Tijil Rao overcomes Clubfoot, wins JK Tyre Novice race
15-year-old Tijil Rao’s victory in the opening round of JK Tyre Novice Cup was the perfect illustration of what a human body is capable of, if there is a will to drag it beyond conceived limits.
Born with a physical deformity called Clubfoot, Rao was not even able to walk properly in his childhood years. He had to undergo several surgeries, as early as the age of three months, to lead a normal life.
However, that didn’t stop him from taking up a career in motorsport. He started off at the bottom of the racing ladder, competing in the National Rotax Max Karting Championship last year.
Happy with his performance, he made the leap into single-seaters, signing up for the JK Tyre Novice Cup as well as the MRF LGB 1300 category.
In his very first weekend of racing in the JK Tyre series, he came against the odds to take a memorable win in crash-filled Race 2. He finished second on road but was promoted to first when the original winner was handed a penalty for crashing into a rival driver.
“It was pretty competitive, it was very tough,” Rao told reporters including Motorsport.com India. “Since the first lap everyone was fighting very well but luckily everyone kept it clean. Really challenging race, it was very tricky.
“From the start of the race I had a little bit of contact at parabola. But I managed to keep it on track. From there on I just kept pushing the car even though I had some damage to it. And then I was struggling with the handling.
“Eventually two guys crashed out and then I was able to finish second [and promoted to first later on], but it was a very challenging race. Really exhausting race.”
Rao didn’t get the best of the starts to the weekend, with engine issues becoming a major hamstrung. His team eventually fitted a spare unit in his car, which was down on power to his primary engine.
“My old engine had some really bad issue which they were not able to figure out in 4 days. So that’s why they really had to change the engine,” he explained.
“They gave me a new chassis and a completely new engine and because it’s a new engine we had to do some running in.”
He added: “I was losing 3-4 kmph easily on the straights. It’s pretty slow but yeah we managed to catch them in the corners and somehow keep it clean.”
Photo by: JK Tyre Racing
Rao admits that Clubfoot poses a major physical challenge and that he has to follow a very strict health regime to be on top of his game.
"I’m short. On my feet I have gone up to several corrective surgeries when I was small,” he said. “Other drivers can push their limits whenever they want to, but I can’t.
“I have to push myself very calculatively, I cannot do extraordinary things. I have to be very careful about my feet. Last time I crashed in Chennai I blacked out in the car because of my fitness.
“I do lots of pulls up and push ups. Just keep focusing on my diet, increase in weight. Coming into this weekend I’ve gained 3-4 kilos from the last round.
“So you just keep pushing weight wise and physical fitness because it’s really hard. Racing is hard. Keeping it on track for 15 laps, flat out is not easy.
“It’s not like everyone can come and do it. That’s why you see many drivers crashing out. It’s not a kid’s sport. Everytime even though im not fit, im mentally very strong. No matter how exhausted I’m I keep pushing the limit and make sure I get the chequered flag first.”
Rao may have his physical weaknesses, but he makes up for that with his mental strength. Asked if heavy braking zones of the Buddh International Circuit will put extra pressure on his feet, he replied: “See I don’t mind a challenge. If you give me a challenge, I’m ready.
“If it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna hurt. But all I wanna do is I wanna win. I don’t wanna keep complaining that my leg is hurting, what’s the use of racing then? You come here to race and you come here to win, you don’t come here to finish second or third.
“Every single weekend you come, you have to push it to your limit, you have to give your 100%. There are no excuses. If you give me a track like that, I’m ready to drive. It’s fine. It will be alright the next day. I have no issues with it.
Rao has big plans for the future and wants to graduate to the Euro JK category of JK Tyre National Racing Championship next year, before moving on to the international arena.
“My future plan is to move to the Euro JK 18 - the Formula BMW because they are much faster cars and similar to international racing. And as soon as I finish that I want to go up to Formula 4, Formula 3, Formula 2 and eventually reach Formula 1.”
Rao showed plenty of promise in the first round of the season and if he lives up to his potential, he’d be worth keeping an eye on.
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