also, I think growing up in India allows us to have this perspective in life.
What skillset have you acquired after so many years in this field?
Our sport is very unique. Technology, engineers and cars play a very big role in this sport. I’ve enjoyed learning about the technical side of the sport, spending time with the engineers and also developing my style with the experiences of life.
When I was in school, my mom told my teachers that since I will learn Hindi at home anyway, she wanted me to learn French. She mentioned that since I wanted to be a racing driver, French will be a more useful language. But they would not let me switch.
My school had a career counselling day, when the presence of all students was mandatory. It was on the same weekend as my national championship race. Obviously, I went to the race! My principal was not happy with decision. There were many people who could not comprehend the idea of such an unconventional profession.
What is your message for young racing drivers?
Having confidence in yourself is a big asset, both in sport and life. You’ll learn on the job. There is no short cut in this profession.