India's best motorcycle racer closes in on 10th national title
Jagan Kumar has always been intrigued by two things—two-wheelers and speed. They fascinated him as a teenager when he’d race his bicycle against friends in the bylanes of Mylapore and Triplicane in Chennai. They still do, now as a nine-time national motorcycle champion. Currently leading the 2021 championship by 41 points with only two rounds remaining, Jagan has already put one hand on the 10th championship which will conclude in the first week of February.
Today, the 33-year-old is a well-known, respected rider, mentoring novices and employed as a factory rider by one of the country’s biggest motorcycle manufacturers (TVS). But unlike most of his colleagues, Jagan hasn’t always had it easy, especially in a sport which only the rich can afford.
With his father working as an auto-rickshaw driver and the sole breadwinner of a family of five, Jagan had to fend for his passion when starting out. “I struggled during those years,” Jagan says from Chennai. “Coming from a humble background, I didn’t have money to pursue racing so I worked as a newspaper and courier delivery boy in the mornings, went to college in the afternoon and learnt about motorbikes from mechanics at a workshop in the evening. I put in whatever money I earned into racing.”Jagan Kumar(TVS)
Tired of racing and doing stunts on their bicycles, one summer afternoon of 2006, Jagan and his friends decided to "upgrade" themselves by watching motorcycle races. They had heard about a motorsport track located just outside town. They set off on the highway only to realise they did not know the way. Gloom turned into delight in a matter of minutes as the boys saw racing cars and bikes drive past them. The boys followed the vehicles for 40km on their bicycles to reach the Madras Motor Race Track (MMRT) in Sriperumbudur.
Jagan fell in love with motorcycle racing at first sight. Seeing the riders accelerating, braking, taking the corners at great speed and overtaking each other enthralled the teenager, who immediately decided that this is what he wanted to do. He had no idea how to ride a motorcycle back then. He returned home and borrowed his friend’s brother’s bike and started learning. Then, without discussing with his family, he applied for an FMSCI (Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India) license to race. “Luckily, I got a chance in TVS’s one-make category in 2007. For a fee of Rs.700 I could ride in two races,” said Jagan.
Jagan finished second in the first race and won the second, immediately announcing his arrival among the newbies. The Chennaiite raced as a privateer for two years, regularly reaching the podium. In 2007, Jagan reached the podium in all the 12 races he participated in, forcing the organisers to ask him to shift to the national championship as he was "too good" for the one-make series.
Short of funds
This is when the lack of funds started to bite. Jagan tried to make ends meet by picking up multiple jobs. He worked as a newspaper boy and in courier delivery. He saved money to buy a cheap, second-hand, two-stroke motorcycle for practice. But that wasn't good enough if he wanted to make a mark at the national level. Jagan decided to write a letter to TVS to take him on board. To his surprise, a TVS manager called him back. Impressed with his performances, the company decided to take him on board and try him out for a year. Being a factory rider meant the world for Jagan as he did not have to worry about the expenses, the bike, servicing, mechanics or transport.
Apart from battling the odds, Jagan also had to fight his parents, who apart from financial reasons, were also worried about the safety of their son. Convincing his parents turned out to be difficult but also amusing.
“They didn’t want me to race. I had to put in a lot of effort to convince them, explain that it is not illegal racing on roads but proper racing on a track with all the safety gear, wearing a helmet and everything," Jagan said. "I had to explain things like nobody was going to drive into me from the opposite side of the road. Only after seeing my trophies and photos was my family convinced.
"My mother told me, ‘ride slowly and win.’ I was like how can I do that?” He broke into peals of laughter.
As a factory rider, Jagan won the Novice Stock 125cc category in his debut year in the national championship in 2009, catapulting him to the Pro-Stock 165cc category the next year. Here, he found himself unprepared, floundering for two years.
“The expert level is very difficult. With only one year in Novice category, I had much to learn about how to set up my bike. In Novice, the bike is standard so no need to adjust anything. But in expert category, everything is modified from the suspension to tyres, the frame, wheels… everything. Step-by-step I also improved my skills and riding style, learning from seniors. I also saw videos of many international riders,” said Jagan, who idolises MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi, who retired last year.
Having gone into the finer details and practicing even beyond his professional hours for two years, Jagan’s efforts bore fruit when he won the pro championship in 2012. It was the beginning of a dominant, record-breaking run of seven consecutive titles which established him as the preeminent motorcycle road racer in the country. After finishing third in 2019, he was again back to winning ways, claiming his ninth title in 2020.
Having conquered the domestic circuit, Jagan’s next aim is to set about winning races in the Asian Road Racing Championship (ARRC), where he has reached the podium four times and has also won a race. “I want to prove myself there too,” said Jagan, who is also a two-time national drag racing champion.
Asked if his mother’s views have changed over the years, Jagan laughed and replied: “She still tells me to ride slow and win.”