Imagine this: You’re just a regular guy, in fact you’re pretty much nobody. Only a handful of people know you by name and most of those are related to you. You’re always on the road – not for business meetings or on vacation or backpacking or hitch hiking; just on the road, driving from one destination to another. What you’re driving is nothing fancy; what you’re driving is something that everyone around you hates you for. What you’re driving has been far from comfortable all these years, yet it is the only thing you know to do. What you’re driving is work and work conditions aren’t close to being humane. Work conditions require you to eat, sleep, rest and spend days and days cramped in a tiny space, sharing it with at least one other person. Work conditions have meant sitting on nothing more than a rickety bench for hours and hours as you struggle to power your vehicle up steep inclines, twisting roads, tight lanes and clogged traffic jams. Work conditions include being abused by every other road user and then some more by multiple cops all along your route, everyday. The nature of your job itself holds absolutely no sense of respect in the eyes of society despite being someone without whom that very society would cease to function. Imagine being under-appreciated for the work you do to make ends meet, every day. Imagine the life of a truck driver.
It’s never been easy for truckers in India, but someone’s got to get the job done. Someone’s got to ensure raw materials, food stuff, oil, fuel, daily necessities and tons of other things make their way from either a factory to a port or a port to their final destination in supermarkets or warehouses or distribution points. These guys are everyday heroes and while there may be many among them that openly flout the rules and traffic regulations, there is a sizeable number among them who do stick to being true to their jobs. The lack of appreciation and acknowledgement that Indian truckers get is at an unimaginable level and something had to be done. It’s not just about their dignity of labour here, the repercussions are a whole lot more serious. It affects not only their daily lives, but their driving habits too and in turn it affects every road user’s experience on our highways.
It’s never been easy for truckers in India, but someone’s got to get the job done.
As one of India’s biggest manufacturers of commercial vehicles, Tata Motors had to step in and make a difference. It was as much a business need as a social responsibility towards the people who kept the Tata name on the road. All the negativity towards truck drivers had started having its effect on the profession itself – fewer truck drivers every year mean increasing down times for the fleet owners and that in turn causes an adverse effect on truck sales too. The problem was out there and the solution had to be on multiple levels – the work conditions themselves had to be tackled, the business of truck fleet ownership had to become more economical and more importantly the profession of driving trucks had to receive a massive makeover to be perceived as a viable career for a strata of society that had begun moving on to other means of earning a livelihood. The business of trucking had to be given some level of glamour for the rest of society to look at it in a whole new light. The journey began a long time ago, in small but very effective steps – much needed shots in the arm for the truck industry.
Step 1. The Tata Prima
Rewind to about 15 years ago and the commercial vehicles on our roads looked nothing compared to what they’re like right now. The passenger car market was progressing at a fast pace but the trucks were struggling to keep up not only in design and driver comfort but in technology as well. Trucks had begun synonymous with big, worn hunks of metal belching out black smoke and shuddering under the stress of their own engines trying to keep the massive loads moving. Ever since, trucks had begun improving at a fast pace – the influx of foreign brands had some ways to contribute towards this too. Come 2008 and Tata Motors launched the Prima range of heavy trucks – the one that the Indian manufacturer labelled as its ‘Global Truck’. The Prima changed the image for Tata’s commercial vehicles business – it is a great product after all – one that not only keeps its drivers comfortable, but also offers superior benefits to the fleet owners in terms of efficiency and load carrying capacity.
The tool which would become the catalyst for change was in place – the Prima turned out to be quite the product whichever way you looked at it.
The Tata Prima brought with it a common rail diesel engine coupled to an automatic transmission, data loggers for performance logging and ABS. Drivers got pampered in the Prima too – the cabin was equipped with a proper HVAC system, the driver’s seat had air suspension and both seats in the cabin were now four-way adjustable. The tool which would become the catalyst for change was in place – the Prima turned out to be quite the product whichever way you looked at it.
Step 2. Glamour
What’s the one thing that grabs everyone’s interest no matter who you are? It’s motorsport. There’s really no spectacle like a bunch of machines going head-to-head against each other, battling it out for supremacy. It’s the biggest proving ground for not just the abilities of the vehicles but also the skill of the drivers competing against each other. Outside the world of motorsport it’s easy for passenger cars to become common names in the minds of regular folk but trucks barely garner any interest at all. The Prima had to become a household name. It was a gargantuan task indeed and that gap between trucking being seen as a mundane profession and turning it into an object of glamour had to be bridged, and thus was born the T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship.
With specially modified Tata Prima trucks that were set up for a proper bout of racing on the Buddh International Circuit, the first two seasons were the perfect setup to gather as many eyeballs to the event as possible and also to show that truck racing does indeed have a big interest in the country. A mix of experienced truck racers from abroad were invited to participate and what the audiences got was a racing event of a lifetime. Crowds showed up in decent numbers to watch the action unfold too – but this was more about the T1 Prima truck itself rather than the people driving them. In 2016, for the third season of the T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship it was time to up the game.
Step 3. Homegrown Heroes – I
This year, the T1 Prima TRC took things to a whole new level of enthusiasm and interest and the plan seemed simple enough on paper – hunt for 12 Indian truck drivers who will race at BIC in the 3rd season of the Truck Racing Championship. It’s not that simple though – especially if you consider the time in which this was achieved. This would be a great time to re-read the first paragraph of this article for the huge task that lay ahead to sink in. Sometime in the beginning 2016, Tata Motors was sitting on a list of over 500 truck drivers that had been nominated by their fleet operators to be a part of the T1 Prima Truck Racing Program. This extensive list from fleet operators got further sifted to narrow down on 147 hopefuls based on pre-determined selection criteria – age, tractor-trailer driving experience (because that’s essentially what the Prima is), Prima driving experience and other disciplinary checklists.
Then came a 3-level training program with eliminations along the way to properly convert these truck drivers into truck racers. Everything was given a thought – the drivers had to go through not just physical fitness programs, but also mental preparations, actual race track driving experiences, and an entire course on how to race. All the track training was at the MMRT in Chennai where these select drivers went through a series of smaller vehicles before finally moving on to the T1 Prima. The numbers kept thinning as 64 of the 147 shortlisted drivers made it to level 2 and then 26 to level 3. Under three months after these truckers had first been shortlisted, 12 of them with two reserve advanced to the final race at the Buddh International Circuit.
These weren’t just normal folk heading to a race circuit for a trackday. These simple, regular, everyday truck drivers had been transformed into proper racers and it reflected in everything they did. The way they drove had changed. The way they talked had changed. The way they dressed had changed – they were now clothed in proper racing overalls. The only thing that didn’t change was the humility and the sense of achievement in each and every one of them. There was pride in each step. There was dignity in their hearts and the final race on their minds. Each and every one of the drivers who went to BIC that day wanted to win, but they also knew that they were already winners. Their families walked with their heads held high, their peers looked at them with respect and admiration and their entire kin prayed for their success. It had been an emotionally charged journey, but what awaited the final 12 at BIC is something that none of them had ever imagined in their wildest dreams.
Homegrown Heroes – II
No ordinary person goes through a transformation like that on his own – there’s motivation involved and that comes from people who believe in the cause. For any attempt of this magnitude to succeed , it is imperative that everyone involved is so deeply trusting of the philosophy driving it. For the many truck drivers that went through even level 1 of their training and evaluation sessions, that guidance came from two key entities.
The first of these was quite obviously the management at Tata Motors Commercial Vehicles – it was after all, their vision that led them to this point. Probably the most prominent figure there too was R Ramakrishnan – Senior Vice President, TMCV. Ramki is a man who goes beyond that designation though – one chat with him and it is more than evident that he is a man who truly believes in making truck drivers’ lives better. This wasn’t just an idea or a project for him – it was an obsession and you can feel that in every word, every gesture and every thought that comes out of him. There couldn’t have been a better leader for the T1 Prima Racing Program.
For the many truck drivers that went through even level 1 of their training and evaluation sessions, that guidance came from two key entities.
The second important cog in the driver training program was the Motorsport Management team (MOMA for short), led by the very illustrious Vicky Chandhok. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a short introduction – he’s the man deeply entrenched in the progress of Indian Motorsport, the Former President of FMSCI and also the father of Indian Formula 1 star Karun Chandhok. MOMA was tasked with training the participants and transforming them from regular road truck drivers to the racing drivers they are today. Vicky’s team comprised of Indian racing drivers – all of whom have been National Champions in one form of the sport or the other including one of the country’s top racing stars today – Aditya Patel. It couldn’t have been an easy task for MOMA to accomplish what they have either – the trainers had to first learn the nuances of truck racing themselves before they had to polish up on their Hindi to communicate with the drivers and teach them over the course of a couple of months what they had themselves spent the better part of their lives learning. You had to be there to believe it – the rapport that the drivers shared with both the Tata Motors team and their instructors from MOMA was humbling. There was respect, there was camaraderie and they seemed more like family than just being students and teachers. There’s no doubt that all of this went a long way in prepping for the big day.
Step 4. Race Day
20th March 2016 is a date that will go down in the history books of Indian Motorsport. 12 drivers took to the track for two races – 6 drivers in each race, for the first ever running of the T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship with Indian drivers. Regular, everyday truckers went from being nobodies to instant stardom. It’s not an easy situation to handle. They were the talk of the town, and they displayed great pedigree. These Indian drivers weren’t too far off the pace of the more seasoned and experienced foreign drivers either – and these guys had been racing with the T1 Prima for less than a month now. All 12 drivers finished the race. All 12 drivers came out smiling. All 12 drivers had won something in their lives that we will probably never be able to. These drivers are now a beacon of hope and inspiration to so many of their brethren around the country who are already aspiring to be a part of the next season.
Jagat Singh and Nagarjuna A walked away with the race wins and the cash prizes of Rs 10 lakh each. Malkeet Singh and Bhag Chand followed in second place for Race 1 and Race 2 for Indian drivers with Rs 6 lakh each. Rajkumar Mahato and Anand placed third with Rs 4 lakh each. What could be more encouraging than these sums being the highest ever cash prizes awarded at any Indian Motorsport event ever? But it wasn’t just these six winners who stood on the podium that were winners. The real winners are each and every one of the truck drivers that have been a part of this amazing effort. Tata Motors is a winner . MOMA is a winner. The Indian driver program at the T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship is a winner and this will only spiral into something even bigger in the future – it has to.
Imagine this: Three months ago you were nobody – just a name on a roster for a logistics company, driving goods from one part of the country to another. Three months ago you filled up a form and got shortlisted for a Truck Racing Program. Three months ago you took your first ever airplane ride. You stepped into a hotel and no one looked at you funny. You began learning the art of race track driving. You made friends. You got respect. You competed with fellow truck drivers to make it to the final round. You flew out to an International FIA-spec circuit. You flew now, in a matter of hours, to Delhi when three months ago the only way you ever made it there was driving a truck yourself, for days. You see your pictures on massive advertising hoardings – the same ones on which you saw your favourite movie stars before. An entire nation has heard of your name. Your family, friends and the entire village is rooting for you.
You make your practice runs and find out you’re almost as fast as the International drivers who have been doing this for years. You gear up for the race and strap yourself in the race seat in your black and red liveried Tata T1 Prima – you’re trained for this now. Then you look out the window. There are people everywhere. The Grandstands are full – thousands and thousands of people are here to see you. The pit lane is lined with journalists – every one of them waiting to speak to you. There are flashes going off everywhere – more pictures of you have been clicked in the last 5 minutes than have in your entire lifetime. You set out on your formation lap, and then the race starts and you’re pushing as hard as you can for the next 8 laps.
Every time you pass the start-finish straight the crowd erupts in excitement – for you. Air horns and Vuvuzelas blare – for you. You cross the finish line and the crowd goes mad. You pull into the pits and you’re hoarded by television cameras and mics in your face just to hear you speak. People are chanting your name. Your favourite artists are performing, in your honour. You’re a celebrity. You’ve won. Emotions run wild and before you know it you’re wiping the tears off your cheeks. Your life has changed. You step out onto the podium for the prize distribution. You see the pride in Ramki’s eyes. You see the pride in Vicky’s eyes. You feel the pride as the Indian flag is hoisted above and the National Anthem starts playing as the whole Grandstand starts singing in tune. All eyes are on you. You’ve done it. You feel your heart swell with pride. And you feel the entire crowd feel proud. Of you. Yet, three months ago, you were nobody.