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Arunachal Pradesh vrooms ahead in full speed

Hoihnu Hauzel 13 Apr 2017

Every year in the months of March-April, Dirang, a sleepy hamlet in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district, comes alive with a lot of sound and action. This is the time when it plays host to Arunachal Festival of Speed (AFOS), a motorsport event which combines three different types of off-road racing like Auto Cross, Rally Sprint and Hill Climb. In its fourth year, the three-day long AFOS kicks off on April 15.

For Dirang’s inhabitants, this event is their window to the world. This is the one time when tourists and motorsports enthusiasts come flocking to this pristine place, which is the gateway to the famous Tawang Monastery. Dirang lies a few kilometers away from the dense Sangti Valley, where migratory black-necked cranes from China come every year. All the hotels and guest houses, about 18 in all, get completely booked, leading to locals hosting guests in their humble abodes.

The AFOS is the brainchild of LhakpaTsering, a motorsport aficionado. In 1998, he founded the first Motorsports Club in Arunachal Pradesh and two years later in 2000 organized the first rally in the state inorder to take his passion to the next level.Tsering was always passionate about bikes and car but never realized that he could make a career out of it. After graduating from Kirori Mal College, New Delhi, he returned toDirangandtook up kiwi cultivation. But the lure of motorsports was too tough to resist, leading him to start AFOS. It began with nine participants and today there are over 50.

Tsering talks to NE Travel and Life about AFOS’ journey and his future plans.

When and how did you realise your passion for motorsport?

Back in 1988 I was a student and lived near the India Gate in New Delhi. The vrooming sound of the Himalayan Rally cars that often passed by the house I lived in excited me. I would watch it live on Doordarshan. It was then that I got hooked on to the sports and the passion continues to this day. 

What is the idea behind Motorsports Club of Arunachal?

 I founded Motorsports Club of Arunachal (MSCA) in 1998. The idea was to primarily focus on adventure motorsports.This was the time when snazzy automobiles were being launched in India and people were enthusiastic. The idea and initiative got a lot of support from people. In fact, a senior auto journalist credited my club with single handedly changing the scene of motorsports in the Northeast. I realized one thing - we are an isolated and a landlocked region, so we must make the best use of our topography and terrain. We will never find a terrain like ours anywhere in India and my idea is to cash in on that.

What differentiates the Festival of Speed from others like Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm?

Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm are longduration events.They stretch for days and weeks.  They are endurance rallies where physical condition of men and machine must be in sync. AFOS, on the other hand, is a short extreme high speed event.

You organisedand financed the first rally in 2000.For a first timer, what was the experience like?

Initially, people thought that I had lost my bearings but in the first year itself in 2000,the chief minister MukutMithisupported the event. It won’t be fair to say I financed the entire event. I had the backing of corporate giant Total, the fourth largest global oil and gas company. They were present in Tripura and Assam and I approached the management with a presentation. It did not take much time to convince them as they were familiar with the kind of sport we had in mind. They agreed to support us. Also, it was something unheard of in the Northeast then. It was an extreme rally on untrodden path and there was much to be explored and discovered along the way. Much later, when they merged with another company, our association died a natural death as the management changed. I did whatever I could to run the event including taking loans from friends.I was in debt for a while. I felt discouraged at that time due to extreme logistical challenges that we faced then, and so it took me eight years to muster the courage to organise another event. That’s why there was a huge gap – 14 years - between our first rally and the next one. But the learning was immense.The determination to pursue my dream pushed me to do a better event.

What are/were the initial challenges? 

Transport logisticis the biggest challenge. Participants get discouraged by the long tedious journey. But the brighter side has been that the government as well as the locals have always been supportive and encouraging. This motivates me to carry on.

Are lack of proper accommodation and direct connectivity also disadvantages? What would be your wishlist on these two aspects?

Yes, accommodation is an issue because of which I have been unable to take AFOS to other exotic locales in the state. My foremost wish would be an international airport in the state and the other would be the realisation of the trans Arunachal highway.

An aerial view of the hill climb track for AFOS 2107An aerial view of the hill climb track for AFOS 2107

How did you get JK Tyre and Industries as your principal sponsor/partner right from the beginning?

JKTyre Motorsports has been headed by a visionary called Sanjay Sharma for the last 20 years or more. I have known him since then and I guess the passion which I had then was noticed by him. That’s how the group came around to support the first AFOS, and our marriage is still intact.

Other than providing employment to local youth, how has the event changed Dirang?

Every hotelier, transport service provider, and the youth look forward to AFOS every year. The publicity networking system that we put in place during the event has put Dirang in the limelight of motorsports events in the country. You google motorsports in India and you are bound to find Dirang mentioned.

How has AFOS helped in boosting local tourism?

Besides immediate contribution to local economy during the event,there has been an increase in tourist footfalls in the Dirang region. Thetourist circuit of Bhalukpong –Bomdila, Dirang,Tawang - has emerged as a major driving destination since we started AFOS. In fact, after the first AFOS, we managed to get Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd on board to organize their Authentic North East Drive, which has now been on the driving itinerary of Mahindra for the last four years.

The rally is a great way of advertising the adventure sports potential of the state.Do you think this is happening as much as it should?

Yes, our state government under the young and dynamic Chief Minister Pema Khanduand some brilliant officers in the tourism department are working hard on this. 

How many participants do you have this year? How has the event evolved over the years?

We have 25 serious extreme rally drivers from pan India and other amateur drivers who are learning the ropes by competing with the best in the country. AFOS has evolved into a platform for our local Northeast boys to rub shoulders with international champions like Gaurav Gill right at their doorstep.

What is the goal of the festival?

I aspire to produce a national champion one day. Also, I would like to get positive publicity for our state through the medium of motorsports. I know as a state, we have what it takes to create something like the Raid de Himalayas but it will take time. I am keen to take the Asian Route where rallyist can go through Bhutan, India, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. This is where the ‘Look East’policy can come into play and open a whole new world for the people of the Northeast.

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