Sri Lankan Sports has rarely seen a Motor Sports person racing continuously for over fifty years! You heard me right folks – 51 years to be precise, and still counting! Your MOTOR magazine is privileged to meet and chat with the legend still looking fit, at his plush residence surrounded by a beautifully maintained garden and manicured lawn that gives refuge to his many cars! Cassim Wahab’s name has been synonymous with Motor Racing, especially with Motor Rallies involving tarmac, gravel and sometimes speeding over rocks and muddy slush in virtual no roads with brilliant dexterity. In fact Cassim Wahab came 1st in the first ever SLADAR Rally; he was the Fastest Fox in the 1st Foxhill races; winner of 3 Stock Car Events at one National Championship Event at Kaunayake when a whopping 80 laps were raced; all in all a Motor Racing Rally Sport Champion thru the ages – what a guy Cassim is!
Dyan: How did this passion that you have you amply demonstrated from way back 1965 spark off?
Cassim: I have always been fascinated by cars; in fact as a kid of 13 or so, my dad used to get me to park his car in the garage. You see it was tight, just enough, say six inches from either wall without scratching the sides of dad’s car! He didn’t fancy that chore! So he used to park in the driveway and get me to reverse – which I used to do to perfection with practice! And I loved doing so, daily, those days. Then my father sadly passed away in 1964. One year later when I was just 18, I took the bold step of making application to enter the Midnight Rally. I was placed third driving my late dad’s Holden 2500cc big six cylinder family car that was not in any way ‘done up’ for the rally – I took part in the Holden as it was!
Dyan: So this first ever foray into Motor Sports in 1965, triggered your burning love for the sport then?
Cassim: Yes, I continued with more rallies in the Holden and even competed at Mahagastotte Hill Climb!
Dyan: One could visualize you trundling up Mahagastotte Hill in an unlikely Holden big family car! When did you gravitate on to more sportier, ‘acceptable’ cars capable of swifter sprinting? What was the car?
Cassim [smiles] Yes, I then bought an Austin 1300 which started off my serious competitive racing & rallying; in fact at the National Racing Championship in 1972 at Katukurunda I won three events in that same Racing Meet in the Austin 1300 whilst the famous Priya Munasinghe also won three events in his modified Mini Cooper S. This race for me was a defining moment in my motor racing career; of course along the way I bought myself a Mitsubishi Lancer 4-door 1500cc and that brought me to a still more competitive league in Motor Racing and on to Rally Sports which I took part with much enthusiasm.
Dyan: For sake of our MOTOR readers could you explain the differences of tarmac, gravel & Rally sports
Cassim: Rally Sports & Motor Racing are two different entities; in a Rally, it is the Driver & Co-Driver who enjoy and appreciate the race with hardly any standing/sitting spectators as in a Rally, one drives thru different and mostly tough conditions and road surfaces – you know over rocks, muddy sections, estate bridal paths, unfamiliar stretches of road, mostly throughout the night! At a Rally whilst speeding as much as local conditions permit, one slight mistake and you may hurtle off a cliff and there’ll be no one around to see! Conversely in Motor Racing in a closed racing circuit, it is a spectator sport, with literally thousands converging [well at least it used to be then the most popular sport before Cricket took over] to a Racing Meet event. So in such a scenario Racing primarily caters to the enjoyment of spectators. The competitors in Racing Meets are tensed up waiting for the Starter’s Signal to zoom off as it would be over after a few laps of intense sheer raw, pulsating racing! To say it succinctly: in a Rally, you race against the Clock whilst in Motor Racing you race against each other with no quarter given! A late gear change and you’ve lost the race, as it’s usually over say, in 15 minutes after 8-10 laps racing!
Dyan: No wonder, Rally Sports & Motor Racing mostly brings out mentally strong & physically fit people!
Cassim: So true! In Rallies those days we didn’t have now Internationally accepted ‘Speed Rallies’ until I as President SLADAR introduced such ‘Speed Rallies’ in 1997. Before that 3 or 4 people used to pile into a vehicle and do ‘Rallying’ organized by various Clubs until I introduced the then novel concept of Speed Rallying, conforming to International Speed Rallying formats to make the sport more professional. This then new format allowed only 2 persons in car – the Driver & Co-Driver. Of course there were howls of protests – some said SL roads present a challenge to Rally drivers as at times one of the ‘passengers’ then known as ‘Navigator’ and Co-Driver would have to alight from car to ask for directions etc. I stood my ground and said that International Rallies also give a pre-determined course but if methodically followed one need not ‘get off vehicle’! Eventually all relented and thus the International Rally format was adhered to since. My intention was to pave the way for young SL Rally Drivers to attain world Rally Driving standards ASAP.
Dyan: Sri Lanka needs to thank you for paving the way for International type Speed Rallies. In the meantime could you share your experiences when you won your first ‘Monsoon Reliability Trial’ races in 1960s & 1970s.
Cassim: My first baptism in Monsoon Reliability Trial racing was in 1965, when I came 28th; I persisted to participate by coming 25th, 20th 15th etc in later races and finally after closely experiencing and following ‘the ropes’, I eventually won my first ‘Monsoon Reliability Trial’ race in 1970 at age 23 in my then ever reliable Holden. That was really a defining moment as the competition was very tough with stalwarts like Shelton Perera, the brilliant Bri Ponnambalam, Sheran Fernando, then your brother, the versatile S.K. Seneviratne – all of them were really top and skillful Rally Drivers at the time during the mid ‘60s & early ‘70s. At that race I won in 1970, I remember we had four people in my car and when going thru an estate road at around 10 pm, we came to a fork, the road was very bumpy, then a Rally Driver’s nightmare: my Navigator missed a line! Then he shouted STOP! There was a road going up and another going down. Then he re-checked his set lines and said, “Take Upper Left” road. Then in view of hilly ascent ahead, when I tried to engage my Holden steering shaft mounted gears to 1st gear, it came loose! Tried engaging to 2nd – same result! Ditto for the 3rd gear also – none of the gears could be engaged – it was black outside – not a light in sight! As the car was stopped in middle of road towards the incline, and on realizing that my gears had packed up, I could only quietly push the car back on to the side of road, with help from my colleagues, to let others following to proceed. So many thoughts were crossing my mind; to make matters worse, I didn’t know what to do as I was rather clueless about motor engineering! There was no ‘Back Up’ vehicle as is the form now – just make a call and your savior appears with all the tools imaginable – that’s today! Reverting to that chilly ‘no hope darkness’. I simply waited whilst others’ cars came [all offered to help, but I told them to proceed] and went; then after about 15 minutes of doing nothing, I thought that I must check underneath. So I got off my racing overalls and went on my fours to peer under and then I saw it! The linkage from steering shaft to gear box had broken. I could see that the little rod coupling the steering mechanism to the gear box was missing. I then got a brain wave! I shouted at my Co-Driver to get me a nail as I thought if a nail is pushed and nailed in between the units the gears would ‘catch’! So we scoured the Tool-Box for a nail. But didn’t find one! That’s the time I realized the absolute importance of a simple nail! By that time our eyes got accustomed to the darkness outside and we then saw some people up the hill near an estate Line-Room, so we ran up the hill, Faizal Junaid my co-driver for 30 years of rallying with me, ran up to them – they appeared to be frightened at first but when Faizal spoke in Tamil they appeared reassured! Then Faizal saw a frame of some deity affixed to a line-room wall; he pulled out some money, gave it to some shocked and trembling hands; took the frame off and prized the precious nail off the wall and we ran down to our stricken car, got underneath it and pushed the nail linking both steering shaft to gears and used some wires to tighten it. And Hey Presto! The so far dormant gears sprang to life and the up the hill the Holden went. And sped or rather flew to play catch up from that point! I drove as if possessed – hell bent on recovering lost time
Dyan: What an eventful 30 minutes or so Cassim. I could feel your racing thoughts piercing my very core..
Cassim: We lost 32 minutes due to the breakdown. I drove the fastest possible on possibly the worst road surfaces one could imagine – over rocks strewn across, the pot-holes were mostly craters like, yet a young, bachelor Cassim Wahab drove that night – thru the night mind you, catching up lost time at every Check Point until it was zero – meaning we were spot on in terms of time! And then when we eventually completed the Rally we had accumulated only 44 Debits. And I was declared Rally Winner!
Dyan: This is amazing! Truly is! What a brilliant achievement amidst tremendous odds, incredible really!
Cassim [smiles]: Yes, the bottom line: that in a Rally is that a 30 minutes loss is almost ‘no hope’ as in a Time/Distance Rally as in those days, the organizers would say ’20 minutes between two check points’ but at usual speeds one would take 30 to 40 minutes; so to keep up to required 20 minutes you need to attain ultra-high racing speeds! So to ‘catch up’ a lost period of 32 minutes, you are right, it’s incredible! My advice to youngsters today: never give up even when all seems lost! Never say die, ever! Persevere!
Dyan: Absolutely! When people give up at the first hint of trouble, they become losers; not so the tenacious!
Cassim: So true! When I resumed that Rally 32 minutes behind I was trailing behind last! Yet I came first due to my sheer grit and determination! These are indeed lessons in life that mould ones character; in fact I have reiterated to my 3 sons the same; all three of them are top Rally & Racing Drivers of repute today.
Dyan: You said that you’re STILL taking part in competitive racing even at 69 years of age. This is great!
Cassim: Well yes, Racing keeps me young-at-heart, makes me have a clear head, physically fit and a balanced life of quiet composure and equanimity – stress-free you know [chuckles!] unlike many others!
Dyan: Your fascinating hobby of ornamental fish of a myriad colours and shapes may be adding to it!
Cassim: Fortunately Motor Sports mostly attracts sports people of good character, ethical habits and therefore I had no hesitation in coaxing my three sons, Javed, Ishraq and Zaakir to take up this great Sport! In fact I remember a few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who said: “I say Cassim. You were mad enough to take up Motor Racing. Why are you encouraging your three sons to follow you with the same Motor Racing?” I countered by saying: “What’s the problem”? He said: “Well racing is so dangerous” etc. So after I allowed him spew out all that is perceived as negative about Motor Racing, I responded: “When a teenager reaches say 18, 19 years they reach a junction; what road they pick or you help them to lead from that point, moulds their future character, their habit, you know factors that determines their personality, their very being! Today we are sad to see many young kids, lazy and loafing about wasting their time and with rich parents being left on their own to waste their parents’ cash – invariably on that worst plague of time: DRUGS, now a global menace, period! So by getting my kids being involved in Motor Sports from a very young age – they have mingled with great motor racing icons from their tender years and have imbibed the character making habits and the discipline that Motor Sports affords. As a result they have channeled their excess energy associated with youth on Sports, Motor Racing – so what’s wrong with that”, I asked the by now chastened gentleman who so vociferously attacked Motor Racing a few moments earlier! He meekly, head down, in a shaking voice, and with an arm on my shoulders said: “Cassim I was wrong; absolutely wrong with wrong perceptions about Motor Sports; you’re hundred percent right in getting your three sons to take up Motor Racing!”
Dyan: And besides, Motor Racing on the track is far safer than our main roads these days, with seven persons mostly in age group 18 to 25 dying daily mainly due to excessive speed, reckless driving, isn’t it?
Cassim: Precisely! And on Racing Tracks – NO deaths for perhaps past 10 years; need I say more?