Racing ahead with technology

Occasional Bytes

By Hari Kumar

6 min read
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Jose Pottamkulam as a team owner in MRF races

Imagine you are in the thick of a high-octane go-kart endurance race. As drivers zoom past doing their laps and check-in at the pit stops, there are so many things that the team management has to do in a few seconds before contestants race back onto the track.

The manager has a crucial role – formulate a team strategy, keep a watch on all drivers, and assess their speed and performance on each lap. Then a quick analysis is made of the performance of other teams, and drivers are shifted to maximise the team’s advantage after each round.

Now imagine doing all those some 8,400 kilometres away from the racetrack. That is what exactly Jose Pottamkulam achieved on June 28, thanks to technology.

Not only did he guide his team from his home in Thiruvananthapuram as go-karts screeched past the crowd in Rye House Raceway in Hertfordshire, England, but his team also won the fourth spot in this intense competition.

Pottamkulam, popularly known as Ootta among his friends, has been a familiar face on the Indian racing scene for decades, first as a driver and then as a team owner. He became an international celebrity after his team roped in the sons of the legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt to race in the MRF Challenge in 2014.

Pottamkulam with legendary Nikki Lauda

The appearance of Freddie Hunt and Mathias Lauda immediately caught the imagination of the motor racing world as the competition between their dads has been one of the most talked-about sporting rivalries in history. The legendary duels between the two even made a Hollywood blockbuster, The Rush, directed by Ron Howard.

The historical event, which Pottamkulam managed to pull off, was part of the reason that organisers of the race in England last month sought him out to help organise the June 28 race, held as a fundraiser to help refugees from Ukraine. Pottamkulam had also developed a vast network in the global motor racing community as he took the initiative to make a documentary on the racing careers of the sons of the two legends, Nikki Lauda and James Hunt, titled Sons of Speed. It is slated for release this year.

But that is a story for another time.

The Kerala driver initially intended to participate in the June 28 go-kart event at the track where a young Lewis Hamilton honed his skills. But the visa for travel did not come on time as British officials moved at a snail’s pace with his application. So, once Pottamkulam realised his presence at the fundraiser race would be impossible, he turned to technology to participate in the event.

Freddie Hunt at the June 28 race

He organised two teams and brought in 17 drivers, including Freddie Hunt by tapping into his social network. The event got a further boost when former supermodel and race driver Jodie Kidd signed on for the event.

“Among the 17 drivers I roped in, I had physically met only seven of them. That is the magic of technology,” says Pottamkulam.

In the end, 24 teams entered the endurance event, where teams with teams of drivers spin around the track for three hours, some doing around 200 rounds.

As the drivers raced, Pottamkulam kept an eagle eye on the speed every driver clocked through internet. His only other feedback was some images a friend sent through WhatsApp. But his experience on and off the track kicked in as he conveyed commands to his drivers through a WhatsApp link. Finally, as the competition finished, one of his teams had grabbed the fourth position in the gruelling race – an achievement as good as a podium finish.

“Even though I was not in the thick of things there, I spent the whole time glued to my phone and managing my team. The race ended around 1 a.m. Indian time, but rather than feeling sleepy, I was euphoric because of the results. The enormity of what I did dawned on me only later,” Pottamkulam recalls.

“Technology had helped me to manage a go-kart team racing in England from the comforts of my home in Kanjirampara in Thiruvananthapuram,” some 8,200 km away. A hint of disbelief still hung in his voice.

Pottamkulam has been a familiar face
on the Indian racing scene

Ukrainian member of parliament Yulia Klymenko were among those who sent messages to Pottamkulam appreciating his efforts in organising the event.

Go-kart races, of course, are not as technology-driven as F-1 races, where every millimetre of the car is monitored every second, and tons of data are analysed every millisecond as the slightest error could determine the outcome of the multimillion-dollar race.

But still it is an intense competition and even an ace motorist like Pottamkulam wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, but for the technology, most of which didn’t exist just two decades ago, and that we now take for granted. The smartphone in your pocket and the speedy internet that comes alive on your screen with a gentle finger tap have truly shrunk the world into a global village.

No other field conveys the fast development of technology as the gaming sector that churns out billions of dollars and has now been recognised as an actual sports event. The coming Asian Games in China offer eight gold medals for electronic games, but racing is not among them.

Motorsport games are getting as realistic as the actual ones, with gigabytes of data available to the teams on the track, both in the natural and virtual world. As data expert James Hodge told a recent Ted Talk, technology is also bringing down social, economic, and geographical barriers by making games like F1 accessible to youth everywhere.

No wonder the gaming industry is three times bigger than the music industry now and will double by 2025. The sector generated US$2.2 billion in India in 2021 and is expected to hit US$7 billion by 2025.

This explosive growth of both natural and virtual motorsports is opening doors for people even in the world’s remotest parts and making it affordable to millions. One only needs an X-box or PlayStation to enter this dreamworld of speed merchants.

Similarly, driving on a real race track was a dream of the elite and powerful until a few decades back, unless compelled by a singular passion, like Pottamkulam was in the 1980s. But that has changed as racetracks or versions of it have sprung up in many places, including Kerala, enabling those ready to burn a few thousand rupees to test their mettle behind the wheel.

One potentially positive aspect this brings is that such venues could be used to lure away the youth from the dangerous road races that occur on Kerala roads and end up in fatal accidents with sickening regularity.

“Racing on the road with normal bikes and cars is very risky, and I would advise anyone seeking the thrill of speed to test their skills on proper race tracks where safety regulations are observed,” says Pottamkulam. “Racing is a passion, and those who have it should follow their heart, just like I did, but racing on the road puts you in danger and also puts innocent bystanders at risk. That should not be allowed,” he says.

Maybe some authority with a vision and understanding of modern technology will heed his advice to provide avenues for youngsters to learn the ropes of motor racing and display their skills within the confines of a track instead of tempting fate by racing with ordinary vehicles on our roads. The investment that government makes could save lives and the expenses they spent in trying to curb the road races, not to speak of the dangers it brings.

Adrenaline-pumped youths everywhere get a kick out of speed, and youngsters in Kerala are no different. So, providing them a proper facility to train and seek the skills to keep them safe is something authorities can do instead of going after them with a ham-fisted approach.

“Providing racetracks in every district, training rookie drivers and bikers, and giving them the opportunity to show off their skills through local competition will reduce the need for road races. More than that, such training can be given to anyone irrespective of age, which would help reduce road accidents in Kerala as they will learn the dos and don’ts of driving a vehicle,” says Pottamkulam. “Or else, we will continue with white knuckle rides every time you take to the Kerala roads.”

Dismissing such ideas as daydreams could be the immediate reaction of many people. Still, Jose Pottamkulam has shown that thinking outside the box can bring surprising results, especially when using modern technology.

Photo credit | Jose Pottamkulam

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