Born with the need for speed and a thirst for victory, Fariborz A. Irani, legendary racer and role model to thousands, opens up about a life filled with circuits, competition, and championships.
If there’s any 71-year old who embodies this Clarkson-ian take on the reality of speed, the medal of honour goes to the man who raced Yezdi and JAWA motorcycles in the 60s and 70s, Fariborz A. Irani. This was way before cricket and its mutant variants as we know them today took center stage.
It was a time when most of India’s urban young were caught up in the counter-culture movement of the age, and Deep Purple’s Highway Star became the anthem of a generation of racing enthusiasts.
The lyrics: "Nobody gonna beat my car, it's gonna break the speed of sound" was turned around with one simple substitution for Fariborz. The car became a motorcycle and the rest of the canticle simply fell into place.
The meeting with Fariborz was unexpected. It all began when a mutual friend asked if I’d like to meet the man who raced Yezdis and JAWAs with great success in the 60s and 70s. I jumped at the opportunity. I soon found myself sitting at the Royal Connaught Boat Club in Pune, sipping coffee and listening to Fariborz’s racing story.
He started his story with an almost Clarkson-ian quote: "For some people (like me) speed is inborn; they can't function at slow speeds. My wife asks me to drive slowly, but I just can’t. However I’m not rash, mind you." Hearing these words from a rubber-burning teenager was understandable, but coming from the lips of this respectable 71-year old gent, was incredible!
While motorsport may have taken a backseat in the recent times in India with much of the nation’s interest switching to cricket, meeting someone from a period when great crowds turned out at venues such as the Juhu Aerodrome, Sholavaram and the like, to see riders battle it out, was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Born in July 1944, Fariborz’s love for motorcycle racing began right from his childhood. As Farroukh Irani’s nephew, every time the Czech riders were racing JAWAs in Pune, he was at ground zero observing the men and their incredible racing machines, closely awaiting the day he could get his license and begin racing. His dream transformed into reality, as he flagged off his racing career in 1964 winning the second place overall in the 50cc category while battling veteran riders. From then on, Fariborz never looked back.
Along with his trusted JAWA 250 that he lovingly nicknamed "Silver," Fariborz went on to claim top honours in every category one could name, Track Racing, Scrambles, Hill Climbs, Moto Cross and Trials. Out of the 27 races that he competed in, Fariborz won an incredible 16 of them; bagging second place four times, and third place thrice. Man and machine raced away with 23 podium finishes out of 27 races, and 4 retirements due to technical issues.
When asked how he managed to win ever so regularly, Fariborz quipped: "I was very aggressive and determined to win at all costs."
Going through the album of racing exploits that his wife had curated, I ask him about his finest race and fiercest competitor. "Juhu Aerodrome, 250cc Stock Class against Chinappa from Bangalore" was the reply. As for the race, the competitors, he said, were many; but one person he could never beat was Somendar Singh from Mysore. "He was an excellent rider and built motorcycles that were a lot faster than the factory fitted machines."
Hearing him wax eloquently about the infrastructure, equipment, and machines that he raced, I was left in wonder and awe at the sheer passion that racers of his era must have possessed, to take part in those competitions. Leather racing suits were unheard of; Fariborz used overalls made of thick cotton, that he himself had designed and commissioned a local tailor to stitch. Head protection arrived in the form of a Bell helmet.
As for the motorcycle, he always raced a stock JAWA 250 with no modifications to the frame, engine or suspension, unlike other competitors. "I used the same bike for commuting once the racing season was over," said Fariborz dispassionately; adding that he would only borrow a Mikuni Carb from Sheri Bathena for the races, and sometimes use a smaller sprocket for the Scrambles and Moto Cross events and imported Moto Cross tyres for dirt events. According to Fariborz, the motorcycle he rode was hardy, reliable and well balanced, and he could never even think of racing on anything else though he did race a factory tuned Yezdi, on some occasions.
Though he never dreamed of retiring, a kidney stone along with a very stern reprimand from his mother, curtailed the adrenalin in his blood, as well as his racing career. Fariborz’s love for the sport, drew him next to the motorsport world, where he mentored and led a select few of Pune’s racers and launched them into successful careers. Fariborz went on to found the Pune Automotive Racing Association, where he functioned as Chief Starter for many years after retirement from active racing.
Even at 71, the gleam in his eyes while reminiscing reflects his keenness for the sport he so loves and once lived for. Amongst his racing passions is Moto GP, which he regularly follows. As for his current favorite racer, it is none other than Valentino Rossi.
As the sun set over Pune and a cool monsoon breeze began blowing across the lawns of the Royal Connaught Boat Club, the evening drew to a close. So absorbed was I with Irani’s racing story, that I noticed my coffee was virtually untouched. Fariborz handed me a collection of photographs and newspaper cuttings with strict instructions to return them.
The return trip home left me fantasizing about a time when people in our country raced against all odds... Just for the fun of it!