Arunachal Speed Festival : A Rally In The Hills
On a cold, late spring morning, the Buddhist incantation –‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ – reverberated across eastern Arunachal Pradesh’s picturesque Dirang Valley, still enveloped in fog. And as the sun struggled to gain ascendancy, the chants were soon drowned by the macho roar of engines revving up at the town’s Lopon Stadium where hundreds of Dirang’s simple and easy-going folks, including Buddhist monks with prayer beads, had gathered to watch the second edition of JK Tyre Arunachal Festival of Speed, a one-of-its-kind automobile rally in India that has become the high point in the state’s annual calendar of events.
The Dirang Valley, at 4,900 feet above sea level, is about 200 kilometres (five hours’ drive) from the nearest airport in Assam’s Tezpur town. The Kameng river flows through the idyllic valley that is ringed by snow-capped peaks of the eastern Himalayas
The valley is a popular stopover for travelers driving to Tawang near the Indo-Tibet border. The rough terrain—tracks skirting the high mountains, dry river beds and open fields—provides the perfect setting for extreme rallies. This realization dawned on Lhakpa Tsering, a motorsport enthusiast and local businessman who had studied in Shillong and Delhi and taken part in national rallies like the Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm many times.
“I have taken part in rallies where the tracks are artificial. Organizers of rallies spend huge sums of money to make off-road tracks. But in Dirang, the terrain is readymade for extreme rallies. So I started organizing such rallies from 2000 with my own finances,” said Lhakpa, whose father Tsering Gyurme had been a senior cabinet minister in successive Congress ministries in the state and is now a senior functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Lhakpa, too, is a member of the BJP state unit.
Lhakpa, who heads the Motorsports Club of Arunachal, has been spending lakhs of rupees from his own pocket to organize the rallies with the aim of showcasing his state, especially the Dirang Valley, as a prime adventure sports destination. “Dirang Valley lends itself beautifully to adventure sports like white-water rafting, para-gliding, para-sailing, rock climbing, trekking and car rallying,” he said. Thirteen years after he first started organizing and hosting extreme rallies in eastern Arunachal, help came from JK Tyre and Industries which pioneered motorsports in India.
“Dirang Valley is crafted by nature to hold extreme rallies. It is not possible to find such terrain anywhere else in India. We started sponsoring this rally there as part of our mission to promote motorsports in North East India. We started with the Hornbill Car Rally in Nagaland a few years ago. When we started in Nagaland, all the awards were bagged by rallyists from outside the region. But now, local motorsports enthusiasts win most of the awards there. We want to nurture local talent,” said Sanjay Sharma, JK Tyre & Industries’ head of motorsports .
At the Lopon stadium, 35 vehicles of many makes and a few quad four-wheelers were lined up for the first day of the three-day rally that is the only one of its kind in India since it combines three forms of off-road racing and rallying—the Autocross, the Rally Sprint and the Hill Climb. The autocrosson the first day was on a one-kilometer track inside the stadium that put drivers’ driving and car handling skills to the test since the track was a circular one with sharp twists and turns. Raising clouds of dust, the vehicles screeched and screamed to the finishing point. All the participants were allowed two runs per leg and were allowed to choose their best timings from three legs for the final tally. This event continued throughout the day and well into the evening.
The setting shifted to another beautiful valley—the Sangti Valley, about 15 km from Dirang on the second day for the Rally Sprint stage where drivers are tested on a wide range of skills like acceleration, braking and handling. The 3.65 km track was on a harvested paddy field beside the shallow Sangti river. The multiple sand traps and tricky turns posed tough challenges to drivers and many ultimately dropped out.
But it was the last stage of the festival—the Hill Climb—that was the most spectacular. The steep mud tracks hewed from the sides of a privately-owned hill carpeted by kiwi and apple saplings at Bisum Phudugn village, about 20 km from Dirang past the Sangti Valley, posed the ultimate test for both man and machine. After all, climbing 6,200 feet—from the base to the top of this hill—through 9.2 kms of tracks is no ordinary feat. The young owner of the hill that’s an apple and kiwi orchard in the making, Rinjing Tashi, was as thrilled as everyone else at the sight of vehicles speeding up the hill at breakneck speed and expertly negotiating the hairpin bends.
“This rally is one of the toughest I have taken part in. It is well organized and the tracks are excellent, putting both a driver and the vehicle to extreme test. And the fact that it’s held in such a beautiful place in a remote part of our country makes it all the more attractive. This rally is a great way of advertising the tourism and adventure sports potential of Arunachal Pradesh,” said Gaurav Gill, who, In 2013, became the first Indian driver to win the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
For the participants from the North East, too, this rally was a challenging and memorable one. “The terrain of eastern Arunachal is unique. Though we have hills and mountains in the rest of the North East, nothing compares to the sheer rock faces, the steep climbs, the hair-pin bends and the dirt tracks in and around Dirang Valley,” said Lima Jamir of Nagaland.
The festival also achieved its stated objective of uncovering and grooming new talents from the North East. This year, Arindam Saikia of Meghalaya was an exciting discovery—he dominated the Quad class behind the wheels of his Polaris RZR 1000 by winning the Auto Cross Sprint and the Hill Climb.
Gaurav Gill emerged in the top slot in both the Open and 1600 cc classes. Saazid Singha and Philippos Matthai were the first and second runners up in the Open Class, while Matthai and Lima Jamir came 2nd and 3rd respectively in the 1600 cc class. Saazid stumped Gaurav to become the winner in the SUV class, while Gill and Kamlesh Das (of Assam) came 2nd and 3rd.
Racers from the North East picked up the first three positions in the Quad Class with Arindam Saikia emerging the winner, followed by Chiborlang Wahlang (of Meghalaya) and Hage Bitu in 2nd and 3rd positions. In the special North East Class, Kamlesh Das emerged the winner, followed by Angruxo Sechke (of Nagaland) and Jitu Kalita (Arunachal) as first and second runners-up.
This Speed Festival is supported by the Arunachal government and the Indian army. The National Institute of Mountaineering & Allied Sports (NIMHAS) which is run by the Ministry of Defence and staffed by senior army officers, as well as army formations in Arunachal Pradesh, helped organize the rally with men and logistics. “With the sort of support we receive from the state government and the Indian Army, we are confident of not only improving the standard of our Speed Festival, but also our ability to host the extreme rallying leg of the IRC (Indian Rally Championship) organized by The Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) from next year,” said Lakhpa.
If that happens, Dirang Valley will get its rightful place in the rallying map of India. Hemmed in by mountains, the snow-clad peaks towering over the horizon and with breathtaking vistas, no other rally venue in the country can match Dirang’s.