Shehan De Tissera, well known in the motor racing scene – he’s quite a veteran when it comes to officiating in motor races – as a track marshal, corner marshal and now Director of Race Meets.
Shehan: Thank you Dyan for giving me this opportunity to be interviewed by you for the prestigious MOTOR magazine – a magazine that I have the utmost respect, so I feel really honored to be featured.
Dyan: We are privileged to speak to you too Shehan, for your years of dedication in the field of motorsports.
Shehan: This love I have for this wonderful ‘motorsports’ did not suddenly emerge; from the time I was a kid I was fascinated by automobiles; my childhood was spent in my ‘home-town’ Kurunegala – the area produced many a racing legend. And so I grew up in this racing environment; my father being in the plantations always ensured that we travelled by car; I used to always closely observe his driving style. Although today’s kids have opportunities to drive vehicles at a very tender age, I did not have that luxury; my father ensured that I was well away from the steering wheel as the vehicles he had were state owned. Being a disciplined person my father felt that small boys should not toy with state property
Dyan: When did you witness motor racing in Kurunegala – the town that gave us Dilantha Malagamuwa?
Shehan: I was around 12 when Dilantha Malagamuwa, a family friend who was then racing motor cycles met and took me to the paddocks – that was an exhilarating moment! Imagine being in the thick of things with the deafening sounds and smell of racing fuel amidst the bustle of the paddock. I remember helping to push-start Dilantha’s motor cycle on to the track! So that was my first exposure to motor racing, albeit as an eager young spectator. I continued with my studies and went to Colombo around 1989 and pursued IT; my love of cars did not abate. Of course I could not afford to buy one at that age; so I was going around on bicycles! Then I got on to a ‘Chappie’ and then a Honda XL motor bike – it went on like this until the year 2000 – that was the first time I bought myself a car! It was a Mazda Familia 1500 Hatchback, 2-door version; a rare model, it had full time 4WD. My friends felt that it was a good car to race and so I went to Tharindu Perera – my first advisor on racing mechanics who had a garage in Borella; he was renowned for tuning Aravinda Premadasa’s cars and a host of ‘super racing cars’ too. He had a look at my Mazda and agreed that it was ok to run – those days in 2000 the racing rules were quite relaxed – no racing overall or roll-cage – it was a case of just start and run – my first being a Wace Park Hill Climb. My wife was the only pit-crew – she helped me to change the tyres! There was no one around to tell me what to do. And so when someone yelled GO – I simply went up the hill, literally! I was clueless about breaking points or racing lines etc. I only looked out for an official to flag me down denoting the end of the race; there was no flag – I was supposed to have stopped at a beam set. I didn’t and kept on driving like hell until I came across a whole bunch of race meet participants! I then stopped!
Dyan: That’s quite a shocking episode as when I started to race way back in the mid 1980s people like Mana Jayawardene, Bri Ponnambalam were always ‘there’ to give us ‘racing tips’ unselfishly. Those veterans of yesteryear, gentlemen to their finger tips were really great in every sense of the word!
Shehan: Well no one gave me tips such as one must walk the track etc – which I didn’t do even when I took on my next race which was at St James Hill Climb at Hali Ela. Like my first foray, here too I came last as the race itself was so tough. And yes the reason being: no one advised me to walk the St. James hill! Although I changed the carburetor etc my Mazda did not fare well so far. Then my mechanic opined that the car was more suited for gravel racing and not the tarmac. And so I next prepared for the famed Fox Hill! At Foxhill in 2002, I qualified 4th on the grid. I was racing with the ‘stars’ such as Dinesh Jayawardene, Sajard – you know, the lot – all were in Ford Lasers apart from myself; I was quite confident that since my car was ‘Full Time 4WD’ it would hold on to the gravel surface tenaciously and that I would therefore do well! And so on Race Day, I had a flying start but when I reached the Pine Trees towards paddocks everyone started overtaking me! And – the familiar story: I was last again! Felt down and out, naturally! Anyway when we returned to Colombo we decided to weigh the car – those days there were no minimum weight restrictions! And lo and behold we found that my Mazda was a good 70kg heavier than a standard Ford Laser – those Lasers that beat me at Foxhill! The main factor that weighed me down was due to the 4WD Drive Shaft and gearbox etc. I decided then to dispose of the Mazda, and by this time realized that I needed to learn more of the racing techniques as I knew that I had much more to grasp.
Dyan: So this was a defining moment; they say the beginning of wisdom is the acceptance of ignorance!
Shehan [smiles] I decided to get on to officiating, you know Marshaling to be specific and I joined the Ceylon Motor Sports Club as a Committee Member and I went on to Marshal – I was Corner Marshal at Hill Climbs and other Motor Racing Meets and this helped me to observe how expert drivers negotiated corners, held their lines, points at which they braked etc affording me a Ring-side View, so to speak! And when I was officiating at Colombo Super Cross at Kotte, I bumped into the legendary Rohan De Silva who was competing that day; sadly for him he had a mishap, being stuck in the mud, just at the corner I was officiating. He was then compelled to clamber out of his by then down bogged down car and came over to me; I felt elated and honoured to be standing by the great man. Rohan De Silva was so down-to-earth and listened to me intently; when he heard that I took to officiating mainly to learn the ropes about racing, he told me to drop by his office to have a chat with him. And so I went over to meet him. The first question Mr. Rohan De Silva asked me was: “Do you want to drive a Formula car?” “Why not,” I responded gleefully. And then he showed me a glistening Ford Formula 1600. “That’s yours” said Rohan De Silva in a matter of fact way! Pannala was just getting into the picture, with the force being AMRC, under the guidance of Rohan De Silva; that was the beginning of acquiring technical driving skills, learning so much from those already adept at driving Formula racing cars and of course from the maestro himself – the irrepressible Rohan De Silva! What a huge learning curve for me; it was a case of improving my timing and performance with each race; I also got onto racing Stock cars – being sponsored by Mobil who have stood by me up to even the present; Mobil are wonderful sponsors!
I also have been taking part in the National Rally championships over the past few years as a Navigator / co driver…these Speed Rallies were conducted by the Motor Racing Association and I have taken part in rallies conducted at Sevanagala, Palwatte and also Kukuleganga. I have navigated many racing drivers and the last rally was the Pelwatte Rally 2014, where I navigated Dinesh Jayawardena and we won the Team Class together with Ashan Silva for Team Mobil.
Dyan: Shehan, weren’t you also in the committee of the Asian Motor Racing Club? I remember that!
Shehan: Yes, then Mr. Rohan De Silva was the architect in forming the Asian Motor Racing Club and I was invited to the Committee. I had much exposure with the others in the committee being giants in the motor racing scene such as uncle Rohan De Silva himself along with Bri Ponnambalam, Dinesh Jayawardene, Mahen Madugalle etc – so I was a relative green-horn amongst all those seniors! It was huge learning trail for me just serving in the management committee with these great personalities because you begin to appreciate how they think and grapple matters; along the way I continued to officiate at even bigger motor racing events; then around 2005, uncle Rohan sent me to India for a motor racing driver training program – it took me to another level – to drive technically correct! I also entered for a Championship named JK Tyres – four races in all; although I did not win the Championship I was quite consistent throughout the races and eventually emerged 4th overall and I was quite happy with myself and this eventuality. Maybe I did not emerge as the Champion but I acquired a level of skills, experience and knowledge that enhanced my racing driver and meet preparation and management awareness immensely. I must mention an anecdote here concerning Mr. Bri Ponnambalam who told me to always keep cool and not to get excited or to ‘rush things’; he even said: “you may come 4th or 5th – not to worry; main thing is to be consistent and then slowly but surely you’ll one day emerge a winner!”
Dyan: I am sure that you would have got to know interesting motor racing figures whilst in India, Shehan
Shehan: Yes, whilst in India I got to know Mr. Akbar Ibrahim who is a world-class trainer associated with motor sports and since then I used to meet him and garner valuable tips each time he visited Sri Lanka; after all this, Mr. Rohan De Silva purchased ten Formula 1300cc cars from India and brought them down to Sri Lanka and created a Formula Team that came under aegis of AMRC. And so being connected to both, I became part of the AMRC Formula Team plus donned mantle of being a trainer too for Formula Team.
Dyan: I recall when interviewing Rohan De Silva, way back, he shared his tremendous vision with me of unearthing raw talent from his Go-Kart Speed Drome at Battaramulla and then using this talent pool and picking the best lot to give them further training in Formula car racing; did you get to train these boys?
Shehan: [smiles] Yes, coincidentally, I was entrusted with the first stage of training these youngsters who made transition from ‘Go-Karts’ to Formula 1300 and thereafter Akbar Ibrahim took over for the ‘finer racing points’! Around this time AMRC developed close ties with the Governing Body of Motor Sports in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka Automobile Sports [SLAS] and consequently, renowned motor racing personality Mahen Madugalle and I were nominated to SLAS as Council Members. That in a way was my stepping stone to serious motor sports administration in Sri Lanka. And then for most AMRC Meets I was entrusted with the role of Clerk of the Course or Race Director as invariably all the other AMRC Committee Members such as Dinesh Jayawardene, Mahen Madugalle etc were racing excepting for Mr. Bri Ponnambalam and yours truly! Of course the other members were there to help around at Meets; at SLAS I was in the Licensing Committee and the Events Approval Committee and National Championship Committee and of course in the SLAS Calendar I was heavily involved in official capacity for numerous races, giving me much exposure in handling various track meets – gravel, tarmac, hill climbs, circuits and also looking into the minute details at each meet; then handling complaints, inquiries, protests – the works! By the way I have been also nominated as Assistant Secretary of the governing council of SLAS too, now and currently I am also President of the Asian Motor Racing Club and the Single-Seater & Karting Federation
Dyan: Good grief! You might be burning the proverbial candle at both ends, with such an array of titles! Any words of advice to any budding young motor racing driver, in the backdrop of your wealth of exposure?
Shehan: Be disciplined; be tolerant and above all enjoy your racing; you need to leave your ego behind though – great examples are perfect gentlemen cum racing car drivers such as Rohan De Silva and Bri Ponnambalam – they don’t win the whole time, yet they take victory and defeat with grace & aplomb! Also I would advise them to stick to the Rules & Regulations – soon you’ll not only be perceived as a reliable, even-tempered sportsman with integrity but you’ll also be winning too. Eventually; never expect to win at all costs from Day One – it doesn’t happen that way! Be patient – your day will come!
Dyan: Great words of advice Shehan! By the way you mentioned that you’re also an avid reader of motorists’ most wanted magazine – MOTOR and that you read it from cover to cover – is that really so?
Shehan: Of course I do! I pick my copies of the glossy, high class MOTOR from supermarkets and yes, devour it from cover to cover, starting off from the motor racing events, then on to your ‘Snippets’ which I always find very well written, full of practical tips and a wide range of motoring subjects for any motorist to learn from each month – point is, it’s never stale; always something to ponder on! Then I go for ‘Past Blast’ – not that I own classic cars – simple reason: I cannot afford them, yet that does not mean that I don’t appreciate them! Then I read Test Drives with much interest now that I am in the motoring trade at Softlogic Automotive sector; being the only ‘decent’ magazine for motorists, I would highly recommend it as a magazine that has easily international standards. I must commend all of you!
Dyan: Thank you so much for your heartfelt positive comments of MOTOR; our dedicated young team of staff would be delighted with your kind words! Shehan it has been a pleasure to talk to you and learn about all the numerous roles you participate in. Shehan: Thank you Dyan & MOTOR for taking all the trouble in conducting this interview; much obliged!