Street racing in Bengaluru: Cops try to slam the brakes but city’s bikers still raring to go
Police have been cracking down on illegal racing for years now, and have tried everything from policing streets popular with racers for their width and smoothness, to their latest plan of leaving impounded racing vehicles “to rot” in the police station.india Updated: Jul 10, 2017 14:41 IST
Twenty-year-old Jishnu* says riding fast feels like flying. Like a lot of college kids, he feels stifled at home and looks forward to the time he spends outside. He says racing his bike feels like being outside your body, like being on drugs. But safer.
Jishnu and his friends take their bikes out on the Kolar highway outside Bangalore every Sunday and race to the Café Coffee Day, 60 kilometres from Bangalore. He says he has exactly enough petrol money to reach Kolar and back: about Rs 500 tops. Bangalore has seen over 1,700 cases of racing and bike stunts like wheelies in the first five months of 2017 alone. Police have been cracking down on illegal racing for years now, and have tried everything from policing streets popular with racers for their width and smoothness, to their latest plan of leaving impounded racing vehicles “to rot” in the police station, never to be returned to their owners.
The Bangalore racing scene can be roughly divided into two. There’s the legitimate and legal racing that takes place in enclosed racing tracks during hugely popular and often corporate-funded competitive races, like the MRF Motocross in November 2017. Just as popular is the illegal, much more dangerous underground racing scene, which can take place basically anywhere there’s a clear, wide empty stretch of road in the city. People place bets on both kinds of races, upping the stakes so much more.
The underground scene is mostly populated by youngsters, most of whom can’t afford to rent out racing tracks. Some who can afford it can’t be bothered to. Most of them ride fast for the thrill of speed and the joy of sharing that thrill with friends. Late in the dead of night, you might encounter a bunch of friends racing each other impromptu for fun or chasing down men who cut them off at signals.
Hardik, an underground racer by night and martial arts instructor by day, says that there are a number of reasons why people choose to enter the underground racing scene, although at the heart of it lies a basic love of speed and bikes. It could also be for the money and legitimacy that comes from being picked up by a professional racing team, such as those sponsored by TVS and Yamaha, that gets to hear about your prowess on the streets. But mostly, it’s a combination of the thrill, pride and glory that comes from making your name on the streets, and laying claim to the title of being among Bangalore’s best street racers.
Many underground races happen between rival gangs. These gangs are usually associated with specific garages, given how racers and garages have a symbiotic relationship. People take their bikes to reputed garages to be “modified” or ported into mean racing machines, and their subsequent wins or losses speak of their garage’s and mechanic’s skill. Garages, understanding these races to be testaments and advertisements of their own prowess, are just as invested in the outcome of these races as the racers are themselves. A loss can result in the entire garage losing face, and even losing customers en masse to rival garages. Two garages in South Bangalore, one founded by a legendary Bangalore racer from the 1980s, are currently the biggest players in the underground racing scene.
Joe, the owner of the reputed Joe’s Garage in Shivajinagar, stresses that his work is all completely above-board and that he wants nothing to do with the kids racing on the street. “It’s good, what the police are doing,” he says. “They shouldn’t be racing on the road.”
Most of these illegal races happen on highways around the city: NICE Road, the Kolar highway, Ambur Highway, Nandi Hills and the elevated flyover in Electronic City are all popular spots for both casual and serious racing. Many of the races in Bangalore’s underground scene can get pretty serious, since there’s reputation, danger and money involved.. Since Bangalore is constantly expanding, bikers are always on the lookout for new neighbourhoods with good roads that aren’t populated by lots of people yet — areas near Sahakara Nagar were popular destinations for practicing racers until recently, when more houses began to crowd them out. Cordoned-off stretches on the road to the airport and Kolar also serve as practice areas for both professional and underground racers.
Hardik laughs when he admits that many of the racing guys are inspired by movies like The Fast and The Furious. He adds that Bangalore’s street racers are also often inspired by the people around them — friends who race or brag about their own racing escapades; they’re inspired by local urban legends like Imran, aka ‘Godi’, who owned a bike so fast that it was named after a bomb, or a legendary drag race in 1998 on Cubbon Road between two famous rival racers that was attended by over 200 people; and they’re inspired by the riding communities fostered by their local garages. While not as common as in the US, there’s also a fair amount of betting that goes on in these races, and sometimes racers even bet “pink slips” or their RC books on races — meaning the winner keeps both bikes.
Nothing to do with racing comes cheap: it’s high-risk, high-stakes, and can also get really expensive. Some consider modifying a bike an exercise in throwing money down a pit, as the changes can be endless and bikes need to be tuned and maintained continually. At the very least, modifying a bike for illegal street racing involves removing the speed cap that comes built into bikes, and can also involve increasing the size of the exhaust chamber, changing the carburettor, filter plates and coil, tuning the engine and changing the wheels. Serious players have been known to change almost every component of their bike to make it as fast a machine as their mechanic can put together.
Fitting out an Indian bike like the Yamaha RX, a 2-stroke bike that’s got a solid name for being one of the best street racing bikes, with the required modifications can cost up to one lakh rupees or more. Modifications on professional racing bikes (or ‘superbikes’) can go up to five or six lakh rupees over the huge price of the bike itself. Compromising on quality when it comes to modifying racing bikes can of course have fatal consequences, and there’s a huge difference between doing up your bike to look snazzy at a small garage in JC Road versus getting it fitted out with the big players in Shivajinagar, Kammanahalli and Banashankari.
So it’s not a ‘cheap’ thrill, but it’s a thrill nonetheless. Many of Bangalore’s older legal racers sheepishly admit to street racing in their youth, and tell stories of meeting outside the erstwhile Munni’s tea shop to watch nightly races and stunts on MG Road, and drag races on Cubbon Road (because of its conveniently exact 400 metre length, which is also the formal length of a drag race). These old timers say a combination of age, losing friends to accidents, police crackdowns and increased financial responsibilities have caused them to move away from street racing.
In fact, most of them now look down on street racing as irresponsible and dangerous and have turned to legitimate racing. Groups of bikers in south India often decide to come together to rent go-karting tracks in Bangalore, like Torque03 or Meco Kartopia, or the legendary CS Santhosh’s Big Rock track in Kolar, or even full-fledged racing tracks in Chennai and Coimbatore. They pay anything from Rs 6,000 per session to Rs 80,000 to book a track for a full day. When racing, your bike can’t have mirrors or anything that can shatter, so most dissemble these parts in their local garages and have their bikes shipped to the race track. All of this costs more money than most street racers can afford, especially when there’s usually a free empty road available every night in the city itself.
Bangalore Traffic Police DCP Abhishek Goyal says that police in the city go on regular drives to round up illegal racers and to catch people doing stunts on their bikes, and that just a single drive-through can lead to 30 to 40 arrests. He’s not alarmed by these racers — he thinks most of them are driven by vanity, either popping wheelies on the streets to impress their friends and racing so that they can “take photographs and upload them on Facebook”.
The police have also been tracking down the garages that modify the bikes they impound. Many of the modifications that some garages make to bikes are illegal. Voiding the speed cap or changing the parts of a bike to ones that don’t belong in it also void the vehicles insurance. Police seem to believe that impounding bikes that have had a lot of money poured into them, and cracking down on the garages that make these modifications, will help bring down the levels of street racing in the city.
Hardik says that running from the cops is an inconvenience, although escaping them is also a show of skill and point of pride. When asked if people would stop racing on the street if they had a safer place to do it, he pauses for a moment before saying, yes absolutely. “Why wouldn’t they? They just want to ride and show their skill and prove that they’re the best. The thrill is the speed and the competition, bro, who cares about the cops?”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)