'Hardest time of my life'

'Hardest time of my life'

Interview C S Santosh : A bruised body and an enriched mind are reminders of his Dakar conquest for rider C S Santosh

'Hardest time of my life'
Even in the extremely daring world of rally racing where competitors cheat death in every race, the very mention of Dakar draws raised eyebrows. It is a race that separates the men from the boys.

Unlike closed circuit racing -- which is no less safer -- Dakar rally has been dubbed my many as the most dangerous legally-sanctioned motorsport event in the world.

The rally, which averages at least one participant death every year and has not spared even spectators, spans across countries, demanding participants to complete a punishing 9,000 kilometres in a little over a fortnight.

With very little time to recover between stages, it is considered the ultimate endurance test. This month an unheralded Bengalurean chose that winding path to make a name for himself. Thirty-one-year old CS Santosh not only created history by becoming the first Indian participant but also stunned everyone by finishing a respectable 36th among 79 finishers out of 168 starters.

Mightily pleased in conquering the unforgiving terrains despite a fractured toe, Santosh spoke to Deccan Herald about his experience, the pain and his future plans. Excerpts…
Dakar is the most dangerous rally in the world that has caused plenty of casualties. What prompted you take up the task?

Honestly, I don’t know. The very fact that I enjoy motorcycling is one of the reasons behind me doing the Dakar rally. If you are a racer or a rally rider, then you should not be thinking about death. Motor sport in general is a very dangerous profession and one needs to accept the risks involved. You cannot fear death. From the day my dad presented me a motorcycle -- I was 16 or 17 -- I always wanted to be a rider. The day fear creeps inside me, I will hang up my boots.

Was it easy to convince your parents?

Actually, it was very easy. By now they know what kind of person I am. I am a motorcyclist and they know I won’t change my profession anytime soon. They also were very aware how big Dakar is. Of course, they knew how dangerous it was as well but they realised competing in Dakar would give a major fillip to my career. I just told them about the opportunity and they were overwhelmed. They didn’t stand in the way.

How did you feel when you realised that you would be competing in Dakar?

Initially, I had my doubts. Some of the legendary names in motorsport have competed in the Dakar rally. Everyone knows how brutal it is. Slowly the obsession started to kick in and last year I took part in World Championship. During one of the races in April, KTM felt I had in me to do the Dakar and they were very supportive. They felt that it would be an amazing story for an Indian to compete there and having accomplished that feat, I feel really great.

What does it take to finish the race?

In my case, I always believed that I was destined to do this. I knew from the first day that somehow I was going to make the finish. For a ride like this you need to have a lot of luck, you need to be well-prepared, you need to work hard. It takes a lot from you, not just physically but emotionally as well.

Only about half the field complete the race which tells you how extreme it can get. It was the hardest two weeks of my life. I suffered a fractured toe, crashed in a lot of places and my body took a toll. But, I was prepared to fight it out no matter what.

How was the overall experience?

The rally is not just about endurance. We have to do speeds about 150-160km an hour through forests, wooded areas, deserts — terrain that we've never seen. We have do those speeds through the whole 14 days. Physically it is very demanding.

If you don't pay attention to the road or the road-book even for one second, the terrain is waiting to catch you out. You don't love every day that you're there. Sometimes you love it, many a times you just hate it. You just have to endure it. When you retire for the day, you feel a small sense of accomplishment. That's what everyone looks forward to.

You just spoke about hate. Did you ever think of giving up?

I don't think I had a choice to give up. It took us a lot to get to the Dakar. I wasn't going to let anything get in the way. Right from the start, I knew that if I was able to do it physically, no matter what the pain was, I was going to go through with it. Even when I left home, I knew those two weeks were going to be the hardest of my life. I was ready to suffer.

What sort of injuries and misfortunes did you suffer?

On the third day, I was going through the sand dunes and I had a huge crash and busted my nose open. I remember I was really pushing in the last 20 kilometres because I had caught a lot of guys in the dunes and I just got ahead of myself trying to make up time and crashed really huge.

Then in Chile where there was a lot of dust, I wanted to pass a few guys in the beginning before I settled into a rhythm. I tried passing these guys and when the dust cleared, I saw a huge caution saying that the river had washed away the road. By the time I could realise it was too late and I crash-landed, fracturing my toe.

I rode for 300 kilometres with excruciating pain and during a stage in the dunes, I had to ride standing. It was absolutely punishing. Then I suffered a head-on crash in Bolivia where my helmet almost broke into two halves.

Polish rider Michal Hernik passed away at the rally. Did you meet him?

Yes and I feel really sorry for his family. His family had come to witness the race. In fact, we got on really well and shared some nice conversations. It’s terrible that he didn’t make it. It sort of affected me. Even now I’m not able to digest the tragedy.

What’s next?

To be back at Dakar but aim for a top-10 finish. Now that I’ve got a taste of things, I want to aim higher. I will be into two-wheeler racing for the next five years and then switch over to four-wheelers. Some of the best drivers were riders during the early part of their careers and that’s something I’m looking forward to.

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