Nur Ali – Beyond the Bumpy Track

Nobody can meet Nur Ali without being completely intimidated by the guy’s incontrovertible charm and good humor. At 32 he doesn’t look a day older than 26; he’s courteous as the next gentleman, resilient with a cause, and quite amazingly oozing with joie de vivre at a time when his fans would have easily been contented by simply knowing that he’s hanging in there.
Nur Barkat Ali, Pakistan’s high profile motorsport driver and icon, has been through a lot since I first met him in 2005 shortly after he had been pronounced A1 Team Pakistan’s official driver for His Highness Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum’s introductory A1 Grand Prix world cup of motorsport entirely on the basis of merit. Not only had he an impressive lineup of European and North American races shimmering on his curriculum vitae, he had actually won the Southwest Formula Mazda Regional Series Championship twice in a row before Pakistan even knew it had a feisty son somewhere out there who had indomitably taken up the responsibility of doing it proud without ever expecting anything in return “because Pakistan is my home.” He says with an honest glow in his eyes, “I was born here and have a special connection with the place. I know I haven’t exactly lived here, but that hasn’t affected my love for my country and its people in the least!”
Born on October 12, 1974 in Karachi, Nur grew up in Germany before moving the United States, where he attended the American University in Washington D.C. and interned with U.S. Congressman Joe Barton before earning a degree in International Relations. It was only after graduation day that the folks Okayed his lifelong dream of doing 300kmph without the fear of being pulled over. Nur accordingly got his racing license from Skip Barber Racing School, Ohio in 1998 and later the same year, he jumped into his first Formula Mazda Regional Series followed by a few other American circuits before finally being hailed to drive for Pakistan in the A1 Grand Prix world cup of motorsport in 2004.
Thousands of enthusiastic Pakistani’s witnessed the unveiling of their first A1 racing team, the preeminent part of which of course was Nur, who, by the love and backing of millions of his countrymen around the globe including the President himself was all set to represent Pakistan in the racing event of year. The Pakistani public, however, was left speechless when the inaugural race in September 2005 found 21 year old Adam Langley Khan, a British Anglo-Mongolian in the Pakistani car’s driver seat instead of Nur, who everyone was expecting to cheer for but had mysteriously disappeared from the scene.
Adam’s performance in the races was naturally not as satisfactory as we would have liked. Surely Nur Ali, who was better qualified and far more experienced, could have given us the kind of performance we as first timers craved, then why was he eliminated at the eleventh hour? Who was Adam Khan? What drove Team Pakistan’s decision makers to make such aggravating choices and lose the trust and support of their people?
Surprisingly though, Nur is back on the track and trying his best to set things right. The last world cup ended on a bitter note for the Pakistani’s with no special memories or deserved coverage by the local media and the public aptly complaining of being kept in the dark about something they were truly excited about. This year has been a little better with Nur deservingly sacking some respectable positions in a few races and consequently winning over his confused and dejected fans all over again.
What really went down in 2005 remains a mystery still, but some very important questions were answered by Nur on his last promotional trip to Karachi, confirming once again that the guy is indeed a diamond in the rough; refusing to speak ill of those who did him and the country wrong while protracting and preaching a rather commendable stance on what was, what is and what will be…

Let’s start with the end of the beginning. You were taken out of the team without so much as an explanation. What happened?

As you and the rest of the nation knows, I was announced Team Pakistan’s official driver for A1 GP world cup when it was being unveiled for the first time in 2005. It was a brand new racing series and we were all naturally very excited about the whole thing. I was advising the team and getting ready to drive, and then we did a road show after the launch in Lahore and Karachi. Everything was going well. Just before the start of the season however, I was put aside for another driver and the rest of the story is as much a mystery to me as it is to you!

So you never really found out what actually happened? Was the decision to oust you ever rationalized?

No, it wasn’t. I’m still trying to figure things out.

Were you shocked? Angry?

Not angry, because I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I didn’t drive the first year and it was tough for me. I’d been declared the pioneer of motorsport in Pakistan by President Musharraf himself. You hailed me a god of speed in your previous interview. Things like that don’t happen to many people, so yes, I was very shocked and sad.

Tell me a little bit about Adam Langley Khan. Who is he and where did he come from?

I didn’t know Adam even existed until I was ousted, but finding out from several media sources at that time, he had absolutely no ties to Pakistan, he didn’t’ speak the language and had never made a trip to Pakistan before he was chosen to replace me for the world cup. I have nothing personal against the guy and think he did an okay job in a few races last year.

I remember they even had an Italian guy drive the Pakistani car in one of the races. What went through your head when that happened?

If I remember correctly the Italian gentleman was brought in in South Africa when Adam suffered an injury in one of the practice sessions. It was devastating, you know, to see the Pakistani people’s car being driven on a track with 25 other people’s cars, and the heart of the car, which I think is the driver, wasn’t Pakistani.

You obviously weren’t treated very nicely last year and yet you’re back. Why?

The only reason I came back, despite all the frustration with the team, is that I wanted to make sure that Pakistan and its future generation gets a chance. I did it because the kids believe in A1 Team Pakistan; they have supported me as their first driver and I just couldn’t let them down. I came back in at the last minute, not knowing the car, not knowing any of the tracks and not having enough funding to put me in a car to practice.
I got the call back in September when I was actually heading to Atlanta, Georgia for my Star Mazda race. The team said they had just found out that Adam wasn’t Pakistani, which was a little strange of course, but I dropped everything and came back for my people because I just couldn’t disappoint them…

It’s obviously been a tough road, but how’s the new beginning been for you so far?

I’m hanging in there and trying to be as positive about everything as I can. I’m not holding a grudge against anybody, and now that I’m back in, I’m actually wearing 12 different hats for Team Pakistan. Besides driving the car, I market it; I look for sponsorship; I’m doing public relations; I’m doing work here by meeting some charitable organizations…I’m trying hard to keep Team Pakistan’s name alive. I’m going anything and everything other drivers don’t do!

Don’t you think multitasking like this can hurt you as an athlete? I know you’re doing it all out of determination to make a difference, but what about the long run?

You’re right. An athlete has to focus on his skill, and I’m not getting a chance to focus on my skill and what I’ve been groomed to do because I’m doing all these other things that are also very essential to our team. It becomes tough as a person, but still, I have hope in this nation and it has hope in me, and that’s what keeps me alive!

Has there been any support from the government this time?

There hasn’t been any support from the government yet, but we’re working on it and hoping there will be soon. I don’t blame them for their lack of interest right now because there has been a lot happening with them lately as well! The media has been very gracious though, and so have my fans and I truly thank them for that.

This is your first time racing as a national asset in a national car. How is it different for you as compared to the other races you’ve taken part in?

A1 GP is basically like the Olympics of Motorsport where all these different countries try for the world cup title. What’s been different for me, personally, is that I’ve always raced as a Pakistani individual and not as a national car or a national team in the past. Another big change is that we’re racing all over the world. The race tracks are all new for me because I didn’t drive last year.

And that’s a major drawback you have against the other drivers…

Of course it is! I don’t know any of the race tracks; they’re all new for me! We’re driving in Shanghai this weekend and all the teams already have the data from last year; I don’t. The team that’s working on the car this year is not the mechanical team that worked on the car last year, so they’re all new as well. We’re all rookies on a mission!

Who’s been your toughest competition in the A1 GP so far?

I love competition! It’s what keeps me going. For me, every competitor is tough, and I seriously hope I’m equally tough for them! Generally, I think the Western countries are doing a better job and leading the championship so far. For me it’s about doing my best and putting the Pakistani car up at the front, and hopefully finish somewhere in the top 5 inshallah.

What’s your schedule for the remaining races?

We’ve two more races to go. April 13 through 15 is Shanghai, China. Immediately after that from April 20 till the 22 I’ll be in Huston doing my Star Mazda North American Championship series. April 27 till 29 I’ll be in London, England for the final A1 GP race of the season, and immediately after that I’ll fly to Fort Worth, Texas for my South West Formula Mazda Regional Championship series.

You’ve been traveling like a hobo all year. How well does your family, especially your wife, put up with the crazy schedule?

My family’s been very supportive throughout, especially when I was down. My dad has been traveling with me this season so he’s right there when I’m on the track. Farah has also been very understanding even though I haven’t spent much time with her this year at all. I seriously need to head back home before she decides to leave me!

Tell me something about NAMA. What are its objectives?

I’ve always wanted to build race tracks around the country, and with help from Mr Tausif Agha who’s a motorsport veteran and founder of Motorsport Pakistan (MSP); Shahzad Sheikh who’s a Dubai based automotive journalist and Dr. Ovais Naqvi, an aspiring racer from Karachi, I was able to work on that dream by initiating Nur Ali Motorsports Academy. It’s the first racing school, talent hunt and scholarship program in Pakistan and it obviously has a long way to go. NAMA will give an opportunity to the youth of this country to pursue careers in motorsports and become pro racing instructors, track facilitators and race car drivers.