Get it while it’s hot. The new issue of WIRED (January 2007) has a fun description of a tiny part of the auto-rickshaw race that my team Curry in a Hurry took part in across Tamil Nadu. If enough people are interested I might post another version of this story on my blog that runs about five times as long and includes lots of other juicy details. Sadly, we had to pear the final version down for the print edition.
A SLEDGEHAMMER ISN’T THE IDEAL tool for fixing a motor vehicle, but sometimes there’s no better option. Kabali Balakrishnan rolls up his shirt sleeves, hefts the 10-pound hammer, and drives it into the spot where the metal is bent nearly into a V. Several precisely aimed whacks later, the piece has regained a semblance of its former shape. The tire will rub against the wheel well, the mechanic warns, but as long as the driver keeps the air pressure low, moves slowly, and avoids ramming any more boulders head-on, he ought to reach the finish line before his ride catches fire.
Balakrishnan is the official mechanic of the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge, a contest intended to transform his country’s back-alley drag racing craze into an internationally recognized sport (or, more likely, spectacle). Auto-rickshaws – motorized, small-wheeled tricycles with room for a driver and two passengers – serve as taxis throughout India. With a high center of gravity and a tendency to roll, though, they aren’t known for safety, and police are cracking down on racers who risk their lives – and those of bystanders – by whizzing down gullies and drainage ditches in a quest for recognition and gold-necklace prizes.
But as the authorities work to eliminate rickshaw racing, one of the sport’s most avid fans aims to legitimize it. Aravind Bremanandam, an amiable Tamil entrepreneur, spent the past year setting up the first-ever official rickshaw competition. Advertising on the Internet, he signed up 43 drivers from around the world, many of whom had never even ridden in a rickshaw, to undertake an eight-day rally over nearly 1,000 kilometers of bad road, from the bustling metropolis of Chennai to the holy city of Kanyakumari.
So, on a clear, late-summer morning, 16 brightly painted rickshaws line up along the Chennai beach, revving their two-stroke engines like buzzing locusts. Bremanandam’s own buggy looks more like a mobile home than a rickshaw. The rear holds a love seat, a small refrigerator, and a sound system.
With minutes to go before starting time, the entrepreneur offers a brief reminder of the rules. “The roads are too dangerous for inexperienced drivers,” he says, so instead of vying for the best time, teams will gather points by completing tasks along the way – for instance, stopping at a temple to be blessed by a sacred elephant.
A local dignitary lowers a checkered flag and barely manages to jump out of the way as the rickshaws lurch forward.
After three days, half the vehicles bear deep gashes; a couple are so badly damaged that Balakrishnan has had to replace their engines. Day seven is marked by a near-fatal accident. On the final day, the rickshaws putter across the finish line in various states of disrepair. Although a Hungarian team arrives first, a British husband-and-wife duo has racked up the most points. At an award ceremony held in a field near the finish line, Bremanandam presents them with the modest prize: a chrome-plated fender bearing the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge logo, rendered in Sanskrit.
One team had brought a set of Euro-made tools to fix their own rig but never used them because Balakrishnan was always ready when trouble arose. They present the stalwart mechanic with the tools, which are of far better quality than anything available in India. The barrel-chested mechanic grins. He looks as though he’s about to cry.
After a night of celebration, Balakrishnan walks to his mobile workshop in the back of a white minivan. He fondles a wrench that broke while removing a frozen bolt, then replaces it with the shiny European spanner. He rummages around for a ballpoint pen and a stained notebook and starts writing invoices for the repairs he made over the past week. He pulls the van’s door shut. It slams with the sound of a sledgehammer striking an axle.
Find this article in this month’s issue of WIRED.