Time flies, as the end-of-the-year cliche goes, for most of us. But they zip time by on their mean machines. And they mark December 31 on the calendar as a red-letter-day to prove their point as they slice through the peak of the evening traffic hours.
3...2...1: Bikers have painted 'S/400' on a pavement between
Kherwadi and the Teacher's Colony bus stop in Bandra to mark the
starting point of a race. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
As such, New Year's Eve is wont to have the Mumbai traffic police on edge, looking out for the racing bikers, shooting through the roads in clouds of smoke and a roar of the engine, swishing past the slow movers, burning tar and rubber, just as night is beginning to be dotted with countless taillight LEDs. And it is anybody's guess what chance a traffic cop's bike has against a traffic racer's.
In any case, most cops just deny that this alternative racing world exists. However, after much cajoling and a promise to keep his name secret, a biker who lives this dangerous life, agreed to give MiD DAY a glimpse into his world.
For those who do not know what a traffic race is, visit the Western Express Highway during peak hours in the evening and, if it is meant to be, you may just sniff in the smoke left in the wake of a vrooming bike, whooshing by your side at the speed of lightning, gone before you can arch your head to get a glimpse. A traffic race is like a drag, only on a road abuzz with rush hour traffic.
Gone with the wind: Ace biker Mehboob 'King' Khan, a legend in
the Mumbai racing circuit, was 21 when he lost his life during a
traffic race on the Western Express Highway in May 2008.
Welcome to the not-so-well-known world of bike racing. The fact that it is illegal, and deadly, is immaterial to its dwellers. They are focussed on one thing: beating the clock.
Mumbai's bike race operates within a limited circuit. The race takes place when one group challenges another. After agreeing on the category of a race, they fix a time, place and the cash prize. A drag takes place in late or wee hours so as to find an empty patch of road.
A traffic race happens in the evening rush hours. On the WEH, Kherwadi junction is fast emerging as a hub of bike racing. Bikers from across the city meet at the starting point -- painted 'S/400' in yellow on a pavement between Kherwadi and the Teacher's Colony bus stop opposite the mosque in Bandra. The chequered flag at the finish line is usually at the Andheri signal, or miles ahead on the Dahisar check naka.
Kharghar is gaining credence as another racing zone. A race may be worth half a lakh or a lakh or anything in between. But the biker aren't in it for the money, not that they make much. It's the red-hot passion for speed. Sponsors get the lion's share in the winning amount, the bikers a wee cut.
The most adrenaline-pumping part is when the opponents select the bikes and the bikers. The first category of bike racing involves 120 cc engines. The second has 160-200 cc engines. The two-stroke motorcycles are usually Yamaha (RX 100, RX Z, RX 135, RX G); four-stroke bikes are Karizma, Pulsar 220, Yamaha R15.
Inside a biker's head
The racing world is personality driven. It's the legend on the bike that makes the crowd rave. MiD DAY cajoled the biker, our tour guide in this parallel world, to let us in on a trade secret or two. He gave in and said that the biking world is not above cheating. Bikers increase the engine capacity on the sly through something called porting (see box).
When the bikes are ported, the fuel is sucked into the engine in a rush, boosting the velocity. Indian bikes that max out at a 125 kmph notch up to 220 kmph after porting. One wrong move on these speed monster will send you flying, screeching, tumbling to death, or if you are lucky, to a hospital, he said. (Youtube is full of videos of racing and stunts performed by riders on busy as well as empty roads.)
But the giddy anticipation of triumph drubs the fear of grave and bikers mount these hot-rods despite the extraordinary stakes. "Jab exil (accelerator) haath mein hota hai naa bhai, tab dimaag mein ekich baat aati hai.. saamne wale ko harana hai. (When you have the accelerator in your hand, you only have one all-consuming aim: supersede the other)," the biker said.
"We hardly get a couple of thousands on winning. This doesn't even buy us the fuel needed for a race as after porting, bikes use up more petrol than usual," said another racer. "But we race for the thrill, the dizzy feeling you get when you win. Money pales in its comparison. It's an addiction, may be one of the worst kinds." And a fatal one too.
Cult biker dies
As real as the rush of blood is, the eventuality of death is even more real. Several bikers have lost their life while many their limbs, playing this outlawed sport. Ask the family of Mehboob Khan. An ace rider, Khan died during a race on the WEH in May 2008. He was 21 when that slightest error of judgement or an expected something sent him reeling out of control, and his senses, forever. Unconformed reports say that his head hit the road and he died on the spot. The cops registered a case of accidental death and closed the investigations, but mystery surrounds the deadly mishap.
"I was on a bike behind my brother. Soon after we started, he raced past all of us and was much ahead of everyone. When we reached the signal under the Santacruz flyover (near the Air Force quarters near Maratha Colony on WEH), we saw him lying on the road in a pool of blood. He was out. No one saw or knows what exactly happened, or how he met with the accident," said Maqsood.
Fellow racers gave an unusual homage to Khan on his funeral. They followed his funeral procession on bikes till the crematorium. A resident of Kherwadi, he was all the rage among bikers who still remember him as King Khan. According to Khan's brother Maqsood, Khan's presence in the bike-racing world used to send shivers down the spines of rivals.
"On several occasions, the rival would back off when they heard they had to compete with my brother," Maqsood said. It was Khan's success that lured Maqsood into racing, and it was his death that brought about his exit.
"It's an irreparable loss for me and my family. I vowed not to race after his death." Maqsood now runs a small garage in a hutment opposite the police ground at Kalina." Maqsood said. As an aside, he mentioned that Bollywood movies Dhoom and its sequel were both inspired by and invigorated the cult of biking.
Did you know?
While a drag usually takes place on an empty stretch of road between two bikers, a traffic race is held during peak traffic hours and the distance involved is longer.
Additional Commissioner of Police Brijesh Singh said, "We are not aware of such bike races in Mumbai. Usually, whenever we come across any errant bikers who are driving rashly, we book them under appropriate sections."
He added that in a special 15-day drive last month, the traffic police had booked 14,000 errant bikers.
Cheat sheet: Porting
There are several garage owners in and around Vakola, Kherwadi and Bandra who do porting of bikes. As the garage mechanics don't open up about the trade, we approached the mechanics posing as bike racers, and understood how porting is done.
Pimp my ride: One of the nondescript garages that does porting
for racing bikes.
The dimension of the head blog of the engine, that intakes petrol from the fuel tank, is increased and then the engine is polished. All extraneous parts such as headers, valve covers etc, which inhibit the flow of fuel, are removed.
"By removing all the extra parts, the petrol flows into the engine directly from the fuel tank without passing through the extraneous parts. This boosts the speed," said Abdullah Shaikh, mechanic at RK garage, Yeshwant Nagar, Vakola.
An engine which has been ported
There are two types of porting, half and full. Half porting costs up to Rs 5,000 while full is done for Rs 25,000. In the former, a bike with a capacity of 120 kmph can notch up 160 while in the latter, the biker can speed over 200 kmph. Most spare parts used in porting are from Banglore. "
Banglore is also known for these bike races. The spare parts used in porting are hardly available in the Indian market. Even if we find them, they are very expensive," said another garage owner.