Revving memories of Mahagastota Hill Climb
By Hiranthi Fernando
Come September and the hills of Mahagastota will reverberate once again with the sound of revving engines and screeching of tires. The normally serene, tea-clad hillside will be packed with racing cars and motorbikes, trailers and back-up vehicles, as drivers and riders prepare for a very special event. It is the 70th Anniversary of the Mahagastota Hill Climb, the oldest hill climb in South East Asia. To celebrate this anniversary, the Ceylon Motor Sports Club has planned an exciting two day racing event in Nuwara Eliya, on the 19th and 20th of September.

The event promises many thrills for motor sports enthusiasts as well as spectators, says a member of the organizing committee. Most well known motor racing personalities, record breakers, past and present, will no doubt grace the occasion. On the first day, which is Saturday, a full day of racing is on the cards, as in the regular Mahagastota Hill Climb, now usually held in April. A special feature on that day is a Veteran's event for those who have participated in at least five Mahagastota Hill Climbs, but have not raced in the last ten years. Many well known racing drivers and riders are expected at this fun event. Fathers, will get on the race track with their sons or daughters in another interesting event, which is for past and present competitors of Mahagastota.

Suren Cooke with his sons Sheran and Rajitha, Bandula Weerasinghe and his son Dharin, Suranjith Premadasa and his son Aravinda, Rohan de Silva and his daughter Shehara are a few of the two generation participants while Chanaka Jinasena is the only third generation Mahagastota competitor.

On Sunday, car enthusiasts will be treated to a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity to see a parade of classic cars that have raced at Mahagastota. Well known racing drivers and record breakers of their day, are expected to participate in this event. It will indeed be a special treat to see these classic machines of days gone by, once again running up the steep inclines of Mahagastota Hill.

After an exhilarating day of racing, with perhaps many a record tumbling, competitors, and motor sports club members will gather with their families and friends at a gala dinner dance at the Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya. This too will be a great opportunity for veteran drivers and young up and coming ones, to meet, swap stories and share the experiences they have had at Mahagastota.

Looking back 70 years, at the origins of this motor sports event, it is found that the Mahagastota Hill Climb is probably the oldest existing hill climb in Asia. In the 1930s, young European planters of the area often spent their Sundays in friendly competition, racing on their gravel estate roads, purely for the thrill of driving fast. Then, at a gathering at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya on September 4, 1934, these young planters inaugurated the Ceylon Motor Sports Club. While all other clubs formed by Europeans at the time, admitted whites only, The CMSC, from its inception welcomed Ceylonese as members, encouraging them to participate.

When the new club held its inaugural meet, the first speed hill climb at Mahagastota Estate in 1934, a young engineer named T.S. Jinasena was warmly welcomed as a competitor by the Secretary, Gordon Graham. Ten cars and two motor cycles competed. Although no prizes were offered, the competitors enjoyed a successful day of sport. The day's fastest time for cars was 69.8 seconds, returned by Phil Fowke in a Tourist Trophy Austin. Riding a Scott motor cycle, T. Glen Dickson clocked a time of 64 seconds flat. In comparison, seventy years on, with modern formula cars and modified racing vehicles, the current course record for cars is 35.84 seconds (1995) held by Suranjith Premadasa and for bikes is Safraz Junaid holds the current record of 37.66 which he set up this April.

Mahagastota Hill Climb immediately became a regular feature in the motor sports calendar of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known. At the meet in 1939, T.S. Jinasena became the first Ceylonese to set a course record when he clocked 55.75 seconds. This record was set in the 'Magpie', a super charged car he himself had assembled by welding an old Lea Francis engine to an MG chassis, gearbox and differential. Although the Magpie would not be racing up Mahagastota in September, it would be interesting to see many other classic models on the track.


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