Every one of us has that dream where you walk away into the sunset, with the crowd chanting your name, after you have defeated the evil mastermind with your superpowers. No? Yeah. Me neither. My dreams usually involve me standing on the top spot of the podium, having won a rally that tests to the hilt both man and machine. The crowd still chants my name though.
This is the story of how I lived my dream.
It was one of those days at work I was in front of a computer rather than behind a steering wheel. Suddenly, in walks Bert and asks Alan and me if we were interested in taking part in the Desert Storm rally? A classic situation where only a double take can be the natural reaction.
For real? Would we get to drive? Would I get to drive?
I have been wanting to drive in a professional rally for a very, very long time. I had my first taste of rallying when I completed an entire season of the Indian National Rally Championship - but as a co-driver. Getting behind the wheel was exciting on a whole new level.
While there were suggestions of a wrestling match between Alan and me to decide who would get to go, Alan got the chance to go to Malaysia and ride that futuristic electric Harley-Davidson and I found myself in the driver's seat.
Rally licence applied for and duly received, it was time to look for a co-driver. In a rally raid like the Desert Storm, having a good co-driver counts for a lot. He follows the GPS, checks the road book and most importantly, makes sure we pass all the given waypoints. And I found the perfect guy. Murugun, my friend from Coimbatore, has over two decades of rally experience, including the Desert Storm. Co-driver, check.
Two days before the rally we flew in to Delhi and were lucky enough to meet Raj Singh Rathore - rally champion and Team Polaris' lead driver. He gave us some useful driving and navigation tips. And then came the moment when Raj introduced us to our rally machine - the Polaris RZR 800 S.
The RZR (pronounced Razor) is a vehicle like no other, a lightweight off-road machine that features long travel suspension, seating for two and roll over protection. It's a go-anywhere vehicle, so sand is one of the many terrains the RZR likes playing in. Perfect for the Desert Storm. Polaris India also made some vital modifications to ensure that it passed the rally scrutiny. In came FIA-approved racing seats and five-point harnesses and the stock rollover protection was replaced with a rally-grade roll cage. We also had an auxiliary tank that increased the total fuel capacity to about 65 litres.
Fixing the RZR in the transport stage
We cleared scrutiny and were flagged off from Delhi but encountered a slight hiccup. The RZR isn't road legal. And that meant we had to load it up on a truck during the transport stages. It meant banking on our road book, GPS and the truck driver to get us to the start of the stage within the allotted time and also to ensure that the truck got to the end of the stage before we reached there on the RZR. This continuous loading and unloading meant that we had less transport time than the rest of the participants who were participating in road legal cars and SUVs.
With not much sand driving experience and very little testing, we went out and lined up at the start of the first stage. It was 80km long and started in the night so just finishing the stage was our target. Murugan was ready with all the waypoints marked on the GPS.
This was the moment I had been waiting for all my life. The countdown began and we were off to a great start. The RZR can make you feel like a Group B rally driver because it's so tail happy. Power is sent to the rear wheels at all times and if needed to all four by simply pressing a button on the sparse dash. However, I didn't push hard and instead focused on following the waypoints. In no time we even caught up with the Polaris vehicles that had started before us - we were clearly much faster. But following them closely meant that visibility took a hit. The narrow trail also meant that we couldn't pass them so we decided to slow down and let them lead. It was all going smooth until Murugan pointed out that we were going the wrong way! I remembered passing another trail and quickly turned back and headed there. Since it was dark, we ended up going off the stage. Our only option was to drive towards the waypoint seen in the GPS. There was no route display between the points and I panicked. Before we knew it, we had driven around in circles and then hit the face of a dune. I slotted the gear into reverse but the RZR didn't move. We decide to use a shovel to clear the sand behind the tyres but that didn't help either.
More than 10 minutes passed before we saw another rally car at a distance but they were too far because we were easily 200 metres off the designated route. There was no cellular connectivity so we couldn't even call anyone.
The Desert Storm even featured night stages
It was past midnight now. I was cold, disoriented, tired and repeatedly cursing myself for messing up despite all prior warnings. It was my debut rally as a driver and I'd managed to go off the stage. I was not just lost but, worse, I'd done the impossible! I'd managed to sink the Polaris RZR side by side halfway into the sand on the very first stage of the Desert Storm. To add to the bad news, Murugan had lost his spectacles. But the good news was that the rally didn't end here for us.
I walked off close to the route and suddenly I got network - one bar! But that was enough to make calls to my team manager and the rally officials and explain our situation. We eventually got towed out by the rescue car, after all the cars had completed the stage. We lost a lot of time and as a result received a huge penalty. But we were lucky to still be in the rally.
The RZR isn't road legal and hence we had to use the truck to transport it
Things didn't quite get better the next day. It was a 100km stage but we couldn't make it in time for the start because our RZR's battery had to be used to help start another. We couldn't get our refuelling done on time either. Three out of four RZRs from the team missed out on the stage and had to opt for a restart at the next one in Bikaner.
The next stages from then on got more challenging and were long too. The Desert Storm rally goes through the most varied terrain I've ever seen in India. We drove on soft sand, dirt, rocks, gravel and a few wet patches too. Following a trail isn't easy when the view ahead of you is the entire desert. Don't follow the waypoints and you end up driving into a ditch or even a well or worse - miss a checkpoint and receive a time penalty.
But I was determined to do better. I drove fast with the focus on being consistent. Murugan had a few problems because at times he couldn't give calls since the small GPS screen meant that he couldn't read from it without spectacles. The transport stage was also challenging. With the RZR loaded in the truck, we would at times cover 100km in one hour over broken roads. Before we got into parc ferm, the RZR had to be serviced and fixed if needed. This meant we ended our days late on every leg and had to get back to rallying early in the morning.
Despite all of that, we managed to do well on all the stages after Day 2. I was looking to stay consistent. No hero business for me. That was left to CS Santosh who was running away in the two-wheeler category. Since all the RZRs started from the back, the Dakar hero would pass us half way into the stage every single time. Watching him ride flat out on sand, standing on his Suzuki, was a surreal moment. For the first time it actually felt good to see someone pass us in the rally!
The RZR maxes out at 100kmph but because of its high power to weight ratio and agility, I could easily pass a lot of rally Gypsys and Vitaras. I even got better at going sideways and left foot braking over the days. Truth be told, I felt like a rally star in the making.
Dakar hero and team OD, both winners
But this is a sport that keeps sending reminders to keep it real. An all-woman team in a Gypsy understeered in a corner ahead of us and got stuck after driving over a tall bush. It seemed like a minor accident till the heat from the exhaust ignited the bush and the Gypsy was in danger of being engulfed in flames. We stopped and got the drivers out safely. Murugan and I even used the fire extinguisher from our RZR but the fire couldn't be contained and unfortunately we couldn't save the vehicle. We spent over 20 minutes there. In the end though, we had to leave as the stage had to be finished but not before making sure that our fellow competitors were safe.
By Day 5, we had covered close to 2,000km. And it was taking its toll on the participants. Only two RZRs were still running in the rally. The others suffered technical issues while one team had crashed out of the rally. It was smooth sailing for us until the service crew changed the suspension settings. The RZR's tail would step out at the slightest steering input and it was hard to even drive fast in a straight line. We slowed down considerably but managed to complete the 60km stage. I asked the crew to revert to the original setting but in the next stage the problem still persisted. And disaster struck. We were driving on sand but when the surface changed to gravel, the rear stepped out more than expected. Then the inevitable happened. Instead of fighting my reflex and counter steering, I hit the brakes. The RZR gained traction and we ended up rolling - twice. Luckily our friends from Auto Bild and Auto Track were close by and helped us get out and pushed the RZR back onto its wheels. I was shaken but escaped major injuries because of the roll cage and the five-point harness. Murugan, however, was bleeding from his right hand. It was painful knowing that I was responsible for that injury. The ambulance arrived immediately and he got medical aid. The doctor asked Murugan to get an X-ray done to rule out a fracture but he would have none of it and looked at me and asked me to fix the RZR. We have a rally to finish," he said. I will forever be indebted to him for saying that.
Murugan's positive energy got me pumped up again. The RZR had suffered a puncture, the mirrors were broken and the windshield had fallen out. I quickly replaced the tyre with the spare. In the commotion, the windshield had been taken away by one of the onlookers. But a good Samaritan found that individual who had taken it and retrieved it for us. Not just that. He also found the time card that we hadn't noticed till then that we were missing. Losing the card would have meant that we would have been excluded from the results. But that man had saved the day - twice!
The RZR and Murugan, despite the roll, were alright and we went on to finish the stage. The service crew did a great job by fixing the RZR in the transport stage and we were in time for the start of the next leg. It was the last leg of the rally and a night stage. We just had to complete it and head to the last parc ferm in Jaipur. That was the plan.
But this stage would really test our limits. To being with, we made it to the start of the stage with just a minute to spare. The night stage meant that I was constantly reminded of what had happened on Day 1. And then I had the previous day's accident on my mind. And to add to the drama and tension, it began to rain! We set off. I couldn't see much despite the additional lights that the RZR had. I was also shivering because of the cold and we were exposed to the elements. The stage was slushy and very twisty with sudden drops and climbs. It required us to give it our 100 per cent concentration and we had to do that for more than an hour. Slowly but steadily we completed the 40km stage. With the time card stamped at the end, we loaded the RZR onto the truck. But we still had to get to the last special stage and we were running late - again.
But as we left, nervous about whether we would make it in time, Manish our team manager called me and said what would be the best thing anyone has said to me in a long time - Congratulations you won!"
What me? How? What just happened? When you are shocked, you lose the ability to comprehend things and there I was, unable to blink, mouth wide open. Manish then explained that the last stage had been washed out and that the second RZR's engine had given up in the previous stage.
OVERDRIVE was the only team to finish in the T3 Xtreme class and that meant that we had won our category!
Out of 45 entries that included India's top rally drivers and teams, only 17 completed the rally and we were one of them. The Desert Storm Rally was the most challenging adventure of my life and what made it special was the fact that I won on my very first attempt. It wouldn't have been possible without Murugan, our trusted RZR, Team Polaris and that man who found our time card.
As for saving the world, I might just consider it now...