Return of a lion-hearted performer

Return of a lion-hearted performer

Awesome twosome: Red Rooster Racing’s Naren Kumar (left) and Ram Kumar captured the Indian National Racing Championship with a powerful show that put to shade many young drivers.

Seven Indian National Racing Championship titles, an enviable record on the track and a driving style akin to Mozart playing the symphony behind the wheels of a mind-blowing machine hurling down the road at over 190 kmph.

The sight of VR Naren Kumar thundering up, down or sideways on a dusty, almost barren, rugged road is a delight to anyone who stands just behind the tape waiting to catch a glimpse.

What follows -- sadly -- is a little less than a glimpse but the dust cloud, navigator Ramkumar's well-aged voice screaming out directions from the tulip card and the Cedia N+'s devilish grunt leave a lasting impression.

However, the sights and sounds of Naren in his elements would have been a mere memory if he had not returned to the sport.

After clinching his first four INRC championships with Team MRF, Naren jumped to JK Tyre, where he won another couple of titles -- the last of which put him one behind rally great N Leelakrishnan, who had won seven titles between 1990 and 2001.

Just when everyone thought he was going to go for the record-equalling seventh crown, the Coimbatore-born 37-year-old laid to rest his champagne-stained racesuit.

Four years and a beer belly later, he was seen at the Nashik rally, sporting his usual know-it-all smirk but this time dressed in a red and white suit with a crazy-looking rooster painted right around.

"I came back because Red Rooster Racing requested me to," Naren said over phone from Coimbatore. "I accepted the offer because, one, I have a lot of friends in RRR and two, when I was looking for sponsorship to complete the 2007 Malaysian Pacific Championship, they helped me out. "I wanted to be there for them, like they were there for me when I needed them."

Several critics questioned how successful his return would be, given that Gaurav Gill, Arjun Balu (both MRF), RRR team-mate Vikram Mathias and a host of other younger drivers were quicker and had had rallying time in India and abroad.

With a nonchalance that can be spotted from a distance, Naren took it all in his stride and went on to do what he does best -- win races.

He couldn't acclimatise quickly enough to get on the podium at Nashik but come Coimbatore, and he was back in business. He won the rally unchallenged and backed it up with victory in the Rally of Rajasthan. With two wins and 27 points, Naren was already set to clinch a seventh title.

"RRR is a great team, a fantastic team to be a part of. They are very passion-driven and that's what brings people together. I really did not prepare for the rally. I took one race at a time and that eventually got me to where I finished," said Naren.

"There were some problems in terms of organising the event but at the end of the day, we drive in the championship because of the quality of the competition that's around. This is the only National championship where India's best drivers take part, and that's all it took for me to focus," Naren added when asked if organisational glitches that marred last year's championship had affected him on his return.

Naren's return was somehow expected to soothe, if not stop, the bitter feud between MRF and RRR that has shaped the INRC in recent times. "I will make one clear statement: RRR have the results to prove our worth. That's all there is to say," an emotionally-charged Naren said.

Naren simply shrugged off queries about his future plans, saying he had not made any plans for the 2011 season but towards the end of the conversation, he added that he was not anywhere near his peak when he grabbed his seventh title.

One can only imagine how far ahead of the field that would have got him.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox