racing ahead

How are champions made? Ask the 'Racing Patels' of Byculla

While other Mumbai families took their children for a joy ride to Marine Drive, the Patels took theirs on four-wheel off-roading adventures.

In Rustom Patel’s apartment, in the old, Art Deco-inspired Parsi neighbourhood in Byculla, hangs a framed picture of him from 2001. Its easy to miss, hanging as it does amidst a jungle of brass – cups, shields, awards, mementoes, citations – he has collected over a lifetime of racing atop two wheels. Over the years, it has colonised all the shelf space in his apartment and is now threatening the cutlery in the kitchen. And this is just the metal he has collected. His brother Zubin and his cousin Kaizad, have a similar need for industrial quantities of Brasso – the brothers Patel have dominated the sport of motocross racing and off-road biking in India, from the late ‘80s to the late 2000s.

The “Patels of Racing” they were called and if you were a young speed junkie gunning the throttle for glory in those times, it was always a little annoying to see a Patel in the line up. It meant that the field was now open only for the two spots below number one. Kaizad, the oldest of the three, is a six time national champion, who won the prestigious Rodial trophy in 1988 against foreign competition, at a time the sport was nascent in India. Zubin, who became a legend in the Indian bike racing world in the 1990s, won a rally championship six years in a row apart from being a national motocross champion in both the years he could compete. The youngest, Rustom, whose career took off in 2000, won the national motocross championship eight times and amassed a trophy count nearing 300 before he retired in the late 2000s.

Kaizad at home with his brass collection
Kaizad at home with his brass collection

All this mettle in one family was of course no accident. According to family legend, the fetish for winning began with the grandfather – Manocher Jamshedji Patel, whose exploits survive in an old Gujarati newspaper cutting, safely tucked away in the family scrapbook. In the early 1900s, a young Manocher chased the record in endurance Indian club swinging: picture if you will, an old black and white reel of a retro sport involving mustachioed strong men from the early 20th century, swinging a 1.5 kg gada or meel, akhara style, 80 revolutions per minute (competition rule) without break for hours on end. Manocher did it for 73 hours.

The single mindedness required to be a champion has an early lineage in the Patels, but a passion for wheels found high gear in Manocher’s sons, Kersi and Fali. The brothers grew up around vintage cars and like many Parsis, found that the roar of the engine spoke a special language to them. One of their pet projects in the 1970s was fashioning a formula racing-style car using an old Jaguar engine and racing, to a 5-year-old Rustom’s delight, on the runway of Juhu airport. While other families took their children for a joy ride to marine drive, the Patels took theirs on four wheel off-roading adventures. It must’ve been quite a sight in the 1970s for motorists to find that they were being overtaken on the dirt tracks of the Himalayas, in the midst of a rally, by a car full of Parsis with a bunch of kids cheering in the backseat. Here is when the monicker “Patel Racing Family” was born.

The Patel cousins: Kaizad, Yezdi, Neville,Zubin and Rustom (Fali and Kersi's children)
The Patel cousins: Kaizad, Yezdi, Neville,Zubin and Rustom (Fali and Kersi's children)

Blood sport

But a chronology and a history do not cut to the essence of this family. When the Patels say “Racing is in our blood,” they speak of more than just a long familiarity with wheels. To understand them, one must go back to that framed picture in Rustom’s living room, lost among all those trophies, in which a 22-year-old Rustom is on his knees, his hands clenched, looking skyward in thanks.

Kunzum La, the mountain pass connecting the Kullu and Lahaul valley on the eastern Kunzum range in the Himalayas, is among the highest motor-able passes in the world at 4.5 kilometers above sea level. Raid de Himalaya, India’s toughest motorsport event where bikes and cars race a marathon across the Himalayas, is in its second edition. Zubin was on his 150 cc, 5 speed Suzuki Shaolin which could reach speeds of 160 kmph. He was there against better advice: he had a National Championship race coming up in Bangalore in just a few weeks, and given the little time, doing a marathon event in the tough conditions of the Himalayas was foolhardy, or at least that’s what his coach said. Zubin was 27 and the hottest thing on wheels. He’d won everything in India and was on course to win another national championship.

Rustom, Kersi and Zubin with their racing bike, retro-fitted at the family garage.
Rustom, Kersi and Zubin with their racing bike, retro-fitted at the family garage.

On the second day of the race on Kunzum La, riding without a pesky oxygen mask, Zubin’s Shaolin flies off the edge of the world. No one knows what could have caused a seasoned rider to go off the edge but the most likely theory is a blackout caused by paucity of oxygen on a fast moving bike, eating up altitude. The bike was never found, but Zubin was – after 8 hours of searching, the race halted and night approaching. Zubin was found cradled in a tree, unconscious without a scratch on his body.

On receiving the news, Kersi and Rustom fly out of Mumbai and rushed to Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, where where Zubin lay in the ICU, following an airlift operation by the army. Father and brother were informed by the doctors that Zubin was, for all purposes, dead. He had three blood clots in his brain and was in a coma he was unlikely to emerge from.

But Zubin is also part man, part metal. He’s got metal in his ankle and knee. He’s got a metal plate in his left elbow and jaw. His right forearm he has broken three times before and so is now basically a rod. His collarbones survived three fractures and somewhere in one of the sockets in his body is a metal ball. He is strong, he is fit and he can’t be broken – or so his family hoped.

Back in Byculla, the Patels organised an intervention with the Gods. A havan was arranged in the club house. Prayers by a whole community over fire, for the sparing of a single life. In this case, Kersi’s chokra who used to win everything in the colony’s annual sports day.

Rustom, meanwhile, who was dealing with the possible loss of a brother he idiolises was informed by his father that not only will he be racing in the national championships in three weeks time but “win it for Zubin or don’t enter the home.”

The national motocross championship that season was fought over six rounds. The first five had been completed before Zubin’s fall, and he was leading the points table, in all the categories that he was racing in, clearly on his way to a title. But in an added excitement for the Patels that year, Zubin wasn’t the only Patel in the race. Rustom was racing too. The brothers were sharing the same pit for TVS’ professional motoracing team. And Rustom was tied for the second place. With Zubin, unable to compete, it was now up to Rustom.

Rustom had just begun coming out of his brother’s shadow recently and he had the actor Amisha Patel to thank for it. A year or so earlier, Rustom was a nobody in the sport, known only as Zubin’s brother. At a big 15 laps Grand Prix race, in the B J Medical Ground in Pune, he found himself shaking hands with the chief guest Amisha Patel, along with all the other riders, before the start of the main race. “She said, you are a Patel? So I said, I am Rustom Patel, you are Amisha Patel. I will win this race for you,” recalls Rustom. “Arrey, I got fully charged after shaking her hand ya,” he said, laughing at the memory. Rustom, a complete outsider, riding an older bike, against pros, led the race from start to finish and became a Patel in how own right.

Now, with his brother fighting for his life and his fathers words ringing in his ear, Rustom had to win to keep the Patel name flying again – he did, and that picture of him kneeling, is from the moment he realised what he had done.

On the 21st day of his coma, Zubin blinked his eyes, refusing to recognise anybody. His memory had gone. The Patels brought him back to Mumbai and on his doctors’ advice began to jog Zubin’s memory with objects, stories and childhood friends herded in from the colony. Zubin’s memory began to return, but very slowly.

Until one day in the middle of 2001. Zubin had begun insisting that he be allowed to get back on a bike for sometime, until finally, presented with an ultimatum, his family relented. Taking the keys to the Honda Activa, Zubin said he’d be going to the family garage, less than 2 km away. He hadn’t been out of the house much since his return from the hospital – would he remember the way, when he had lost so much of his memory in the accident? Rustom and Kersi each got on a bike, Kersi following Zubin at a discreet distance. At the garage in Mazgaon, amidst the grease, the gears and the sprockets, to the sounds of engines being tuned and mechanics welcoming him back, Zubin’s memory returned. The Patels love a good laugh, but when they say racing is in their blood, take them seriously.

Kersi with wife during a Parsi dress competition standing next to their vintage Morris.
Kersi with wife during a Parsi dress competition standing next to their vintage Morris.
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