Shimla, Sep 26 :For the first time in seven years, India’s best known motor car rally is daring to enter the troubled Kashmir Valley following an improvement in the situation there.
‘The Maruti-Suzuki sponsored seventh Raid-de-Himalaya rally kicks off in Shimla on Saturday and after travelling 1,745 km of treacherous mountain terrain, the race will end in Srinagar a week later,’ said Maruti Udyog spokesman Arun Arora.
‘The rally will pass through Manali, Kaza, Sarchu, Leh, Kargil and Drass besides several high passes before reaching Srinagar,’ Arora told IANS.
Until now, participants had driven up to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region before finishing at Manali. But this year the drivers will for the first time travel further to Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley via Zoji La pass, Drass and Kargil.
These spots are precariously close to the Line of Control (LOC) that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Asked about challenges in the terrorist-prone Kashmir Valley, the organisers said the Indian Army had offered help both for security and in any emergency.
‘We were given permission at the last moment to finish the rally at Srinagar,’ said Manjeev Bhalla, vice president of organisers Himalayan Motor Sports.
The organisers say nearly 90 drivers from across India will take part in this year’s rally along with a lone foreigner, an American driving a Maruti Gypsy.
The race will test the participants’ skills and stamina as they pass through some of the most difficult terrains of the country where they will face temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Raid-de-Himalaya has the reputation of being the longest, highest and most arduous motor rally of India.
Tanglang La at 17,564 feet is the highest point on the 1,745 km route.
‘Raid-de-Himalaya is on the international calendar of road rallies as one of 12 events worldwide and the only one from India,’ said Bhalla.
This year there are three separate categories – Xtreme, Reliability and Bikes Xtreme.
Xtreme is the toughest of the lot and open only to four-wheeled vehicles that have taken part in such rallies earlier in the Reliability category.
The Reliability version is open to stock cars and will run only on state highways. It will be far safer and involve less stress than the more competitive Xtreme category.
‘The drivers on motorcycles of any type will have to face hostile weather and terrain,’ said Bhalla.
Besides Maruti, the co-sponsors are Himachal Pradesh Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism and the central tourism ministry. The organisers are Himalayan Motor Sport and the Himachal Pradesh government.
Last year the rally had to be called off in its last leg in the Lahaul Valley due to heavy snowfall. Stranded drivers were rescued by the army and brought to Manali.
The organisers are keeping their fingers crossed as the weather has been rough this autumn with light snowfall at several places on the high altitude route.