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Enthusiasts face law and order problem in Kuwait Motor-sports on the mend

BORN Sept 22 1976, Mishari Al Sabti is a top organizing member of the Kuwait Quarter Mile Automobile & Motorcycle Club. As Clerk-of-the-course and head of the field organizing team of the last international automobile racing event, Middle East Rally Championship 2014 round two, he currently stands out as the No. 1 go-to person for a detailed talk on motorsports in Kuwait. As a former automobile racer himself who participated in several rallies in the name of Kuwait, Mishari brings a lot of experience to the table when it comes to discussing motorsports in Kuwait not only as an organizer working closely with big hitters in the administration of the sport, but also being closely involved with leading racers in the tracks, regionally and internationally.
The term MOTORSPORT is synonymous with Kuwaiti youth. That’s right. It’s perhaps the most spectacular sporting event in the world. It will be true to assert however that it’s not a common man’s sport due to the exorbitant costs it entails even at very middling levels. In this interview, the 38-year old Kuwaiti motorsport organizer Mishari Al Sabti walks us into a tour of the motor-sporting scene in Kuwait, the challenges it faces, the recent advances made and dissects its ailments for an expedited resolution.
Question: Can you shed some light on the genesis and where we are today regarding motorsport in Kuwait?
Answer: Motor sports in Kuwait actually began in 1986 initiated by local race enthusiasts but it was not until 1997 that the first organized motorsports club, Kuwait Motorsports Club (KT) officially came into existence. Sheikh Basil Al Sabah (Allah Bless His Soul) was a pioneering figure and hero in motorsport in Kuwait. He is a well known figure in Kuwait. Unfortunately he died in 2010 in a family spat when he was just 52. He was a very energetic race enthusiast with big dreams and who could have done much for the future of motorsports in Kuwait. 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 and car racing. The name of his racing team was Al Messillah. 
In the beginning, we only had drag racing. Sheikh Basil himself a great racer, started the Kuwait Quarter Mile Club as a way of broadening the scope of participation by the youth in motorsports in the country. A lot of motorsport enthusiasts at the time had issues with the way the sport was being administered in the country. Due to wrangling among officials of the motorsport community, all activities were put on hold for two years-2007 and 2008. And in 2009, a decision was taken to breathe new life into the sport in Kuwait thus the formation of Kuwait Quarter Mile Automobile & Motorcycle Club, a decision which was spearheaded by Sheikh Basil with strong support from Sheikh Ali Fawaz Al Sabah and Sheikh Athbi Naef Al Sabah, both ardent motorsport enthusiasts and currently top guns running the Quarter Mile Club.
In November 2011 we kicked off serious activities with Quarter Mile Club and KT jointly organizing the first rally in a long while with Mr. Fouad Abu Arja, an experienced motorsport organizer with deep connection to the FIA, as Chief organizer and Clerk of the Course (COC). And in 2012 we kicked off the 5- round Kuwait local Championship Rally which I had the honor to be the deputy clerk of the course under Fouad with eight cars on the start list. In 2013 we had another six-round Rally in which I was the COC for the first time at age 36 with 13 cars participating. In the last FIA Middle East Championship Rally2014 held in Kuwait, the entry list had 23 cars with drivers coming from across the Middle East and Europe. That shows how far we’ve progressed. For the first time in Kuwait motorsports, tracking and results system via GPS was used, which enabled enthusiasts to track their favorite racers on the tracks and also view the results of the rally in real-time from stage to stage. Also in the scrutineering area, car scales were used for the first time. All these pioneering activities were put in place on my advice as organizer.
Q: What are the main hurdles to the promotion of motorsports 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 Qurtuba in 1986, and we were the pioneers in motor sport in the region. But now it is on the decline, and other states have 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 entirely on the government for funds, which they are entitled to get as professionals with the potential to put the name of Kuwait on the international racing map.
Q: What is the situation of motorsports in Kuwait?
A: In Kuwait the situation of motorsports which had been going through a very lean patch in the past few years, is now on the mend. Thanks to people like Sheikh Ali Fawaz, Sheikh Athbi Naef and a couple of others working to uplift the sport to the right pedestal. 
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 which was graced by the presence of the President of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) John Todd, who witnessed the event first hand as it happened. The event gave the FIA boss a rare opportunity to appraise the motorsport situation in Kuwait, and had some kind words to say about the enthusiasm of Kuwaiti organizers as well as the willingness of the media to promote the sport. About fifteen TV channels were out there to cover the race, and many newspapers were there too. A plethora of media teams from outside Kuwait were in the country to cover the event. However, in terms of support for the sport itself there is still much that need to be done. 
Q: Tell us about your career in motorsport in Kuwait. Why motorsport and not say, football which is more or less a passion 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. It simply doesn’t tickle me. It’s motor sport that inspires me. I was only ten years of age when my interest in motorsports began to manifest. I, along with boys my age group started racing with remote controlled cars way back in 1986 at the Scientific Club in Salmiya where a small circuit was designed for us. At that time we followed with keen interests all up- to- date developments within the motorsports arena, especially where it involved Michel Saleh, Ahmed Thafiri, Al Wazan, Mohammed Bin Sulaiyyem and others who were our regional heroes in the sport at the time. In 1986, there was a lot of fight regarding the sponsorship of the Middle East Championships pitting Marlboro against Rothmans with Mohammed Bin Sulaiyyem flying the Marlboro label and Saeed AlHazemi routing for Rothmans. The rivalry between the two brands at the time was extended to the radio- controlled (RC) cars used in racing at the time with RC company Tamiyah fielding two cars, one a Marlboro-Toyota piloted by Mohammed Hussein and a Rothmans-Porsche piloted by Saeed Hazemi. Toyota’s triumph over Porsche in the race was a big talk of town in the motorsport community at the time, given the clout of Porsche relative to Toyota in those days. 
Q: Which are the first names that spring to your mind when you talk motorsport in Kuwait?
A: I can give you a long list of names. There is Mishal Al Nejadi, 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 on the world stage. 
Q: Is there a season for motor sports in the region?
A: Summer is an off season for motor sport in Kuwait and perhaps some other parts of the Gulf because the blistering temperatures are not suitable for the sport. So, some racers move to places like America and Europe to take part in the races there, where the temperatures are somewhat more tolerable than in Kuwait during the summer season.
Q. Have you taken any measures aimed at promoting motorsport in Kuwait via the social media and what has been the response?
A. Yes, the two main motorsport organizations in the country, Kuwait International Automobile Club (KIAC or KT) — the oldest in the country and the Quarter Mile Automobile & Motorcycle Club are both all over the social media sites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so forth, providing information and updates on happenings in the motorsport arena in the country, the region and beyond. Indeed, most contact with the youth has been on the social networking sites. 
Q: Where do budding racers practice in Kuwait? How can you develop raw potential in Kuwait?
A: In recent past years, one could not really practice motorsport of any kind without running into trouble with the law. But now I can confidently say the situation has changed a little bit due to the opening of motorsport learning facilities in the country through private investment, the latest of which is the SIRBB Karting Circuit, one of the most up to date karting circuits in the world which recently opened its doors to the public. The facility is run by Historic, Vintage & Classic Cars Museum which in its effort to promote safe driving in the country, also runs the Car City which houses mini cars and circuits for a kid learner driver program.
An important fact to remember is that almost all, if not all, of the world’s best motorsport racers launched their careers from the karting circuits as child drivers. More importantly, today’s motorsport big wigs Sheikhs Athbi Nayef Al Sabah and Ali Al Fawaz Al Sabah who currently run the Kuwait Quarter Mile Automobile & Motorcycle Club, have led the way with the creation of desert tracks in the south of Kuwait where the most recent FIA supervised rally — Middle East Rally second round came to a successful conclusion. The desert track is not the end of the story, however, because the two motorsport dons are relentless in their pursuit of government nod for standard racing circuits.
The stakes are still high, as without the circuit, our young racing aficionados will continue to use roads in isolated pockets of the country to practice car racing to test their speeds, sometimes reaching speeds of up to 320 kmph. It’s a law and order problem and the police move in to arrest the kids if and when they get them alive, since some of those races wind up in fatal accidents. You know Kuwait is a small country and any activity that threatens the lives of Kuwaiti youth who are the future of the country must be taken as a national security emergency. Indeed that was the primary reason the Quarter Mile Club came into existence- get the racing youth off the streets onto the circuits. The idea is already beginning to bear fruit as Kuwait is already celebrating Zaid Ashkanani’s victory in the recently concluded GT3 Porsche Challenge Cup in Bahrain. The young Kuwaiti who is a product of Quarter Mile Club’s initiatives finished first in the international championship event. Another addition to Kuwait’s motorsport arena in recent times has been the commissioning of the SIRBB Circuit in Shuwaikh- a standard commercial go-kart circuit dedicated to serving the needs of Kuwaiti youths interested in motorsports. 
Q: Is it possible to drive at speeds of 320 kmph on those desert terrains?
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 all standard racing circuits. Kuwait racers frequent these locations for practice. 
Q: Are the racing championships held in Kuwait basically rallies since here there aren’t any circuits currently in the country? 
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 disqualified 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. 
Q: This country, flush with oil cash, has the champions and more of the youth who are ready to take up the sport, why then is there no encouragement for this sport in Kuwait?
A: That was then, and now the situation is on the mend. With so much on the government’s plate in terms of prioritizing expenditures, there are some private companies stepping forward into the fray with sponsorships. However, they are not very enthusiastic about sponsoring international events for obvious business reasons. They want to put the food where their mouths are. You don’t advertise in countries where your business has no presence. From a business standpoint it kind of makes sense. They want their names to be seen in Kuwait and not in some foreign country where the company has no presence. 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 little help coming in currently. Compare this with countries like Qatar, where support for racers is overwhelming. They 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 Arabian Gulf. This was followed by Qatar in 1975. The beginnings were hugely promising, and we were on the move. 
Mishari Mayouf Al Sabti, a Kuwaiti national and former employee of Kuwait Oil Company, was born in 1976 (38) and is considered the youngest Clerk-of-the-course (Rally organizer) in the Middle East at 38 in terms of age. AlSabti has organized and participated in many rally tournaments both local and international- in Kuwait, Dubai, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan and Qatar. His participation in motorsports at various levels including street racing eventually led to his premature retirement from his KOC job. Al Sabti has participated in numerous training courses approved by the worldwide motorsport governing body Federation Internationales Automobiles — FIA. His most recent achievements were manifested in his seamless organization of the Kuwait International Rallies of 2012, 2013 and most notably, the just concluded round two of the Middle East Rally Championship-MERC2014 held in Kuwait. The FIA attested to the rally’s faultless organization.

By Iddris Seidu

Arab Times Staff

By: Mishari Mayouf Al Sabti

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