I MUST have been a teenager then. We were maybe somewhere in Pahang. The details are hazy now. All I can remember is lots of palm trees.
All three of us were in my friend’s 1989 Mazda 323 B6 Turbo. The sunroof was open and “Insane in The Membrane” by Cypress Hill was playing from a worn-out cassette in the deck as my buddy blasted the little hatchback through some tight trunk roads.
I remember us stopping on the road shoulder in the middle of nowhere, then running a few hundred metres into the plantation, getting our Adidas’ muddy in the process.
Dozens of people were already lined up along the sides of a long stretch of estate road. Then out of nowhere came a loud roar that resonated through the plantation. A white car came hurtling out from between the palm trees, at insane speeds
That moustache. The thin, serious lips. The hawklike, steel gaze. Even as the Proton rally car barrelled past the trees at breakneck speed, it was impossible not to recognise that face from countless appearances on TV3’s Berita Sukan.
That was the first time I saw Karamjit Singh in action, just a split second later, all three of us jumped backwards, grimacing in pain. Dozens of little pebbles and pieces of mud were flung up by his knobby tyres, and landed on our exposed legs.
But it was OK, because we had the privilege of being sprayed by debris from the car of the legendary Flying Sikh.
Since then, I have watched on TV and read in newspapers as Karamjit’s career rose to stellar heights, then nosedived over the years.
Karamjit’s career is synonymous with the rise of PERT - the Petronas EON Racing Team (PERT) and, of course, Proton.
PERT began to dominate many international rallies, including the 1991 Rally Of Thailand and 1993 Dubai International Rally.
Brand awareness and recognition for Proton shot up during these years. Those were the glory days of our national marque. In those days, people took the national carmaker very seriously. It was a far cry from where it is today.
In 1992, the Saga was ranked among the Top 20 best-selling cars in the United Kingdom, outselling its main competitors at that time, Hyundai and SEAT.
Proton dominated domestic sales, which peaked in 1993, with 74 per cent of the market cornered and over 94,100 units sold in that year.
Proton’s successes also coincided with Karamjit’s stellar rise, culminating in his wins at the 2002 FIA Production Car World Championship and the 2001, 2002 and 2004 Asia Pacific Rally Championship.
He was the first Asian driver to win the Fèdèration Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Production Car World Championship for Drivers, doing so on his first try. Sales were booming in the UK. Cars like the Satria GTi, the Putra and the Wira 1.8 Homologation had immense street cred back home.
Karamjit single-handedly associated the Proton name with success on the world stage.
“Mengharumkan nama negara”, if you will. Proton cars at the time were World Champions, and Malaysia, of course, was a champion along with him.
But it went downhill soon after.
In 2003, Edaran Otomobil Nasional Bhd lost its distributorship of the brand. EON, keenly aware of the importance of racing in creating brand awareness, had been the main force behind Karamjit’s champion team.
Now reduced to a role of super dealer, it no longer made sense to channel immense funds for Karamjit and Allen Oh’s forays abroad.
Two years later, Karamjit began facing trouble finding sponsors, and was unable to participate in four rounds in the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship.
Running out of money, he could not pay for mechanics and maintenance of his car, and due to his absence at the races, the FIA slapped him with a €10,000 fine. His car was stranded in New Zealand after he couldn’t find funds to ship it back. The much publicised plight made newspaper headlines.
But Karamjit soldiered on. Racing was in his blood, he said.
In 2011, he won the two-wheel drive class of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship with his own money. In 2012, he won again driving for Cusco R3.
In 2013, when DRB took over Proton, the management stopped international rallying. In 2014 and 2015, he raced locally.
In 2016, Karamjit was supposed to drive an Iriz 1.6 Turbo, but the plug was pulled by Proton again with the car 90 per cent ready. Proton had stopped the rally programme entirely, said Karamjit.
Karamjit became a privateer.
“Such a waste, I was looking forward to driving and promoting the Iriz. That would’ve been the best way to promote the car,” he said.
Maybe it is already too late for Karamjit. Now 55 years of age, he is now racing with the EPF money he recently became eligible to withdraw.
He has bought an old Gen2 rally car with what he has left of the funds to race. He said he has completely dried up his EPF money.
The life of Karamjit is a case study of how we sometimes ignore talent in this country. Despite his countless successes, Karamjit seems to have been sidelined numerous times in his career.
He figured prominently in the Malaysian consciousness, but he is neither a Datuk, nor is he wealthy.
But he doesn’t really care.
“I don’t need Datukship, give me sponsorship,” he said curtly to this writer.
But the flying Sikh though, has taught us the meaning of passion for years.
His lifelong love of rallying has not made him a rich man or given him big titles, but it has endeared him to Malaysians. The legend of Karamjit still lives on, even as he scrapes by to continue what he does best.
There are 500 trophies in Karamjit’s house, and he still wants to add more. There is a lesson to be learned here.
Proton, with its long affiliation with the racer, should think about supporting him, even at this stage, because he still has the capability to be a champion.
Why should a car company care about passion? It’s an intangible concept.
However, go to any car launch in the world, and all the car or motorcycle manufacturers will talk about passion. From Germany, to China to Japan, passion plays an important role in selling cars, and getting closer to customer’s hearts.
Honda for example, approaches marketing its cars and motorcycles through emotion, and racing plays a central role in this.
“We know from our research that Honda is an emotional purchase,” said Honda Motor Europe’s senior marketing communications manager Jemma Jones in an interview with Marketing Week a while back.
“The more consumers understand our brand, our story and our ethos the closer they are to our business and what we are setting out to achieve.”
If Proton wants success tomorrow , maybe they should look into rediscovering this outstanding man from their past.