Time, as physicists will finger-waggingly have you know, is relative. Take for example, two vastly different quantities of time — on one hand, you have eight years and on the other, 11.05 seconds. Now, I haven’t really learnt a whole lot in the past eight years, so I have little hope of learning anything in 11.05 seconds. Or do I? Well, at least I now know that persistence will get me into trouble. This is the only time I’ve been scared for my life inside a car. Something as mad as this had to do it, of course, though I absolutely did not see it coming.
This is a story that began eight years ago in Bangalore. Ex-Motoring lady, Vaishali Dinakaran, and I had barged into the home of Pratap ‘Bobby’ Jayaram to feature the Jayaram GT, a homemade special that quite blew us away. Jayaram has been a part of virtually every electric automobile project in India, though it’s his trysts with internal combustion that are infinitely more interesting to me. And that late evening, it was something else in a dark garage that caught my eye.
It looked like a Maini Reva, one of the many electric cars Jayaram has worked on, but something was off. It had flared wheel arches and I could just about decipher the outline of a rollcage in it. When I asked what it was, he replied with one of his characteristic boisterous laughs, ‘Something to make people think!’ Pressed more, he said it was a project he had begun but had stopped work on for other things. ‘I have to have the time and money to blow away my time and money!’ It was a Reva, all right, but only in the loosest of senses. Sat in its tiny backside was a Suzuki Hayabusa motor. Whoa. A RevaBusa.
A paradox is a logically unacceptable statement. And there, a few feet away from me, stood the most glorious definition of the term I’d ever seen. The motor from one of the most iconic motorcycles of all time inside India’s first electric car. I was an immediate fan. With barely any restraint, I blurted out the demand that the car be completed at the earliest so that I could feature it in the magazine. I don’t quite remember the exact response I got, but I have a faint recollection of being gently pushed out of the garage to the sound of more characteristic boisterous laughter. And that was that for a few years.
Every now and then, I checked in on the progress of the car, but it seemed as if the project was on permanent hold. Eagerness gave way to a quiet wait. The RevaBusa seemed to give a new meaning to the term ‘drag racing’, as it dragged on for years on end. For something that was intended to be the fastest Indian-made car, it sure was taking its time coming. But I’m sure that Jayaram and his son, Sharan Pratap, who now run their motorsport outfit called Mantra Racing, were even more impatient. And then last year, I got the call.
‘Kartik! Did you see the RevaBusa’s video?’ Jayaram said, referring to the first drag-racing event the car had entered in. Just the sight of a Reva flying away from more expensive machinery was enough to send the crowd into a frenzy. The little beast was born. And I had to get my hands on it. Since then, every time I visited Bangalore, I dropped by the Jayaram residence to see the RevaBusa. It was always in a state of development; the first time I went, it had nitrous oxide feeding its greedy motor, and the second time, it had a massive turbocharger. After each successive event, the father-son pair decided they could do better and kept working away to get to their ultimate aim — 9s in a quarter mile.
A short while before I managed to convince Jayaram about letting me feature it, he clocked an 11.05-second run and became the national drag racing champion. ‘Before I open it up again for work, you better get over here and do your bloody story!’ he chortled over the phone one day. And just like that, I was in Bangalore within 48 hours, an airstrip arranged for a date with the RevaBusa. It was finally happening. However, as is the case with those with limited foresight, what I failed to see due to my anticipation was what I’d gotten myself into.
So one sunny morning, I found myself on a road meant for aircraft. It was the biggest piece of tarmac I’ve ever seen in my life and the sheer scale of it only reinforced just how tiny the RevaBusa is. Time spent looking at and in it proves that this is a racing machine. The machine is so focussed, it makes even its paint seem like excess. There’s a big pipe leading from the left window into the back; people often think it feeds the turbocharger, but it’s actually to cool the manifold which can get impossibly hot at racing speeds. ‘It’s like sitting in front of ten fans with your mouth open,’ said Sharan. I didn’t know it then, but I’d find out soon enough.
The RevaBusa is all about the motor, though, and of that I cannot say much except that it has a fully ported head, racing cams, forged internals, and anti-splash sump, modified oil and water pumps and, of course, the turbocharger. Exact details are confidential since the machine still is active on the racing scene and competitors are still looking for ways to beat it and/or complain against it. However, rest assured that the work done on the otherwise powerful yet benign Suzuki engine can be categorised under ‘nuclear grade’.
On the inside, it’s all just essentials again; a central racing seat pointing at a sturdy-looking steering wheel, a tiny gadget that gives out incredible amounts of information from various temperatures and pressures to engine speeds, a gear lever on the left side to work that sequential gearbox, and a wooden floor. Yes, that old material never gets old. There are a few buttons, too, all of which I was told to stay away from, except the one for the cooling fan at the back. Everything about this machine highlights its focus of chasing single-digit quarter-mile times. No wonder I felt so out of place in it.
The Mantra Racing crew was understandably nervous about letting me have a go at their creation, and it’s quite understandable, too. What if I blew it up and/or crashed? Unthinkable on an airstrip, but then Einstein did say something about the infinite nature of human stupidity. ‘Let’s see if you can get into it first,’ says Jayaram, and I slither into the RevaBusa like a gymnast at an audition, much to my own surprise. Resigned to fate, Jayaram then tells me what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. In hindsight, his worries were entirely unnecessary. You see, the RevaBusa is built to take the laws of physics head-on and I’m not.
I never had any intentions of attempting a 9-second run, to begin with. So I took off gently enough, so that first gear wouldn’t have a chance of catching me out with a tail-out moment or some such. And I was still taken aback by the sounds and smells the RevaBusa was generating. It’s not something a regular guy can get used to very quickly. Everything — every single bloody thing — felt just too hard.
The gear lever made violent noises like it was smashing the gearbox into smithereens, the steering felt like it required more arms than I had to even hold it straight, while the suspension… well, let’s just say that I wasn’t sure if the car had any. Sharan would later tell me upon asking, ‘Have you driven a JCB? Everything feels hard because the components have to be that much substantial to handle the forces going through them.’ I didn’t know that then, though I did know this thing is no damned JCB.
With no reference in my mind, I stepped on it in second gear and my right foot rose back up roughly ten times faster than it had gone down. My brain didn’t even have the time to react, I think, it was just my foot getting scared all on its own. Surprised, and a bit more wary, I tried again with the conscious effort to keep my foot planted. And this time, my brain did have the time to react to the acceleration — it immediately went into survival mode and reminded me of just how mortal I am. I just couldn’t understand what was happening. And I wasn’t even past third gear yet.
The RevaBusa, as I mentioned earlier, has managed a fastest time of 11.05 seconds over 400 metres so far. It did 100 kph from a standstill in 3 seconds and was clocked at 261 kph at the end. Jayaram reckons it’ll do 300 kph, but hasn’t tested it yet. And they built this thing at home! I couldn’t tell what speed I did, but I’m 100 per cent sure it was less than half of that. I can’t imagine what the RevaBusa feels like over 200 kph.
After a few short runs full of sensory overload, I had made up my mind — this is not a car anyone can drive. It can only be driven the way it’s meant to be driven by people who know every inch of it. And the RevaBusa is built by people who know intensely what they want and how to get it. I got out of the car, drenched in sweat and arms shaking, only to hear Jayaram issue a relieved guffaw that said, ‘What, man! I didn’t even hear you floor it!’ I mumbled some excuses, but before I’m finished, he’d asked his crew to remove the big manifold-cooling pipe. Apparently, I was supposed to sit next to him while he gave it the stick. ‘That’s how Sharan and I tune the car! But he usually sits there without the door.’
Given that I went through a lot of trouble to chicken out of driving the RevaBusa properly, I didn’t know what to make of it. But thankfully, the door remained in place. Soon, I found myself wedged into a space that is perhaps sufficient for a chihuahua, holding onto the roll cage, while Jayaram aimed it towards the runway. Suddenly, he dumped the clutch two or three times and pulled two or three wheelies. Yes, wheelies. Before I had a chance to process what had just happened, he floored it — and the world went mad.
If I thought the RevaBusa was overwhelming earlier, it was positively apocalyptic now. It accelerates at a rate that instantly puts weird thoughts in your mind: ‘How does the paint stay on the car?’ ‘Did I just leave hand imprints on the roll cage?’ ‘Hey, today is the last day of the BS III norms.’ And Jayaram had transformed into something else, too. Gone was the man from the entertaining WhatsApp chats. Instead there was only a steely thousand-yard stare in his place accompanied by a blur of a left hand whipping between the gear lever and the steering wheel. His entire face had changed.
My face had changed, too, since it was drained of blood, and I now understood the ‘ten fans’ bit Sharan had mentioned earlier. But I wanted more. No person with even a cursory interest in motors can get enough of this. Thankfully, Jayaram took me out for a couple of more runs and my panic turned into euphoria. This was serious speed we were talking about and somehow suddenly I was at home. What felt raw and cranky at whatever speeds I managed now felt sorted. It’s meant to run wild, this thing. ‘I don’t usually like cars that are always on the edge, but this one…’ Jayaram trails off over the magnificent noise of the turbocharger wastegate. Yes, this one, indeed.
It was a day of extremes — extreme anticipation, extreme shock, extreme disillusionment and finally, extreme happiness. What a machine. And it isn’t even perfect yet. Like any self-respecting motorsport project, work goes on into refining it for that dip under 10 seconds. And it’s already the quickest car made in India and a milestone in Indian motorsport. Sharan told me the idea for making this car came from a video game he and his father used to play. In that game was a car that had a Hayabusa motor in it, and I imagine they looked at each other and said, ‘Why not?’
What I also realised is that the RevaBusa, being the racing machine that it is, is a balance of man and machine. For example, they’re still having trouble getting off the line at races because there’s just too much power going to the rear wheels. They could program it not to, but Sharan said, ‘The human element is critical for us. Electronics cannot do everything, otherwise it’s not special. There’s no point.’ Spot on, I say. Let’s leave the self-driving cars to Google, Apple and Whoever, shall we?
Also, of late, some of Mantra Racing’s competitors have been complaining that the RevaBusa is not a real car because it has a bike engine in it. Well, I can assure them that it is very much real and very much a car, too. As far as I’m concerned, a motor is a car motor or a bike motor depending on where it finds itself. I think they’re just as scared as I was of it, only I was in the thing, while they watch its backside disappearing into the distance. If you think I’ve missed out on mentioning horsepower so far, well, I haven’t — even Jayaram and Sharan don’t know! ‘What’s the point of getting into horsepower-figure wars? We just need to get there first!’ Fair point.
Jayaram says he will build more examples of the RevaBusa if he gets a minimum of three orders for the car, at approximately ` 22 lakh each. How’s that for a speed-to-money ratio? For me, though, it’s a fitting end to a story that began in a dark garage and ended on a runway. I‘m happy I got to do it. I wish I hadn’t. Time just won’t be the same again.
As published in the Summer of Speed edition of Motoring World; Photographs Suresh Narayanan