Motor sport needs government support Kuwait pioneering role hasn’t helped much

MOTOR sport is perhaps the most spectacular sporting event in the world; however, it’s not a common man’s sport for the exorbitant costs it entails even at very mediocre levels. In today’s interview, Kuwaiti sports journalist Osama Al Mansour speaks about the motor-sporting scene in Kuwait, the challenges it faces and thinks aloud on what’s ailing its progress. Surely in a country with overflowing coffers, rich oil reserves, and full of race enthusiasts, there are few excuses Osama can think of for the indifference shown to this sport by the authorities.


Question: What is the situation of motor sports in Kuwait?

Answer: In Kuwait the situation of motor sports is not very encouraging. It’s going through a very lean patch right now. 

Q: Is this common to all motor sports or any specific category?
A: I am talking about motor sports in general including motor cars, motor boats, and motorcycles.
Recently the Kuwait Quarter Mile Club held a rally in Kuwait and the President of Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) or the International Automobile Federation, John Todd, came to witness it. He appraised the motor sport situation in Kuwait, and had some kind words to say about the enthusiasm of Kuwaiti media to promote the sport. Nearly 15 TV channels were out there to cover the race, and many newspapers were there too. Media teams from outside Kuwait, including Jazeera TV were here too. However, the sport itself if on the decline. There’s not much support for motor sport in Kuwait.

Todd invites me for all FIA races in the region and he gives me airfares. However, I will have to take care of my lodging and boarding. I love to cover these events. Similarly, I have well wishers in Italy and America, where I have been to cover high profile racing events. In America I have covered an important drag race called ADRL, which is an acronym for American Drag Racing League. When I visit these countries I wonder why Kuwait can’t emerge to the same level of excellence in motor sport. It’s sad that despite the resources that we have, we are lagging so far behind in this sport.

Q: You said the motor sport is on the decline in Kuwait now, which means that once it was doing well. Tell us about the history of motor sport in Kuwait.
A: Motor sports in Kuwait actually began in 1986 initiated by local race enthusiasts. Sheikh Basil Al Sabah was a pioneering figure in engine sport in Kuwait. He is a well known figure in Kuwait. Unfortunately, he was murdered in 2010 in a family spat when he was just 52.
In the beginning, we only had drag racing. Sheikh Basil was himself a great racer. He was a very energetic race enthusiast with big dreams and who could have done much for the future of engine sports in Kuwait. He was shot dead on June 6, 2010.

I personally owe all my growth in this field to Sheikh Basil, because he was a man who could spot talents and give all the encouragement needed to nurture it. I look up to him as my mentor and guide. He motivated me and gave me the opportunities to grow as a sports journalist. He was a source of inspiration for all racers in Kuwait. He was a professional himself with great organizing skills. He personally had a team in both boat racing and car racing. The name of the team was Al Messillah.
He takes me into confidence whenever there’s a race being organized. He takes my counsel and shares with me any problems that are there in the organization of the race. But after his death, the motor sport scene has taken a strong blow in Kuwait. It has been on the decline.

Q: What are the main hurdles in the promotion of motor sports in Kuwait?
A: Motor sport is not like any other sport. Even at very low levels of the sport, it’s a very costly affair for obvious reasons. Here we are dealing with power vehicles, boats, cars and bikes. It’s not a ball game; rather it’s an engine game. If you want to build an average race car, even for a regional level championship, it will cost you not less than KD 40,000. This is huge money. It’s not for an average individual to play this sport. Right now, Qatar is in the top position in motor sports in the region. You may have heard of Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar. He is the Chairman of Qatar Racing Club.

So, as I was saying, drag racing in Kuwait began in 1986, and we were the pioneers in motor sport in the region. But now it is on the decline, and other states had taken after our initiatives and now have surpassed us. However, that does not mean there are no champions in Kuwait. We have some excellent racers, true blue racers. These are people who spend out of their own pockets to race. They don’t depend on the government for funds, which they are entitled to get as professionals who have the potential to put the name of Kuwait on the international racing map.

Q: Tell us about your career as a sports journalist?
A: I started my professional career in 1997 as a writer in the sports magazine Daleel Al Sayyarath. It’s a car magazine. I was in charge of the news gathering section for this magazine, and frequently wrote on engine sports in Kuwait and the Gulf in general. The best thing about my career has been the great friends I have earned, especially in the world of motor sporting. I am referring to figures like Mohammed Bin Sulayem and Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Attiyah, who is the President of Federation Internationale Motocyclisme (FIM) and also the President of Qatar Motor and Motorcycling Federation (QMMF). I am also well known to Sheikh Hassan Bin Jabber Al Thani, who is the President of Qatar Marine Sports Federation and who is himself an accomplished boat racer. He races in offshore boats Formula 1 events.

In Jordan I met Amir Talal, and I have also met a lot of leading figures in motor sports in Egypt. Egypt has the oldest motor sporting club in the Middle East, which was established in 1902. I am the first Kuwaiti journalist to cover the famous Rally El Faraana in Egypt. It’s a very difficult rally to cover, because it’s in the desert along the Libyan border. I had to stay in those harsh conditions for 8 days to cover this rally. I had the good fortune to cover the Formula 1 in Singapore, UAE, Qatar, Egypt and also in Portugal.

Q: Which are the first names that spring to your mind when you talk of racing in Kuwait?
A: I can give you a long list of names. There is Meshal Al Sabr and Tarek Al Ghadiri in car racing. Yusuf Al Rubbayan is a champ in Formula One boat racing. Abdullah Al Fadl is a talent to reckon with in Jet Ski racing. Abdul Rahman Al Badr is another name in boat racing. Hamad Al Saif is a champion in motorbike racing. However, there’s really not much support for these guys to make it big. Money is of course a problem, and there’s also the problem of lack of expert trainers. When they go to the sporting authorities in Kuwait, they ask them to find their own sponsors. How is this possible?

Look at my own situation. Every week I go to Qatar to cover motor sports. Qatar is a hotbed for motor sports. I represent KTV, but I don’t get funds for covering these events. I go because I am officially invited by the authorities in Qatar. They respect my experience and dedication to the sport. I am the director of KTV 3, and I run a weekly show called Speed on KTV 3 every Thursday. I feature races and racing related issues in this program.

Q: Is there any season for motor sports in the region?

A: Summer is an off season for motor sport in the Gulf because the temperatures are not suitable for the sport. So, some racers move to places like America and Europe to take part in the races there, when it’s hot here. I have been to America to cover some of the races. However, in Kuwait irrespective of the season, the racing scene is bad. And to think that we were the pioneers of racing in the region makes it even more hurting. There’s nothing much that a racer can do here in Kuwait. There aren’t many events organized here.

Q: What have you been doing as your mite to revive motor sport in Kuwait?
A: I am doing what a journalist can do. Write about it extensively, cover as many races regionally and internationally and telecast them here to quench the hunger of race enthusiasts and to create awareness on how good our Kuwaiti motor sport champions are. I have an FB page on racing, and I have a vast following, not less than 4,000, this is over and above those who know me personally like my immediate family and friends. Many of my FB followers are racers themselves in some category of motor sport. Others are diehard fans of motor sport. And mind you, I write only in Arabic, so that restricts my followers to the region.

I want to start writing in English to cater to a wider audience. I am sure there are a lot of racers and racing fans in the US and Europe who are interested to know about the developments in the region in the field of motor sports. I love Kuwait, and I really want to see it climbing to greater heights in motor sports. I am extremely grateful to Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani, who is a champion racer himself. Also Mohammed Bin Sulayem, who is the Vice Chairman of FIA, Middle East, and Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Attiya, who is the Chairman of FIM, and Amir Talal... all these are people who give me a lot of encouragement and hope.

Q: Tell me about your enthusiasm for motor sport. Why this sport, instead of say football which is a greater craze in this part of the world?
A:
I don’t know. I think it’s something very innate in me. From the very beginning I was very fond of motor sport. It’s not something I discovered in the midst of my career. No, but this love for motor sport was always there in me. I don’t understand football. I don’t see it giving me a high. It’s motor sport that inspires me. Ask me about Kuwait football players, I may be able to name a few, but I know every good racer in Kuwait. In my Diwaniya in Rowdha, when my friends tune into football, I can’t watch it for long. I go out after a while. Whereas car rallies, drag race or boat race keeps me glued to the TV for hours on end.

Q: Where do budding racers practice in Kuwait? How can you develop raw potential in Kuwait?
A: You can’t really practice in Kuwait, for the simple reason that there are no race circuits here. The government hasn’t built one. Sheikh Basil (May Allah have Mercy on his Soul) was trying to build one. At his insistence, even HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah was showing interest to fulfill this dream. But now that Sheikh Basil is gone, there’s no one to follow up the dream and bring it to fruition.
But there is still hope. Sheikh Ali Al Fawaz Al Sabah, who is the Chairman of Quarter Mile Club, is doing his best to get a circuit. He is in talks with the government and is applying all possible pressure to get a sanction from the government to give Kuwait a racing circuit. He understands that a circuit is the first step to revive and boost motor sport in Kuwait.

Without a circuit, our young racing aficionados are using the ground near the airport in Sabhan. They test speeds over there, touching speeds of 320 kmph. It’s also a law and order problem and police take these kids into custody when they are caught racing there. The government has to understand that racing is a legitimate passion and it should grant people the support to realize their passion.

Q: Is it possible to drive at speeds of 320 kmph on those grounds?
A: Oh yes. These are normal speeds in racing. There are many methods to add power to the engines. NOS, turbo and supercharger engines are used across all categories of motor sport for high speeds.
We can only look in envy at the world-class circuits in our neighboring countries. There’s Yas in Abu Dhabi, Al Reem in Saudi Arabia, Sakhair in Bahrain and Losail in Qatar... these are racing circuits. Kuwait racers frequent these locations for practice. Three months ago I went to Egypt, in October, 2012, to cover a race. You know the situation in Egypt, it’s not safe. My family was afraid for me. It was hard there as it was close to the Libyan border. My car broke down, and the locals were suspicious, wanting to know what I was doing in their country. But I had good friends also, who came to my help. It was an 8-day stay in the desert.

Q: So the racing championships held in Kuwait are basically rallies, is it? Because there are no circuits here.
A: Yes. Rallies are fine. You just need to get permission from the Interior Ministry and they provide us the location in the desert along with ambulance, firefighters, security etc. And of course there are certain systems that need to be in place, like GPS. Each car is tracked on the GPS. Each car is timed from start to finish and the one to make it in the shortest time is the winner. This system is used to overcome the problem of accommodating all the participants in the available space. Then of course there are many safety features that the cars should have. Only cars that pass the safety test are allowed to take part. You need to have the roll bar inside the car, six seat belts that hold you firmly to your seat, and then the hinge line should be to certain specifications. The engine should be 8 cylinders, and there should be blowers outside.

The suit of the driver also matters. There’s an expiry date for the suits, and so you can’t be wearing old suits. The steward will check all these details, and if you fail in any one, you will be expelled from the race. The helmet, shoes and everything matters. The materials in the car should be fire resistant.
If you look at boat racing, there’s a Kuwaiti driver who even wears an oxygen mask to be prepared in the event of the boat flipping over and pinning him underwater. Abdul Lateef is a famous boat racer in Kuwait. His boat is called Raheeb. He is a champion in the UAE. There are clubs in Kuwait that have the license to conduct races, but they are not active. They are laid back.

Q: Kuwait has the champions, it has the resources, it’s got the oil, there’s a lot of money, why then is there no encouragement for this sport in Kuwait?
A: Many people ask me this question. It’s true that we have everything it takes to establish motor sports. But I think what we lack is the will and interest. The authorities simply don’t see the potential in the game. There are some private companies who come forward with sponsorships. However, they are not willing to sponsor the Kuwaiti teams for international events. From a business point of view, they want their names to be seen in Kuwait and not in some foreign country where the company has no presence. This might make sense from business point of view, but such commercial interests do not serve the cause of the sport in general. If you have personal contacts in these companies, you can manage to get minor sponsorships. But that’s only for those with personal influence.

Officially there’s no help. Compare this with countries like Qatar, where the support for racers are overwhelming. You have the infrastructure, training, sponsorships and what have you. In fact Kuwait held its first rally in 1974. We were the first to hold a rally in the Gulf. This was followed by Qatar in 1975. The beginnings were hugely promising, and we were rearing to go. Further on the question of what I am doing to revive the sport in Kuwait, I had set up a track for drag race beside 360 Mall, and we used to hold races. The last race we held was in 2003, and there have been no races after that. The track is still there.

Q: How long is the track?

A: The track is 600 meters long. The race takes place for 200 meters, and you need 400 meters to bring the cars to a stop.  The cars are getting better and more powerful. In a recent championship in Qatar, the cars touched 420 kmph. Earlier, in the races in Kuwait, the cars used to go up to 220 kmph and thereabouts. Technology is improving by the day. Today, you don’t need a mechanic to analyze your car to find out what it’s lacking. A computer does it for you. There’s a memory stick kind of a device in the car, which if you stick in your laptop, you will have all the details on your screen.
 

biography

Osama Al Mansour is Director of the national sports channel, KTV 3. He is specialized in motor sports and brings with him many years of valuable experience not only in covering motor sport events, but also in being closely involved with the leading figures in the field, regionally and internationally, understanding and fathoming the political and economic machinations of this very expensive sport. He began his career as a writer in a car magazine in 1997, and since 2004 has been running a program called Speed in KTV 3, focusing on motor sports.

- By Valiya S. Sajjad - Arab Times Staff


By: Osama Al Mansour

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