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Interview: Indian Supercross Racing League – The promoters

Interview: Indian Supercross Racing League – The promoters
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Kevin Frelaud from recently caught up with the Indian Supercross Racing League promoters and was kind enough to send us the interview which you can read below.

Eeshan, you have a rich history in the sport of motocross in India and I believe you’ve started on the latter stage, in your twenties. You then made a name for yourself in the sport and in the industry. Could you also sum up your journey into the sport, up to this day as we are getting closer to the kick off of the Indian Supercross Racing League?

Eeshan Lokhande: It’s a very funny story, me getting into motorsport as well as my brother. Our entire family has been into tennis for many years. Our grandfather promoted the Davis Cup in Pune, our mother had an academy so for us, getting into tennis was a no-brainer. I’ve been a tennis player for a while, I was a national player, it was in our blood. At some point, we started training for tennis on mountain bikes, to enhance our fitness, and that’s where the excitement and adrenaline of jumping got into me, even from 3 inch rocks; that’s enough to start one’s journey into the sport and later fall in love with Motocross and Supercross.

It started with Mountain Biking, then BMX. Back in the days, I’m talking about the year 2000 or even 1999, Supercross wasn’t consumed in India. Basically, there was no available option to watch any Supercross race. I talked with Aswhin and I told him I wanted to get into this sport. He asked me if I was crazy, saying nobody was going to allow me. Our dad had passed away then, so I asked my mum. “Mum, i don’t want to play tennis anymore, i want to ride, i’ve already been riding behind your back and i haven’t told anybody”. She went “But what is this?”

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I had to show her some magazine which we picked up from the local paper store, and coming from a sport’s family, there was no reason for her to say no because any sport is a sport. She only asked me if I was going to go full out with this, if that was going to be my life or just a sidekick for a few years.

My brother Ashwin asked me the same thing, and all I wanted to do was riding my bike. That’s how I personally transitioned into dirtbike riding coming from a tennis family. Nobody knew anything about the sport; we picked up mopeds and we started riding off-road, it was the starting point for us. Once you get into racing, you tend to make people fall in love with that sport. Ashwin committed to helping me, to stick by my side at the races, to take care of my lunchbox. The starting point was a 110cc bike, which was a commuter motorcycle manufactured in India. I had to redo the suspensions, do some welding, change the handlebar … It wasn’t Motocross, it was off-road riding but I had to start somewhere. Motorcycles are really expensive in India and back in the day, there was none available. Back then, I started a fundraising with friends and family and everybody chipped in. It was really expensive to buy a 125 at that time.

Then, we went to local races, national races … and while we were doing this, I met this 14  year old boy on the side of the track: Veer Patel. He was just getting into the sport the same way I did. I met Veer on the track, that was our first introduction and he had so much passion for the sport as a 14 years old. I was maybe 25 years old at the time and I wanted to help him, he had time because he started early. The friendship just took off from there, we have done a lot of things together. Around 2006, we started getting better, we created a little team with few partners with myself and Veer, Ashwin was our manager. I finished 3rd in the nationals in 2009 and Veer became the youngest Supercross champion in India. It was never ending, we always wanted to do more. I went to Australia to train, Veer went to America, he raced bits and pieces there. Coming back, Veer won another championship and I had decided to move on and explore something in europe; but it didn’t go the way we wanted. After coming back, I realised there was a huge gap between what was happening in India and in the rest of the world. We had to step in, we wanted to make a change, leave a mark on the history books and thought “what if we could be the people who started this new era?”. That thought made Ashwin organize events in 2012; At the same time Veer got into his construction business, but he was still connected with us. The three of us have always created things, from organizing local events to creating something different for the Supercross in India. That new journey is a very different one, from being on a dirt bike to sitting in a chair [laughs]. 

Veer, not only are you the director and co-founder of the Indian Supercross Racing League, but you also made a name for yourself in the past by winning national titles in India. Can you introduce yourself to our audience, talk about your racing career and about your role with SX India and The Indian Supercross Racing League?

Veer Patel: I think Eeshan has given pretty much of my background and how I got into racing Motocross and Supercross in India. But when I quit racing in 2012 and put my efforts into my business, I got back to the sport with Eeshan and Ashwim, to help them grow the sport in India. We came together and we started gathering all the pieces of the puzzle together and we formed the Supercross Indian Company in 2019. That’s when we decided we would get this league up and running in India. We had seen what was happening all around the world and wanted to develop that in India.

I believe you also had the opportunity to go to the US to train in the past, and I am only guessing that experience was an important one for you to later tackle on your new role as an organizer as the heart of Supercross lies in the US. How was your experience in the US as a rider and how did you carry this experience into the Indian Supercross Racing League?

Veer Patel: Me going and training in America changed the way I looked at the sport. I learned the techniques by learning from the best in the world; it helped me a lot as a rider. I changed my technique and I was able to use it home on the Indian tracks. It was then much easier for me to ride. The most important part was, when I was in America, I got to ride with 200 riders on the same track. When we practice in India, there are 2 or 3 guys practicing with you. There was a major difference in training for me, I learned faster basically. I had a very good trainer, Donnie Hansen. I stayed at his house and I trained with him for almost a year and a half. That was in 2008, then I trained again with him in 2009. That really improved my speed and I have been able to win a championship in India. I wasn’t the fastest still, but I was 10 times better than before my trip to America.

Eeshan Lokhande: Adding to that, we decided we would make it in India as privateers. There was a team led by a manufacturer at the time, and our biggest problem was not having the right equipment on race day. Being fast wasn’t the only trick to it. What we managed to do with Ashwin and Veer was more about how we managed to do it. Sometimes, we rode with used tires, but the intent was out there, we never complained. We had worn out tyres, a broken clutch lever, but we did not worry. We loved the sport, we were going to ride and do our best anyway. We were sometimes in funny situations, and it was a good learning curve for all of us. We created new things out of nothing.

How developed would you say motocross is in India nowadays?

Veer Patel: The sport has been gradually increasing. We have an average of 15 new riders coming up every year. We have around 15 to 20 tracks in the country which are privately owned, but not commercially opened. Two or three riders get together to own a track and train on it and it’s for the use of their friends and themselves. We do not have any  public track in India.

The community is so small in India, that anyone who gets into Motocross in our country will get connected to someone who already knows where the tracks are, where to go and ride. Now, things are developing, few places are starting to open up to the public, the infrastructures are coming together slowly but with this league, more eyes will open up and more infrastructures will be built in the coming years.

Eeshan Lokhande: We always say it’s the chicken and egg situation. If you open tracks in India, the riders go and race, but then what? There has to be a platform to develop the sports. Amongst the 300 riders we have, maybe 20 of them will race at the highest level as some of them are just hobby riders. If there is nothing for them to look forward to, nobody will get into the sport. This new league will create a new level of a platform and give a certain level of aspiration to people who are watching behind the fences, thinking they want to race too. The thing is, we don’t want them to think “if I spend 15 years of my life racing, what’s next?”. Creating and developing a platform, building facilities, will allow us to meet ends. The young riders will go to these new facilities, train, and then have something to look forward to, something to race for, and have a career option. There are multiple adventure parks opening across India but there is no proper Mx or SX facility. Adventure parks are good for hobby riders that want to get a feel for off-road but there was really nothing, these last 40 years, for more passionate riders to look into. In Europe, there must be millions of people going riding on trails, on tracks, or whatever, but you’ll have the same 20 solid riders behind the gate at the end of the day. To have those 20 riders, you need to create a platform for them to come, and that’s what we are trying to achieve in the next 10 years. We want to develop this ecosystem around this sport.

Will that new league be the new national Supercross championship or will that be a new series added to the calendar from now on?

Eeshan Lokhande: It will be a separate series. The national Supercross championship will still be running. Let’s talk about cricket. IPL (Indian Premier League) is run on its own, and then there is a national championship. The idea here wasn’t to take over any championship, but create new racing venues and opportunities. It’s very easy to just grab someone else’s championship and start running it, but then what are you achieving? You need multiple stages of racing, national level racing, some grassroots level championship too in every sport. We want to keep things separate, we want to respect the national championship as it is and get into it as a League.

In Europe and specifically in France, it is a challenge to be able to put up races, events, and organize championships, whether it is costs related, government related, politics related. So far, what would you say was the biggest challenge you’ve faced putting up that new league together?

Veer Patel:  The biggest task for us was convincing and getting the stadiums we wanted. In India, cricket is seen as the gold sport and they don’t want to disturb their pitch, their grass. That was a really difficult part for us, getting the stadium’s confirmations. It took us a long time to get them. Once you get the stadiums, you have to get certain permissions too. Getting the stadium was one big task, but it’ll allow us to put up great events. It shows what quality we want to deliver for this league.

Eeshan Lokhande: Like you said it for France, there are some challenges to overcome to be able to organize events. Here, the challenges began when we had to explain what the sport was. We are so drenched in cricket and we are a huge country. First, the question was “what Supercross really is ?” It’s a sport, we started from there. Getting the stadium was one thing, getting the franchises onboard was another thing. We got really good responses from everybody in the country; India is progressing in that sense. We look for newer things nowadays. We have the willpower of the nation. In that sense, everything came together. It was still a challenging task to knock on the doors, convince people and showcase to them what is really going to happen.

About the calendar, in the next five days we should have a calendar for season 1. What we would eventually like to do is set out a 2 or 2.5 month calendar which becomes the Indian season. Why do that? There is so much happening in the world, and we want to maximise the opportunity for riders to come and race here. We want them to come and experience racing in India, and experience our country. From season 2, we will be able to have a set calendar. We know there has been some back and forth for this inaugural season, but that’s the hard reality whenever you are starting something new. Everything is shaping up together nicely, coming into place. It’s taking a bit more time than expected, but everything should be sorted in the next 5 days.

There is always a question of sustainability. How do we keep rolling once we start, how do we balance the expenses and the revenues. Obviously, you were used to organizing the Supercross India, but this new league being more of an international series, expenses will increase, revenues should increase, how do we ensure the sustainability of the Indian Supercross Racing League in the short, and also in the long term?

Eeshan Lokhande: In any sport, there is one part where it’s just sponsorship, and then one part where we create a business model for our sport. A business model will have sustainability. In our business model, the expenses are spread out between many people and actors rather than just the organizer. The league format makes sense for that case, it starts with the franchise owners who take a part of some expenses with the riders, the travels, the bikes and so on. The league takes care of certain expenses when it comes to organizing the events, finding the venue, and doing the broadcast. The intern model looks like a central revenue sharing model. The teams will get back a certain amount, a percentage,once we start monetizing the league. Once that cycle starts, the sport and the riders will be the primary focus. If we do that right, sustainability will set in motion and it’ll become a viable proposition for everyone and that is what we want to do. It is not about one event or a few rounds, it is about the next 10 years. We need to figure out who’s gonna cover what expenses, and what benefits they’ll get in return. We decided to use a League format because Indians love that type of format. We have more than 30 leagues happening for sports in India. That allows us to spread our wings, have more stakeholders, more options, bringing more money to the sport and also have the opportunity to make money as well in the near future.

Indian Supercross Racing League has unveiled a 3 year investment plan of 150 crores over the next three years. Investors will expect returns on said investments later on. We’ve seen what happened to WSX, who lost their primary investor within the first year. We’ve seen it in MXGP the last few years, ticket sales are in a tight flow and don’t generate the same revenue it used to in the past. What is the business plan to keep these investors happy, and how have we planned to generate said revenues with ISRL?

Eeshan Lokhande:  Let’s compare. Have a race in France, or in Melbourne. Price range for tickets would be starting at 50$. The big difference in India is that the ticketing will not be that price and thus not generate that much revenue but we have a large number of people that could be interested in watching this sport. That would create sponsorship opportunities as it is a sponsorship driven market. Sponsorship broadcasting would play a tremendous role not only in the first year but also later on as we want to monetize the league. Ticketing would be a part of the revenue, but there would also be merchandising and the focus would be having the right partners, who can use this platform for their marketing activities. Our responsibility is to then be able to meet these partners requirements, and put them out for a larger audience to view, see the brands, and spread their story. It will be a sponsorship driven league, that is where the initial investment came into the picture. Again, it’s the chicken and egg story, what comes first? Once again, as a promoter, we are committed and our intent is to do our best. There will be glitches at first, but we want to achieve maximum perfection while putting this league out there on the market, and most importantly do it right. The investment will be spread over the next 3 years, it will be used at time to enhance the quality of the events, fulfill certain gaps which might arise, there will be development programs that we’ll need to put in place for junior riders because these are the guys we need to focus on. I’m not looking at the 25-30 year old right now. I’m looking at the 6 and 7 year old riders, they are the up and coming riders. Like we discuss, it’s about putting up some new tracks, having the infrastructures in place for people to train, giving them some opportunities, and having a support program. The investment is also to build everything around the league and, if needed, help the league going.

Whenever we talk about Supercross, people think of the American Supercross. Massive floor plan, big attendance, great tracks, great line up and so on; we know what to expect. You’ve clearly put the emphasis on rider line up as we’ve seen some big names from Europe, Australia, and elsewhere pre-register for that series. Whenever starting a new league , how do you attract riders from all over the globe when you can’t – yet – show them what it’ll be all about?

Veer Patel: The best thing we have for us is our country, India. Riders, they want to come and explore the country first. Secondly, we are committed to giving them and providing them with the same infrastructure and quality of racing as if they were racing in Europe or in America. We ensure we’ll have the same quality or infrastructure as the WSX or the AMA is providing to its riders. We are giving a similar setup over here in India.

Eeshan Lokhande: Creating excitement and dreams is also primary, it’s not all about finances and purse money. Do they dream in France? We don’t only look at top riders, we should allow many other guys to ride this new league in the near future for say season two, or season three. There would also be certain times where some of the top riders would not be able to ride the series. Pushing forward with season one, it’s very necessary for us to show how committed we are through our work because as you said, people don’t know what to expect yet. Nothing is made for one year, we plan everything and we plan what we are going to do in the next 5 years. After the first year, the rider will be able to go back home and, I hope, share nice stories about its time with our league. I think every rider, as a youngster, loves racing. We love this sport so much, right? Having new opportunities is always something people seek, something exciting. For the same reason, I went to Australia and Veer went to America, we wanted to explore more, to see more. If that experience generates some good racing, good tracks, and also allows riders to make decent money, this will be a new concept in the sport. That’s one reason i believe the riders are keen for this new league. We have done a fair bit of a job to put things together in the right way and I think they love what we do. They love racing, and racing in India would be something they would want on their calendar.

You’ve had more than a hundred pre-registered riders for the new series. These riders will have to go through a grand auction to then be selected by teams. Why did you choose to apply this strategy, and how many teams and riders are expected to be racing this inaugural season?

Eeshan Lokhande:  A rider or an athlete should get more. They are the real stars of any event. Without racers, there is no race. There is a certain value to those athletes, we’ve seen in so many other sports, they are able to generate way more revenues for the athletes. You look at cricket, you look at Formula 1, all of the sports … Now, the idea behind the auction: you have – for example – 100$ as a base salary. How do you increase that, make sure that the rider gets more? For franchise, team owners, how do you make sure they get the riders they want? This is the perfect combination where the war starts and you get to select the perfect rider for you. For the first year, it’s not going to make a big difference, but as the league grows, money grows. This bidding war will increase. If a team really wants a rider, it will pay a little extra for him. That helps our racers to generate revenue, the team could select the riders they want, and it’s a win/win for both.

For season one, we will be going with 6 teams, 6 franchises. Each franchise will have to collect 8 riders, 2 per category. You may say, there will only be 48 riders, but to be frank, we weren’t really expecting that many riders to register for our grand auction. We are really thankful to have so many athletes around the world who want to be a part of this. There will be certain disappointment but like i said, it will grow and we eventually aim to have 10 teams / franchise next year; that would be the goal. 

Some riders won’t be able to change brands for this series and that might eliminate them from some teams from the gate go. I’m guessing this matter will be worked on. What is going to be done about it?

Eeshan Lokhande:  That is one tricky bit for year one. As the season grows into something bigger, the contracts will also grow and at that time, a lot of things could maybe mismatch. A rider could do its contract differently for year two or year three with their own team in their own country to have a secondary contract with an Indian franchise for example. For year one, we are trying to match teams and riders. If a rider needs to ride a Honda, we’ll make sure a Honda team bids for him. There is an auction policy, and there is more time for us to work on that. We are making sure that the maximum is done on our side to keep the riders happy. Once again, there are a limited number of teams, so there might be some disappointed riders in year 1. The aim isn’t to make a one make championship, we want to be able to have the maximum number of brands to get the maximum numbers of riders. Teams have chosen wisely, 2 teams will be riding on KTM at the moment and the others will be riding with different brands within the team. That opens some doors for all the riders.

Do we have an idea of the racing format so far? How many moto’s, how long will they be, what will the points system look like?

Veer Patel: We have 4 classes. 450cc international, which will consist of international riders only. We then have 250cc international, then we have 250cc India/Asia mix and then an 85cc junior class India/Asia mix as well. Each category will have 2 races per round, and the point system will be similar to the AMA point system. The 450 moto’s will be 12 to 15 laps, and the 250 moto’s will be around 11 to 13 laps.

I was interested in the class format. There will be an Indian/Asian 250 class and 2 international classes along the 85cc class. Why have we decided to not mix the Indian & Asian Riders with the international ones? 

Eeshan Lokhande: Putting some of the world’s best riders against lower level riders will not make sense for the health of the league or the races. You don’t want somebody to get lapped 5 times, you want to create great racing. Currently, when we look at Indian racers, not many of them can race this kind of track but the Indian riders and the Asian riders are somewhat at par. When we put them together, it helps them to race competitively and also allows them to give them a chance to see there is a possibility to fight for something, for a win. If we put the 250 Indian boys with the 250 International riders, I can already tell you who finishes where. That is not good for racing. You first need to develop them. To keep racing healthy, competitive, challenging and not demoralize any of the racers, you have to think differently. Maybe in three years time, some of the Indian or Asian riders would be able to line up against the international riders. That would be the whole idea, but we need to provide some kind of feeder class into this pool of riders. It doesn’t happen overnight, even 3 years isn’t a lot of time. We have a plan to make new riders, allow new people to get into it, elevate themselves into the better classes.

You’ve just announced Richard Kutbach would be making the tracks for ISRL. He’s built numerous tracks for factory riders in the US. Can we say Indian Supercross will grow to the next level, with never seen tracks in India before? 

Eeshan Lokhande:  For sure, that is the idea. Until you put riders on a Supercross track, you cannot call that Supercross. I think back in the days, myself and Veer, we would have loved to ride on half of those tracks. Raising the bar of the sport is always important, it’s a tough sport and you can’t simply keep making simple tracks day in and day out. The riders will not go anywhere if you do that, and will simply not make progress. We will see tracks like never before in India, but while doing that, they won’t be full legit AMA Supercross style or difficulty level tracks. The first season is to make things happen, let people and spectators enjoy the races, keep the riders safe and competitive and slowly step it on. For instance, the triple jumps might be filled in between, to ensure Indians and junior riders can also ride the same track as the best international riders. With Richard, we have planned this all very well, to keep the excitement and the challenges for the top guys, but also to keep the tracks safe for the juniors and the Indians / Asians boys; that is a priority for us.

I guess you also have to find the right balance for every level of rider considering ISRL will have very different classes, and also some big skill gaps.

Eeshan Lokhande:  The AMA Supercross has set the bar very high with their tracks. I feel and believe that it is not always necessary to build a track that nobody else can ride. That doesn’t make sense. You can put up a track that is fun, on which people will love riding, a track that will allow for battles, room, safety, excitement and all those things. You don’t always have to build a track the way AMA does. You have to build a track to fit the way you want your series to be from year one, two, then three and then progress from on. The big advantage we have in India, is that the stadiums we have have a huge floor plan. The first stadium is about 190.000m² of floor plan. That will allow us to have some high speed sections, it doesn’t always need to be tight. We can spread it out the same way Daytona does, that track is so much fun.

Do we have an idea of when the first race is  going to be held?

Eeshan Lokhande:  January 2024 is the target for us. India has such a thin window to organize events. It’s crazy. Pre Christmas we have Diwali which is the biggest festival in India. We also have the cricket world cup in October/November; the IPL is from March to June and during that time, nothing else is being watched. It is like putting a puzzle together, making sure we do the best we can.  Season one, January and February, is what we aim for, keeping in mind there are races in Denmark, the east coast starting in America, few riders have commitments other than there and whatnot. We are tweaking between venues, team owner availability, sponsors, everything. January and February would be a perfect fit for season one.

For season two, would you be aiming to change the kick-off date?

Eeshan Lokhande:  We would like to start earlier. November, December, if it works perfectly fine for everybody. We have that availability, even in October; that would be the most beautiful thing to happen to the Indian Supercross Racing League as it would match up with the Indian season. We would want to reach those dates eventually. 

I am pretty sure you have kept an eye on the World Supercross championship. Surely India is a big market for them as well, and I can only guess they would be looking into hosting a world event in India. It would be huge for the sport and for India. Is a collaboration with WSX something you could be working towards in the future?

Eeshan Lokhande: Why not? There are so many opportunities. As kids, we always wanted the MXGP to happen in India, we wanted Nitro Circus to happen in India and also the Red Bull X Fighters and so on and so forth. Obviously, new things coming into India would always be welcomed. At this point, though, our priority and commitment is to put up the perfect season one for the Indian Supercross League. We have our baby now, and we need to look after it. We can’t be looking around, but if there are opportunities, why not. As we progress, as we build our ecosystem, I believe there will be opportunities and we will take a look at that when that time comes. For now, it’s full focus on the ISRL. WSX is doing a fantastic job. What they are doing will eventually be at par with MotoGP or F1 because they are traveling from one country to another, and I cannot believe how someone can put that together. I am very grateful for what they have done for the sport. They have taken the sport to a new market which was very necessary and from our side, big thumbs up to what they are doing and I hope they keep doing better every year. Supercross is beautiful and it needs to be shown in different countries, and new audiences.

India recently held the Bharat MotoGP. What kind of feedback did it get on a national scale?

Eeshan Lokhande:  There was a Formula 1 round for a few years in India but then everything went dead. The country has changed, India has evolved into a global player. MotoGP coming back is a sign of the willpower the country has to make things happen. They are looking at certain things and changing the way these things are done. We have a huge population, we are one of the youngest countries age wise. Having the Moto GP here proved one thing, that it can be done. There was this motion saying there would never be any Formula 1 or MotoGP race ever held in India again, and it happened. It takes one man and a team of people along with him to have a new vision. MotoGP has set the bar for newer things, it sets a precedent for many more international events which will come into India. It’s broken the ice and I think it will help, not only for our league, but also any sporting event who would want to come to India. MotoGP is one part, we had Formula E happening; it boosted the confidence of people. The youth gets engaged, they want to see all these things. For most people here, it’s a dream to be able to see a legit race, to get to meet an athlete. From an organizer standpoint, hats off to the MotoGP guys. I think India has a bright future with Motorsports, and we are just at the starting point.

Can we expect a streaming platform for the Indian Supercross Racing League? You’ve surely attracted riders from all over the world, and these riders have a huge following that will be willing to watch the races. 

Eeshan Lokhande:  Again, there are so many things to do. In India, we have our broadcasting entity and partner, we will be signing the official contract at the end of this week so there should be an official statement in the following week for you guys. While we say that, having so many international guys, we want to be able to showcase the sport back home for their family and friends. There is a plan put in place, we are still working on having the right digital streaming platform for the rest of the world. Because we have an exclusive deal in India, we would want to have something else for the rest of the world. There are talks going on, we of course welcome any offers if there are. We are at that stage with global streaming.

Ideally, where do you see the ISRL in 5 years from now?

Eeshan Lokhande: Ideally, one of the biggest sporting leagues in India, and one destination the racers cannot miss across the world. That is where we would want to be. We want to be that hospitable and welcoming that people would not want to miss the grand auction. Not just for the money but for the entire experience, the mentality, the welcoming in India. If we were there in 5 years, we would have achieved something.

Interview: Kevin Frelaud

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