'I may own RFC, but I remain a small-town boy'

Rainforest Challenge founder Luis JA Wee on India's tryst with the joys of off-roading.

Jimmy Jacob        Print Edition: May 10, 2015
Rainforest Challenge founder Luis JA Wee
Rainforest Challenge founder Luis JA Wee

Stuck in a traffic jam behind thousands of vehicles rendered immobile due to a minor mishap two miles up the road, you tap your fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. There's nothing you would like better than to drive off the road, away from all the smoke and incessant honking, and blaze a trail through the rocky terrain into the great unknown.

Don't deny it; everybody has felt this way at some time or the other. And that's probably the reason why the Rainforest Challenge (RFC), one of the ten toughest motor races in the world, has come to India - to help us rediscover the long-forgotten thrill of taking the wheel. The first edition of the RFC, held in Goa from August 7 to 15, 2014,  was a roaring success. BT More catches up with Rainforest Challenge founder Luis J.A. Wee to get his view on four-wheeled drives, adventure sports and the event's India chapter.       

Small-Town Boy

I come from a small town called Kuala Terengganu in the East Coast of Malaysia. Though I have now shifted to Kuala Lumpur because it's the nerve centre of the country, I remain a small-town boy at heart. And it's a good thing too, because it makes me appreciate the better things in life. We have crazy storms in Kuala Terengganu every year, and at times, there are floods that cause a lot of devastation to property. But, on the other hand, it's just the kind of weather you would want for a great RFC session.   

How it Began
I was already a 4x4 enthusiast when I started the RFC back in 1997. The most iconic motor race at that time was the Camel Trophy, sponsored and supported by Land Rover. But they eventually changed the format to include other activities like mountain climbing and biking, bringing down the 4x4 motorsport segment down to 30 per cent of the event. This displeased many hardcore motorsports enthusiasts, and the event suffered an untimely demise in 2000. An employee of the Embassy of Spain at the time, I decided to fill the void left behind by the Camel Trophy. After all, we have just the right kind of terrain for motorsports in Malaysia - from jungles to marshlands.

Road to RFC
I started from zero, and so I definitely faced a lot of difficulties setting up the Rainforest Challenge event. The year 1997, when I started the RFC, was the period of the Asian financial crisis. The Thai baht fell, as did the Malaysian ringgit -- it was certainly a bad time to start a venture. Getting sponsors was tough and firms were shutting shop across the continent, but I was fortunate enough to survive. The 9/11 attacks also affected us, as did the Bali bombing in 2002.  Many people -- especially Westerners -- were afraid to come to Malaysia, fearing militants. They would call me and ask: "Hello, Mr Wee! Is it safe to come over?" But these things are outside our jurisdiction; we can only control what happens at the event.

The Power of 4x4

Off-road driving is nothing like driving a normal car. Once you engage the four-wheel drive, the car comes alive! The steering experience is the same, but you have to know when to accelerate and when not to -- and therein lies the skill. There is power pulsating through all the four tyres, and that gives quite a heady feeling. That is why it's thrilling, the way you go through obstacles like you are practically riding a beast. Extreme off-roading is not as much about speed as it's about articulation, power and control. Accidents do happen, yes, but it isn't exactly dangerous.

Tie-up with Cougar India
Tying up with Cougar was a good move, considering that they had been organising motoring events in India for some time. Headed by Ashish Gupta, the folk at Cougar have considerable experience in the field. Without Cougar's help and experience, we would have had a tough time holding the first edition of the RFC at Goa in August last year. International touring adventurers as well as members of off-road clubs across India participated in the event.

Format of the Event
People with no experience in 4x4 driving aren't allowed to participate in the Rainforest Challenge; they have to participate in smaller, less challenging events to qualify. The first leg is the circuit race, and that's more like a warm-up session. The second stage is called the 'Predator' segment, where we drive through the jungle. It's harder, with more natural elements. The third stage is the 'Terminator' stage -- which is aimed at narrowing the list of contenders -- and the final is the 'Twilight Zone'.

A Drive to Remember

I have had many memorable off-road experiences, but if you asked me to pick, I would say it was the one in 2007. That was when we went into the forest by four-wheeled drive, and came out by boat. It was raining cats and dogs, and the resultant flood was so bad that the vehicles got stranded in the forest. We had to be evacuated by rescue workers and the police. Our vehicles remained there for over two months, making it the longest RFC ever and the most memorable one to boot. That was stuff for the legends. This happened in Kuala Terengganu, my very state.

Favourite Country for Off-Roading

My favourite, of course, is Malaysia. Tropical countries work best for off-roading, because they have most of the factors required. But that said, every location has its own unique feature. Russia is not a tropical country, but it's foggy and cold -- and that adds a new dimension to the challenge. India is not bad either, considering that its weather is quite similar to Malaysia.

Travel, Music and History

RFC helps me do a lot of things, including travelling to foreign lands and getting to know people. This is my third time in India, and my second time in Delhi. I like the great outdoors, and whenever I'm free, I go visiting old temples, mosques and cathedrals. I am a history freak! I haven't had time to visit the monuments in India yet, but I plan to do it soon. If you ask me about my favourite travel destination, I would say it's the whole of Europe. I listen to classical music in my free hours, and to keep fit, I do yoga. It helps me focus, and makes me feel calm.

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