Dyan Seneviratne has interviewed almost 100 personalities, essentially those involved in motor racing, 4-WD off road exponents, those who collect Vintage & Classic cars etc. Each chat with these personalities has been unique and enriching. This month’s PRO-FILE personality however stands out as the only personality who invited Dyan out for lunch! And to make the interview even more memorable, Omar Lebbe also invited MOTOR’s Editor-in-Chief Nimal Wimalasuriya too to join!
Dyan: It was indeed a wonderful gesture on your part Omar to have invited us for lunch, thank you! Our Editor Nimal tells me that you have been one of the most outstanding men to have driven a MINI during the nineties in almost all racing tracks including Fox Hill, how and when did this racing bug infect you?
Omar: I started to drive when I was just 8 years; it was my father’s Bug Fiat CL-1443; he bought it for Rs 500 when he was planting in Nawalapitiya; in fact my father owned more than a thousand acres of tea in Nawalapitiya before the State acquired almost all his plantations, leaving him with virtually next to nothing! By the way all those tea lands that were acquired by the then Government is now devoid of any tea bushes and is only with ‘Illuk and Mana grass’ or a wasteland! Well that’s a sad and forgettable part of history of this country.
Regarding that Bug Fiat, it is in the good hands of Bri Ponnambalam and well maintained. I must also say how I used to drive on the sly, my father’s International Harvester Tractor around my father’s estate when he was not around! That about sums up my introduction to driving! Later on in life when I joined Richard Peiris & Co as a Sales Representative, I used to get the driver of the Ford Thames Trader Van to move aside to enable me to take the wheel; these ‘drives’ used to be right around the island; including climbing the famed Mahagastotte, yes in that Ford Thames Trader Van! Memories!
Dyan: We are waiting with bated breath – when will you talk about your Mini racing exploits, Omar?
Omar: [smiles] I started my racing career comparatively late in life when I was 40 years, when I could afford to do so; because I was firmly of conviction that one must not delve into one’s capital, instead race only from the profits realized from business! Rest is of course history….my racing career that is!
Dyan: Hold it Omar! You cannot simply depart with that cliché! We want you to share your considerable and record breaking Mini racing exploits; we need you to re-live it, ideally race by race, Omar & Mini!
Omar: My racing career took off from 1993 to the end of 1997. In 1993, I bought a Mini Moke 5 Sri 416 for just Rs 15,000 and I then decided to participate for the first time ever in a Rally organized by the Ceylon Motor Sports; my Mini Moke then had only a standard engine, standard tyres – no frills, really! It was a 3-day Event and at the end of Rally, results were announced and I was adjudged by the Club as the most Outstanding Competitor of the Rally! There were many naysayers such as Bandula Weerasinghe and his Navigator who had apparently taken a bet that I would not even complete the course in my standard Mini Moke! It was so satisfying to prove all of them wrong in my first outing!
Dyan: But surely Omar, you would have progressed on to souped-up Mini engines thereafter, wasn’t it?
Omar: Yes, when I went to the UK I met one of the then best known Rally Drivers, Richard Longman former British Racing Driver & renowned motorsport preparation expert. He was twice Champion of the British Touring Car Championship in 1978 & 1979 driving a Mini 1275 GT. I told Richard Longman that I needed a reliable & powerful Mini engine; we then scouted around for a relatively cheap Mini which we got for 500 Pounds; fitted a 1349CC engine Richard obtained for me into the empty Mini shell.
Dyan: When you returned with the Mini engine of almost 1350cc from UK, what was your next race in Sri Lanka?
Omar: Returning in 1994 I took part at a Katukurunda Meet organized by the Upcountry Motor Sports Club. Here too I not only won my Class event under 1350cc but also won the category above my Class. I subsequently found that Mini race drivers Thusith & Rohith were running with 16-valve engines. So I once again got UK’s Richard Longman to supply me also with a 16-valve engine which proved to be great. I also refitted my Mini Moke with the 1349cc engine which I earlier procured from UK that was fitted to my standard Mini Moke that I won the Outstanding Competitors award at the CMSC Rally and also Fox Hill Super cross in 1993, something I emulated for five years running at Fox Hill thereafter. The most memorable Fox Hill Race for me was when I was adjudged the ‘Fastest Fox’ amongst all cars whilst Shane Gunawardena was named the Fastest Fox for motorcycles.
I was on Pole in Foxhill in 1994 in a Standard Suzuki Cultus and in 1995 in my modified Mini Moke. I also participated in all the Hill Climbs in the country namely Mahagastotte, Radella, Kotmale, Eliyakanda, Karandapona, Southern Hill Climb etc; I also took part in all the autocross events, all the Rallies, all the tarmac races during the period like I said from 1993 to 1997. Caltex sponsored me in 1996 for two years along with Riyaz Farouk, Malik Zavahir and Yoga Perera. My final race was at the Southern Hill Climb in late 1997 which I also won. All in all I won 60 Racing Trophies during my five year racing career which was a fascinating and totally enjoyable period of my life, really!
Dyan: Was your superlative racing career confined to only Sri Lanka or did you also have exposure in India too?
Omar: Yes, in the All India Motor Racing event at Sriperumbudur. Each lap was 3.6 km; I came third in my Mini in a 5-lap race and in the 15-lap race beamed on Star Sports, I did come 2nd in spite of sabotage to my brake pipes!
Dyan: Shocking to say the least, when so-called sportsmen from your camp resort to ‘sabotage’ isn’t it! Sadly such antics happen even today when cut-throat competiveness leads to all types of such crass acts. Are you also a collector of cars, you know Classics, Vintage cars etc and what do you drive as a ‘daily’?
Omar: I had at one time five Mini Mokes, a modified Mitsubishi 4DR5, a 1949 Convertible side valve Morris Minor and a Nissan Patrol etc. Of course now I am a proud owner of a Mahindra Scorpio Pick-Up which I have had and driven for the past five years; I have found it to be an excellent vehicle both in terms of reliability and creature comforts; I’ve had lots of fun in it, besides it cost me only Rs 3.2M in 2011; I have clocked more than fifty thousand kms so far, and I could therefore justifiably say that my Mahindra Scorpio Pick Up has paid for itself many times over!
Dyan: That epitomizes Mr. Omar Lebbe’s down-to-earth character – solid, reliable with no outward frills! I shall now invite Mr. Nimal Wimalasuriya Editor-in-Chief Motor to talk about his friend Omar Lebbe…
Nimal: What I remember of Omar was that he was a true gentleman on the race-track; why I say this is that he never got involved in race politics which sadly happens - sometimes even leading to fisticuffs - all the time. Omar on the hand used to drive his Nissan Patrol himself to the race venue with his Mini on the Trailer, take part enthusiastically, invariably winning most races and then hoist the Mini back on the Trailer and get back, no fuss! In fact I had never even noticed Pit-Crew aiding Omar; he did everything himself! He was a quiet performer, excellent in every way! In fact even today we often recollect how Omar Lebbe behaved on and off the racing track – such gentlemanly qualities are so rare these days! I also remember being trackside at Radella Hill Climb when Omar was racing his Mini; and noted that the Mini would scream up the hill - in first gear only!
Dyan: Wonderful anecdotal first-hand recollections from our Editor about Omar Lebbe; a true gentleman. Any other words of advice from you Omar to our up and coming racing drivers, they’ll need to hear you!
Omar: You should first earn your money and race with your profits and not with your capital. Also race with your own money and never with your parents’ money! Never ever waste money that is not yours!
Dyan: Golden words of advice from a Mini racing legend, who really walked the talk in every sense!
Omar: I must also mention something about your Motor magazine. When I started my racing career, it was then a one-man-job by Nimal; he used to take photos, write the articles and publish the magazine! I remember how Nimal took photos of my Mini-Moke and inserted these pictures in Motor when I wanted to sell the ‘Mokes! I now observe that the Motor magazine has evolved to unrecognizable standards and is also available on-line. As an ICT person I believe this innovation is a step in the right direction as when the magazine is uploaded on the Web it has a far wider reach, giving much value even for the advertisers as they would get their money’s worth via enhanced exposure. Well done Motor
Dyan: Thank you for your kind words about our favorite motoring local magazine now in its 21st year of continuous unbroken publication! Mr. Omar Lebbe it has been a delightful afternoon speaking to you animatedly over a beer and sumptuous lunch. Nimal & I simply enjoyed your company Omar! Cheers!