Sri Lanka Revisited – Part One

SL (58)Back in February 2011, my girlfriend and I traveled to the idyllic island of Sri Lanka for a month of backpacking adventures. Any Given Reason didn’t exist back then and I’d only had my DSLR for less than two months, but even without the looming task of compiling a blog report I still felt the compulsion to document the motorsport I found. It ended up being probably the craziest trip I’ll ever be lucky enough to do, and it wasn’t until I was recounting a tale the other night that I realised I’ve never properly published the full story. So, here goes.

SL (3)It was Chantelle’s idea to go as she had organised a work placement there as part of her Veterinary Science degree, so I agreed to come with her without really knowing anything about Sri Lanka. We booked flights, and my poor Mum was almost beside herself when we told her we were going to a country less than two years out of a brutal, bloody, three-decade long civil war. But the place looked simply stunning in pictures and everybody said that the South-Western regions were safe now, and we were excited. Combining travel with motorsport is one of my biggest passions, so before our departure I did some Googling to see if there was any racing there. I found the website of a local driver named Dinesh Deheragoda, and emailed for a quick bit of advice.

SL (83)Fast forward and I’d been in Sri Lanka for less than 48 hours, and Chantelle is on the other side of the country at a Vet school. It’s 430am, and I’m standing in the rain on the side of the road in a distant suburb of the capital Colombo, waiting to be picked up by a car load of locals I’ve never met. Dirty trucks whizzed by just inches away, and zooming Tuk Tuk’s sliced their way through the traffic. When I told the guest house clerk of my plans that morning he almost didn’t let me out the door, which did nothing to allay my fears. It was the first time I’d traveled on my own, and I was feeling more helpless and out of my comfort zone than ever before. I’d been communicating with Dinesh for a few weeks via email and he made the generous offer to take me to a local race, but he had some issues with his car and couldn’t pick me up as planned. He’d organised a ride for me with some friends of his and I rationally knew I had no reason to be concerned, but the mind does wander on occasion.

SL (82)As it turned out I had no reason to worry. A Mitsubishi Lancer pulled up and a friendly Sri Lankan named Ashan greeted me with a big smile and a warm hand shake. Within ten minutes conversation was flowing, and we met up with some more racers at a local restaurant for breakfast. I jumped in with them in their Prado, and we made the five-hour trip down to Tissamaharama in the South-East of the country where we would be attending the Carlton Supercross. The plan was to arrive by early afternoon for Friday testing.

SL (79)The best way to describe the Supercross is like rallycross racing on a twisty dirt circuit. The car event formed part of a wider sports carnival in the area, which as it turned out was using the track on Friday. Apparently our Friday afternoon testing wasn’t official, they had just decided to turn up early and have a run. Except there was a Police dog show taking place on the main straight…

SL (63)… and a tug of war competition just around Turn One. Not conducive for rallycar testing at all.

SL (75)The guys unloaded the rally cars and parked them on the track, hoping that might give the Police the idea that they should find a different venue for their show. Unfortunately it didn’t work, so the decision was made that testing would occur with the train of cars running reverse direction from last corner to first, then turning around once everyone had arrived and running first corner to last again and again.

SL (81)By this stage Dinesh had joined us, so he and Ashan took me for a few sighting laps of the track as best we could. It was a tight and twisting mix of second and third gear switchbacks with the odd straight in the middle, punctuated by a pair of long sweepers forming about a 2km lap.

SL (80)Rain that day meant that the surface was extremely slippery.

SL (78)The drivers helmeted up, Ashan in his Honda Civic Type R…

SL (77)… and Dinesh in his brand new, Cosworth engined Lancer Evo X built to Group N specs. Dinesh is the most successful racing driver in Sri Lanka, and has been competing both in Sri Lanka and internationally since 1997. He trained as a rally driver in the UK, and has competed in rounds of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship in India, Asia and a few rounds of the Middle East Championship in between winning practically everything on offer in his native country.

SL (73)With plans set, I headed out to one of the corners to get some shots. It was pure insanity, and I loved it. The sheer ridiculousness of what they were doing was energizing.

SL (72)It soon became apparent that a tropical storm was brewing which would mean we’d have to stop. At the turn around point Dinesh madly waved me over to his car, and told me to get in. I had no helmet but I didn’t want to pass the opportunity up, so I jumped in. It was then that I discovered the co-drivers seat was missing its belts, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and live for the moment. Dinesh hit the gas, and we were flung back with all the torques a Cosworth built Evo can muster. The rainstorm hit halfway through my ride and the track was like ice, there was no traction or grip and we were sliding all about the place. It was one of those moments when you just have to laugh – no helmet, no belts, in a weapon of a Group N rally car with a driver I’ve only just met, in a third-world country, in the middle of a ten car rally train, sliding sideways in the mud on a track we shouldn’t really have been on. It was fantastic.

SL (49)The race that weekend was like nothing I’ve ever seen, or am likely to see again. No fences, no barriers, no worries.

SL (37)It turned out that the SL-GT class for 4WD Turbo cars was the headline act, and Dinesh ended up being quite a famous local star.

SL (39)The racing was intense. Door to door dogfights the whole way, and watching Dinesh’s battle with his friend Aravinda Premadasa was a highlight of the weekend. These two guys could seriously drive, and the racing was hard yet clean.

SL (45)Ashan’s class was for cars under 1600cc, and the class was almost entirely made of the small capacity Type R Civics.

SL (66)There was also a four-wheel drive competition taking place not far away, so I ventured off into the jungle to take a look at the purpose built and modified machines tackling the unbelievable challenges.

SL (64)SL (65)

SL (51)Attending the Carlton Supercross was one of the most unusual experiences of my life. Unsurprisingly for a country so new to peace there were Police everywhere at the race, but not once did they stop me or say anything to me other than a friendly greeting. Out of the thousands of attendees I was the only Westerner there, and I pretty much had the freedom to do what I liked. I even crossed the track in the middle of a race to get a better vantage spot, and nobody stopped me. It was refreshing to be responsible for my own safety, rather than having it delegated away and decisions already made.

SL (42)One thing I learned that day is something I keep core to my being now, and that’s not to believe what the mainstream media tells you about other countries. Everyone is really just like us, and these Sri Lankan motorsport fans were no different. The passion they have for their cars, for their sport and the friendships they build through motorsport are all exactly the same as ours here in Australia. Their safety standards and level of car preparation isn’t up to what we expect in Australia, but you’ve gotta remember that Sri Lanka is a very different part of the world. But what is identical is the way that they approach their sport and how they want to share it with others. I don’t think I’ve ever met a friendlier group of people, and I would love the opportunity to return the kind hospitality here in Australia if the opportunity ever arises.

SL (27)Stay tuned for Part Two, where I attend a more traditional race meeting at Pannala Circuit and teach myself how to ride a motorbike. I can’t be that hard, right?

Words and photos by Andrew Coles

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