It was on the evening of July 19, 1980 that the St John’s Old Boys Association (SJOBA) was formed at the founder president Manmohan Lal Sarin’s home in Chandigarh. Nine months after the body came into being, SJOBA organised its first Scooter Motorcycle SJOBA Rally on March 8, 1981. While the first edition of the rally saw more than 40 riders competing, the second edition also saw the introduction of cars and jeeps in. The rally, which started as a one-day long affair, will see its 32nd edition being held over three days starting March 1 later this year
"The first meeting of SJOBA was held with 19 members on July 19, 1981 and the founding members were keen on organising a sporting event. Unlike other sports, motorsports gives an opportunity to a young rider to compete against an older rider and vice versa; this was the main reason we decided to hold the first SJOBA Rally in March, 1982.," recalls Sarin, adding how he would accompany his brother Ranjit Lal Sarin to chalk out the route. "We also came out with a souvenir publication, which we used to raise funds for advertisements to conduct the rally," adds Sarin.
The first rally, which was flagged off from the St John’s High School, Sector 26, was meant only for the scooter/motorbikes. The four-wheelers were introduced in the second edition. The first route of the rally saw riders traversing from Chandigarh to Kasauli-Dagshai-Chail and back to Chandigarh on the same day.
This year, the rally will be conducted for the first time in the plains with the new route covering places like Baddi in Himachal Pradesh and Garshankar in Punjab apart from seeing a night stage.
"We started with the stage format and a couple of women riders too competed in the second edition of the rally. As the number of participants grew in the coming years, we made it a two-day affair in 1996. After getting the affiliation with Federation of Motor Sports Club of India (FMSCI) in 2000, we also introduced the time-speed-distance (TSD) format in 2007 apart from converting the rally to a three-day long drive in 2006, which meant that the city residents could also see the rallyists in action. Nowadays, more and more riders are competing in the TSD format too and that is good for rallying. This year we have also introduced the night stage apart from conducting the rally in plains in Punjab," said SPS Ghai, one of the founding members of SJOBA.
1981 : First edition
1982 : Introduction of four-wheelers
1996: Rally held for multiple days for the first time
2000 : Affiliation with FMSCI
2006 : Introduction of SSS Stage
2007 : Introduction of TSD format
2012 : 25th edition of the rally held
2019 : Introduction of night stage
With rallyists like five-time SJOBA champion Suresh Rana to celebrities like Gul Panag, the rally has seen some of India’s top ranked rallyists in its 31 editions. Rana, who is a multiple winner of Raid-De-Himalaya, will be making his return to SJOBA this year after missing the rally for some years. "The best thing about SJOBA Rally is that it helps you prepare for the more tougher rallies with the same kind of terrain and competitiveness. It is a short rally in terms of number of days as well as route but that makes it more competitive too. I am making a return to the rally after some years and I will be driving a Gypsy this time instead of Grand Vitara. The fact that the rally is being held in plains will make the rally more open and it will be a exciting thing to compete in the night stage too," shares Rana, who is based in Manali.
Kalka biker Mohit Verma, a three-time winner in the rally in the motorbikes format with his first title coming in 2011, sees the rally as a big stepping stone in his racing career. 28-year-old Verma, who became the only Indian rider to win the Raid-De-Himalaya, Desert Storm, Dakshin Dare and SJOBA Rally in 2014, is currently away from the circuit due to an injury.
"If you are a beginner, the SJOBA Rally puts you in competition against experienced riders and a rider can take him time to master the format and return back strong in the next edition. When I won the title in 2011, it was one of my first titles and gave me a lot of confidence. In 2014, when I won the titles in all the rallies, it meant a lot for me. I suffered an injury in 2015 but those wins are always special for me," shared Verma. Two-time winner in TSD format, Jagmeet Gill also believes the same. "Winning the rally twice in the TSD format as a former student means a lot for me. I had competed for the first time in 2009 in the rally. As a rallyist, one enjoys the tough competition in this rally," shared 34-year-old Gill.
Over the years, SJOBA Rally has seen more than 50 women participants competing as riders as well as navigators. Last year, the rally saw riders like Sarah Kashyap, Anita Krishan and Suzanne Bull competing in the Extreme Moto category apart from some woman riders in the TSD format. Kashyap, who had moved to Dubai last year, is the only Indian female rider to complete Raid-De-Himalaya and Desert Storm.
The 33-year-old competed for the first time in the rally in 2015 while riding a Bullet. Last year, Kashyap finished first in the ladies category and 11th overall in Moto Extreme category. "I first heard about SJOBA rally when I was kid. I never thought I will compete in the rally one day. When I competed in the rally in 2015, it was my first rally ever and I had never raced before that. I kept falling off the motorbike and I even got a heat stroke after which the organsiers asked me if I wanted to continue. I got an appreciation award that year and it motivated me. I have competed in the rally three times so far and it has laid the foundation for many cross-country rallies for me. It was easily the stepping stone for Raid-De-Himalaya and Desert Storm and taught me the required skills. The rally has new routes every year and it poses fresh challenges every year," shares Kashyap.
Former Miss India and Bollywood actress Gul Panag too competed in the TSD format in the rally in 2010 with her two cousins and an aunt. Panag acted as the navigator for her cousin Simrat and they won the event in the women’s category in TSD format. "It was an experience to remember for all of us. My team consisted of my two cousins and aunt and all four of us competed in the TSD format. Being the navigator, I was responsible for guiding my cousin about the route and also keep a track of others things. It was a different challenge in every stage and we enjoyed a lot competing in such a rally. It is good to see more and more women riders competing in such events," shares Panag.
There is a lot of logistics involved in the rally that sees close to 80 riders competing in the 4WD Extreme, Moto Extreme and TSD categories apart from spectators stage SSS.
Vishal Sharma, the present president of SJOBA, says their task begins with charting out the route. "The chalking of route begins 40-50 days prior to the rally and we do the recce of the whole route more than five times. Then there is the task of making rule books and log books for the route. Once I was officiating as a marshal and sitting on a hill top. A group of monkeys came and took my equipment," he laughs.
Another SJOBA member Vivek Bansal handles the communication part of the rally which means setting up the communication channels and radio for the drivers. "I am Ham Radio operator and the toughest part in SJOBA rally is to provide coverage in the valleys. Most of the times, we sit on hilltops to get full coverage. Once while officiating at Barog, we had a slide shave when lightning struck my radio and other equipment," shares Bansal.
Kshitij Sharma, secretary, SJOBA, too has seen the action from close. "This year, more than 140 SJOBA members will act as volunteers and we have got close to 80 entries. The event has been successful because of the efforts of all the members as well as riders," says Sharma.
The Way Ahead
With new sponsors supporting the rally, it will see the night stage happening this year. As Manmohan Lal Sarin proudly shows the first souvenir, he is quick to add, "The rallying gods have been kind to us in all these years. Apart from one incident in the starting years when a car skidded down and the death of a rider in an accident some years later, the rally has been conducted smoothly. When a rallyist died in an accident, we were deeply saddened and thought about discontinuing the rally.
But then Brother Meredith told us to remain calm and see it as a mishap, which can take place in any sport. When the car of a competitor fell into a khud, Jimmy Sehgal, one of the competitors and leader at that point, stopped and helped the rider. Such heartwarming incidents have given strength to the organisers and rallyists."
‘My first win at SJOBA will always be special’
SPS Garcha, 65, still remembers the first time he competed in the SJOBA rally. It was the first edition of the rally in 1981 and the 1971 batch alumnus of St John’s was also actively involved in organising the rally. Garcha, who started competing in motorsports in 1977, became the first winner of the Scooter/Motorbike Open SJOBA Rally in 1981 and went on to become the national champion for five successive years from 1982 to 1987.
Garcha won the rally on a Jawa motorcyle and was told not to compete in the following editions of the rally to give others a chance.
"I was actively involved in planning the route and doing the recce for the rally. I used to have a 1966 JAWA motorbike at that time. After the first stage in the morning, we had lunch at Solan with me in the lead but on the eay back , my bike’s rear brakes got heated. As the route was uphill, I removed the brakes and continued. Riding uphill does not require much of rear brakes and when I reached Barog, the brakes had cooled down and I completed the last stage. I have very find memories of my first win," says Garcha.
The motorsports champion also used to run a garage in those days. The following years saw him working closely with the Federation of Motor Sports Club of India (FMSCI) and officiating in many rallies besides working as the federation’s regional director. A senior steward and technical delegate with FMSCI, the former rallyist is still involved in charting the route and officiating at the SJOBA Rally. "In the 1980s, we would read books and magzines to learn about various rules and the various formats of a rally. Since the rally was held only in Stage Rally format, it would mean spending hours chalking out the route and understanding the map. There was less traffic and most of the roads were tracks. Despite tech advancements, the core of the racing has remained intact. That’s why a lot of new riders compete every year," adds Garcha.
Looking back at his long and adventurous innings, Garcha remembers an incident during the Raid De Himalaya. "I was officiating as one of the stewards of the course when one of the cars did not cross the next point. Knowing that something was wrong, we reversed and sure enough, I saw skid marks. It was close to midnight but we launched a search for the car.
After sometime, a villager joined us and told us that a leopard was lurking in the area. Some officials went and sat in their cars, but I lit up a flame and we managed to rescue the drivers."