It’s approaching evening in the bustling capital of Colombo. A quick glance at my watch confirms it’s turned 10 minutes past 5 o’clock: Rush hour traffic is just about to begin as we stand near Independence Square. Suddenly a loud and exotic roar signals the arrival of the man (and the car) we’ve been waiting for. A white Lamborghini pulls into view, and Dilantha Malagamuwa, its proud new owner steps out to greet us. No sooner he does so, and the flurry of office goers, joggers and school children begin to pour around this white beast. But rather than being protective over what was undoubtedly at the time the most expensive new car in Sri Lanka, Dilantha all too happily allows the crowds to gather around, opening the doors and bonnet so that people can get a better view, and quickly making himself available for pictures and autographs.
Flash forward three years, and Dilantha is celebrating 25 years of international racing. Present are dignitaries from local politics, racing drivers and even representatives from Lamborghini and Motorsport Asia. Once again, he and his white Lamborghini are centre stage, but after all formalities have concluded he still makes every effort to ensure that all photo requests and signatures are fulfilled, despite a busy schedule. The amount of media attention that has ensued from Dilantha’s international success has not changed him over his many years of competitive racing. It is apparent that he remains one of the most humble and down to earth drivers you can find, despite being a man who needs little introduction, as he’s arguably the most recognisable face in Sri Lankan automotive racing.
We’re here to find out what makes Dilantha tick, and also to retell the story of how he got where he is today. But his inspiration to get into racing is by no means a conventional one. “Silver Dream Racer,” recalls Dilantha with a smile. “When I was 14 I watched that movie, and I remember how cool it seemed to race. Since I was 6 years of age I could ride a motorcycle, but that movie really encouraged me to take up racing. I was determined to become a world champion!” It’s the passion that was ignited that led to Dilantha’s first just two years later when he was just 16 years of age. “I used my road going CB50, and actually won my first race! After that my sisters, who have always been supportive of me, helped convince my father to buy a bigger and more powerful bike. I was given a 1973 Yamaha TZ350, which as you can imagine was a big jump from the humble CB50. Nevertheless I managed to secure a podium on my first outing with this new machine. In my second race, the Kurunegala Road Race, I was battling for second before I had a large accident, fracturing my leg and leaving me in hospital. I still wanted to race, but my father said no, no more racing.”Despite these setbacks the fire within Dilantha burned strong, and he soon realised that if he was ever to achieve champion status he’d have to set his sights higher. Unfortunately the road that lay ahead was still riddled with setbacks and disappointments. “In 1983 I saw an advertisement inviting motorcycle riders from Sri Lanka to take part in the Madras Grand Prix. I enquired from the Sri Lankan officials but they refused to let me take part, so I wrote the organisers, who said that I could enter but as a privateer. But when I got there, bringing my TZ350, the Sri Lankan representatives again would not allow me to participate. I was down heartened, but next I set my sights on the Kolkata Grand Prix. To get there I had to sell some of my belongings, but I took a train and somehow made it. Everyone said I was crazy to ride such an old bike against competitors who came from across the globe, and who were fielding much more advanced machinery than myself.”
Dilantha came sixth in the Kolkata Grand Prix, but his presence and participation there translated into far more than just another race finish. Here he met a young Japanese rider, who quite literally altered Dilantha’s path, and put him on the road to success. “This Japanese rider was one of those who asked me why I was competing with an old bike,” says Dilantha. “I told him that I was starting out, but that one day I would be a champion. Although he laughed, he then asked me how I planned to move on from here and continue my racing career. Without hesitation I mentioned how I planned to move to either Europe or the United States to continue racing. He however told me that Japan would be a better idea, and gave me his card. Sadly I lost his contact details, but his words stuck with me. And so I sold my car back here in Sri Lanka, and bought a one way ticket to Japan and ran away without my father’s knowledge! With just $400 dollars in my hand I went there with no plan, other than to race, and become a champion.”
Dilantha got his first taste of living independently and in a strange country, at one point even living out of a van. “I worked in a motorcycle yard for two years before buying another bike for racing. After more accidents on two wheels I also started racing cars. In fact a few people noticed that I had a talent for cars as well as bikes, and eventually I transitioned to cars full time.”
In 1995 Dilantha entered his BMW M3 in the N1 Endurance championship, and became champion the same year. From there, in 1997 he became the first non-Japanese Asian to race in Formula Nippon, what was considered a popular stepping stone to the pinnacle of motorsport: Formula 1. “Although I had offers from some Formula One teams, it all required heavy sponsorship in order to proceed. Therefore I opted to take part in GT races.” It’s from here that Dilantha eventually found his way to the now trademark Lamborghini association, not before racing in the Aston Martin Championship of course. In 2010, Dilango Racing was formed and in only their first year out they managed to win the GT3 Asia Championship, having won numerous races.
Over 200 race wins and 5 championships later, it’s fair to say that Dilantha has been able to achieve the dream and goal instilled in him by a movie all those years ago. Today Dilantha and his team continue to go from strength to strength racing their new for 2015 Lamborghini Hurracans in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Cup as well as the FIA Asia GT Championship. It takes a great deal of talent to achieve what Dilantha has done, but as his story tells, it also involves an ample amount of courage too. “I always tell people to get out of their comfort zone, that’s when they will achieve the best of themselves. I believe there’s nothing I cannot do, and I’ve taken risks to get to where I am today. Things may not always work in your favour, and people will always be negative. When I first came to Japan I was ridiculed, saying that people race elephants where I come from, and that I should go back to doing so. Today I’m proud to be a Sri Lankan, and have always displayed the flag prominently on my car. We have a lot of talent in our country, and it’s time more people crossed that barrier…”
Words: Sam Smith
Images: Rajith Rajapaksa