The last moments of Amir Mohamed

d1I am sure everybody recalls Sunday the 15th of March, 2015. It was the day The Paji died in a grisly road accident in Kiambu County. This is what I know:

  1. THE DRIVERS…

“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively”

– Bob Marley

Amir Mohamed, “The Paji”

William Shakespeare also said that some people are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. If you wanted to see greatness in a person, you had to look no further than Amir Mohamed, more famously known on these pages as “The Paji”.

Where do I start? “Paji” is a term of endearment meaning “close friend” and Amir Mohamed reserved that label only for those within his close circles. I am glad to be one of the proud wearers of that reference. In a moment of great amusement, I threw it right back at him, affixing the definite article preceding it and transforming it into a title; and his nickname- both within this column and without- was born. It was a nickname that would cement what began as a formal association between us which later developed into a deep friendship that transcended race, creed, religion, business, family lines and interests. Amir was a true friend to many – whether or not motor vehicles were involved- but to this writer, he was more like an elder brother.

Amir was a man of many colors. Friend, confidant, philanthropist, enthusiast, mentor, teacher, influence, inspiration, guiding light, icon, hero, associate… You name it, he was it. He was influential in shaping the informal automotive sector, the tuner crowd, not only through provision of near-exclusive services through his garage -aptly named Auto Art- but also by spearheading a number of events that ultimately unified the otherwise motley crowd that is the petrolhead community. His knowledge was respected, his opinion was always sought and his leadership was impeccable.

Auto Art Garage specializes in both cosmetic and mechanical modifications to motor vehicles with a performance bent; alongside the typical garage duties involving sales, repairs and maintenance. It started out small but its reputation grew extremely fast owing to the proprietor’s acumen in his line of business. As of 2015, it has a long client list; clients who were on a first name basis with the late owner – that is how friendly The Paji was.

As far as events go, Amir was in the founding team that started the famous Hot Rides Motorshow, which had been held at Westgate for several years until the infamous siege that forced the shutdown of the premises. The Great Run was partly his idea too; the concept was borne as the three of us- The Paji, The Jaw and I- sat in The Paji’s office one hot afternoon bouncing brainwaves off each other as we searched for a project that would not only be enjoyable, but would also be relevant and beneficial to many people. Being the philanthropist that he was, The Paji is the one who then declared (to our chagrin) that half of The Great Run’s earnings would go to charity, before expenses. When the Time Trial Motorsports club was established, majority of the participants came simply because The Paji asked them to; while majority of the spectators simply came to see The Paji drive. It was fairly obvious that as co-director, the man would be invaluable, and he proved to be. He rallied drivers, he garnered attention, he provided a base of operations and offered a wealth of information gained from his past experience in motorsport.

It was always a pleasure working with him. His mind worked incredibly fast, he disliked sloth, he was a perfectionist but he never made anyone uncomfortable around him. His witty comebacks, typical of a quick thinker, were the highlight of any discussion, whether in person or via digital platforms; and the quips more often than not served to defuse tension in heated forums. He brought out the best in people he worked with.

The one unquestionable fact is that The Paji was the best driver I have ever come across. His skills behind the wheel were damn near unbelievable; his car control was as legendary as it was accurate. Perhaps that is why his vehicles were always perfectly set up: his understanding of motor vehicles as well as the synergy he created between power and suspension setup was bang on. I was fortunate enough to drive a selection of his vehicles and I always came away impressed at how well “sorted” they felt. This should also explain why he dominated our very own championship: the TT events. Both driver and car were in the rarefied air known only to those at the top of their game.

This also made it extremely difficult to believe that he had been in an accident. The one question that crossed all our minds was “How?”

Jay H. V. Soni

The tragic events of Sunday 15th March 2015 involved two cars and the second one was being driven by Jay H. V. Soni, another close friend. He was fortunate enough to survive the accident, but not without incurring serious injuries.

Jay is a pilot and an up-and-coming car tuner, partly under Amir’s tutelage. He is the taciturn type: he listens more than he talks and he was especially resourceful whenever I had questions about vehicle tuning. He was a key consultant when I was setting up my scrutineer’s “office” at Auto Art Garage for last year’s Kiamburing TT events.

Jay and his elder brother have been car enthusiasts for as long as they can remember. While Jay seemed to lean towards Subarus – he has just recently imported a very rare Impreza STi Type RA-R – his brother preferred the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The brother in question is no stranger to these pages either, he is Umang Soni, champion of last year’s Murang’a TT, which he won using a silver Evo IX.

Jay’s love for motorsports was no secret. He at one point intended to join a Formula One team; however, family business required him to reconsider. With a great affinity for engines, and with vast knowledge to boot, he instead studied aviation to the fullest -not only becoming a pilot but also studying the science behind aircrafts in great detail. This is the education that he would bring back home, where he took over and successfully ran the airline division of the family business.

That did not drive him away from motoring, though. Once a petrolhead, always a petrolhead; the first Kiamburing event was held back in 2013 and he was among the first to express interest in it. Besides that, Jay, Umang and Amir were part of a team with Jay acting as the team manager. Amir and Umang referred to him as “Master Tuner”, and with good reason: the setups that both Amir and Umang ran on their vehicles when they each took their respective victories (Amir in Kiambu and Umang in Murang’a) were greatly dependent on Jay’s expertise. Such is the extent of this expertise that the silver Evolution driven by Umang to victory in Murang’a also happens to have the simplest of engine mods in the premier turbo 4WD class: a new turbocharger wastegate and a different exhaust form the bulk of this modification. Focus was placed on handling rather than raw power; but even then, with the simple modifications, the power jump along with the superior handling were enough to propel Umang Soni past The Paji and on to the podium as champion, a very interesting turn of events.

Jay Soni did not take part in the last TT as a contender, but he played a role that rescued the event from degenerating into a total fiasco. We had difficulties clearing the track owing to spectator misconduct. The two sweeper cars were barely enough to patrol the roads quickly enough: 16km is a long distance, and the first sweeper, an Audi A8 with a 6.0 litre W12 engine quickly went through its fuel tank, emptying it rapidly; meaning it had to be beached after a while. The remaining car could not handle the 32km up-and-down drive in time to keep the now-impatient pack of spectators from being bored out of their minds and expressing their discontent through further disobedience. Jay Soni stepped up to the breach: he volunteered his services and his car, the silver Mercedes Benz C63 AMG, to act as a sweeper; while also grabbing a cell broadcast radio and keeping his cellullar phone close at hand to  supply updates on track conditions as he went. Within minutes, he had cleared the road and the competition resumed promptly. We as Club TT directors will always owe him for that huge favor.

He did not take part in the last TT but he most definitely intended to compete in the upcoming one (which has since been put on ice for obvious reasons until further notice). My guess is part of what Jay and Amir were planning to discuss on that fateful day may have involved strategies on how to tackle the event. The cruel hand of misfortune has seen to it that we will not see his competitive edge as soon as we hoped, but it is still our hope and prayer that one day, as scrutineer and linesman, I will have the opportunity to flag him off at the start line.

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  1. THE CARS…

“Before he left Rome, Marcus had been in a fair way to becoming a charioteer, in Cradoc’s sense of the word, and now desire woke in him, not to possess this team, for he was not one of those who much be able to say “Mine” before they can truly enjoy a thing but to have them out and harnessed; to feel the vibrating chariot floor under him, and the spread reins quick with life in his hands, and these lovely, fiery little creatures in the traces, his will and theirs at one…”

-Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle Of The Ninth

Nissan Skyline R34 GTR, a.k.a “Godzilla”

The car most closely associated with The Paji was also his own personal favorite, a 1998 BNR34 Nissan Skyline GTR V Spec II, KAT 143Q, nicknamed “Godzilla”. The car has an interesting story: he bought it from one of his close friends in 2008 and immediately began work on it. As a car builder of great repute and a modifier extraordinaire, he transformed the blue-on-white tuner special into a black-on-black low-slung manifestation of road-going excellence that quickly gained fame around enthusiast circles, not just within the country but outside it too. This is the car that would act as lead for our first three Great Run events, only retiring in favor of a Landcruiser Prado once the Great Run went off-road. It was also a key attraction at many a motor show: the degree of perfection that The Paji built it with was both enviable and unmatched.

In its heyday, the car had a bored out RB26DETT: a turbocharged and intercooled 2.6 litre inline-6 engine that was bored and stroked to 2.8 litres, which technically made it an RB28DETT (though Nissan does not build such an engine, the “26” in RB26 stands for 2.6 litres engine capacity, so an expansion to 2.8 litres would logically make it an RB28). It used Nissan’s famous ATTESA-ETS driveline configuration that made the GTR immortal on track, especially where cornering was involved.

The car then changed appearance again, when the Batman-esque color codes were dropped in favor of pukka Nismo (Nissan Motorsports) livery. The Nismo R34 Z Tune car was silver in color with black and red chequered flag decals on the bonnet and along the fenders; and it is this livery that next found a home on Amir’s Godzilla. It was while bearing this Nismo livery that Godzilla had its first wrong turn of events: the bored-out 2.8 litre blew following an oil leak that sprang up suddenly in the course of a Kiamburing Time Trial event. The leak caused the engine to seize, and one of the con-rods/pistons knocked a hole into the engine block, on the upper part of the crankcase, left-hand side of the straight-6 engine.

The Paji was not one to stand by hemming and hawing at a ruined engine block, repairs were done immediately but it was clear that the now-ailing powerplant would never handle the vagaries of the ultra-high level of tune it originally had. A new engine was sought, acquired and installed: a bone-stock V Spec Nür RB26DETT, straight from Nissan Motor Company in Japan. It was with this replacement unit running under the bonnet that the unimaginable happened on that day, 15/03/2015.

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

The W204 Mercedes Benz C63 AMG was the first of the C Class AMG range to come in a wider variety of body styles. While the previous W202 and W203 were all 4-door saloons (and an estate for the 203), the 204 also had a two-door coupe option. Jay Soni’s vehicle was the 4-door version, silver in color, registered as KBV 650N. This was the exact same car in which he volunteered his invaluable services as sweeper in October last year.

Jay had left his car mostly untouched. In stock form, the 6.2 liter V8 engine, codenamed M156 put out a whopping 451hp, which was in turn put down via the rear axle, unlike the Nissan’s party-trick 4WD system. It may not have had as colorful a life as the Skyline, but that did not make it any less interesting. AMGs are brutal, and the noise that came out of the back of that car could be measured on the Richter scale. Like all other AMG cars, it had a certain stance; a type of posture as it sat on the road that left no doubt in any car buff’s mind that this was no ordinary Mercedes.

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  1. THE INCIDENT…

“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune”

– William James

So, what exactly happened? A head-on collision, that’s what.

Both Amir and Jay were members of a small, close-knit petrolhead community, of which I am part, that conferred daily on a variety of topics. On the day in question, there was an agreement between some of us that we would meet along the Ndumberi-Limuru byway in the morning hours to quickly check out the setup The Paji was running on his GTR and give our views on what we thought of it before dispersing for our usual Sunday activities. Given the currently unsatisfactory condition of my own car’s suspension setup, I opted out of the meeting and all other drives until I sorted out the problem. It was a decision that will forever haunt me.

Now, allow me to pause here for a moment to clarify one or two things. There was no race in progress, nor had there been one planned for that morning. Not a Kiamburing Time Trial event, not a street race, not practice; not even “performance” driving as some have suspected since then. The fact that the accident occurred on the self-same stretch of road we use for Kiamburing means nothing: that is a public road and anybody can use it any time they want.

It so happened that on the fateful morning, Amir in his GTR entered the Ndumberi-Limuru stretch of road from the Limuru side while Jay Soni in his C63 entered it from the Kiambu side. Somewhere, about 10 kilometers from Kiambu (or around 8 from Limuru), a slow moving truck occupied the road, impeding progress for other drivers. It was near or around this truck that the accident happened. The details remain unclear for now; but there was a blind corner, the road was narrow, the truck was slow, one of the drivers may or may not have either tried to overtake the truck or possibly just “peeped” to see if the road was clear beyond the truck, or one of the drivers may have even been momentarily distracted – we really can’t tell what led to what precisely- but it was at that exact same moment that the other driver heading in the opposite direction happened to reach that very spot.

There was a heavy collision between the two cars, and the Skyline GTR caught fire.

The noise of the impact drew local villagers to the scene immediately. Rescue efforts were promptly launched: the stronger ones forced their way into the wreckage of the Mercedes to extract Jay Soni who was bleeding heavily. Others used all manner of materials -fire extinguishers, leaves, even soil – to try and put out the conflagration that was quickly consuming the Skyline. While Soni was rushed to hospital with critical injuries, the flames within the Nissan were eventually doused and the worst was confirmed: The Paji was no more.

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  1. THE AFTERMATH…

“Much talking is the cause of danger. Silence is the means of avoiding misfortune. The talkative parrot is shut up in a cage. Other birds, without speech, fly freely about”

 – Saskya Pandita

If I had a dollar for every individual I have heard spewing verbiage on matters surrounding the accident, I could afford both an R34 Skyline GTR and a C63 AMG. There has been a proliferation of self-proclaimed experts jawing wordy rhetoric about “street racing”, “road safety” and whatnot; experts who were neither present at the scene, nor were they aware of what was going on when the accident happened. Some have planted themselves inside our TV screens to talk about “roll-cages”, as though roll-cages automatically eliminate slow-moving, poorly wired trucks from all narrow roads, widen the roads in question and bring back deceased colleagues. They don’t. Some have taken to posturing and grandstanding, sending half-hearted condolence messages stinking to high heaven of “I-told-you-so” innuendo. What exactly did you tell us? Why were these people not as loud before the accident happened as they are now?

The aftermath of the accident is full of opinionated vapor from unconcerned quarters. That happens; it is mostly terrible and in bad taste, but it happens. The aftermath of the accident also means I have lost a dear friend, and I have been reduced to non-stop prayer as another dear friend lies in hospital fighting for his life. I am not the only one: the two drivers have family and friends who are even more distraught than I am, and all the talk is not doing them any good, at all. Amir’s demise leaves us with a gap that cannot be filled and it is a non-stop struggle coping with the loss. Is it too much to ask that we respect the legacy of Amir Mohamed as well as wish for the speedy recovery of Jay Soni? Is it beyond the abilities of these loud-mouths to express their views without making unfounded references to what is for all intents and purposes, a unmitigated disaster; not just to those close to the accident victims, but to the automotive, the tuning and the aeronautic industries at large?

Rest in peace, Amir Mohamed. We all loved you, and we still do. Jay H. V. Soni, we wish you a full and timely recovery. May God help you find the strength to come back to us.

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Sidebar 1: Road Safety and Safety in Motorsports

Many are the times I have extolled the virtues of road safety in this column. More than once I have given my own recommendations and suggestions, supporting the sensible as well as deriding the senseless. A lot can be said and written on the subject, but it always boils down to the same thing: you are your own safety harness.

In recent times there have been many directives aimed at trimming down the number of fatalities on our roads. Some may have worked; while others were simply nothing short of frustration and financial pain on the driver’s part with no discernible benefits to road safety in general. Be that as it may, there will always be accidents. There just will: all it takes is a certain combination of factors at a certain point in time in a certain place and BAM! Car crash.

A good example would be this same incident. There are those who blame unroadworthy vehicles; nothing doing, the GTR and the AMG were in as good a condition as any car will ever be. Their owners maintained them at the highest, most pristine level. Others say bad roads lead to accidents: the Ndumberi-Limuru road is in excellent condition. The surface is smooth, the road itself is well marked, there are clear and visible signposts. There is the clique of apologists who also claim “unfamiliarity” with the road may cause drivers to lose it. Amir and Jay knew the road intimately. Then of course there is the matter of speeding.

People still crash even at 60km/h, while driving mechanically sound vehicles. We have all seen cars ramming into each other in slow-moving traffic. Seeing how none of us was present at the time of the crash, we can’t say how fast the two were going. However, my surmise is the speeds were not insane because 1. The truck was slow, therefore to come up behind it meant the driver had to slow down. Nobody crashed into the truck. 2. The two cars’ performance capabilities are otherworldly. Had they been pushed to the limit, the outcome would have been a lot worse. 3. As stated earlier, there was no race in progress; therefore there was no need for speed. The conspiracy theorists insisting on the race hypothesis had better explain what kind of race it was where the contenders drive in opposite directions.

While the battle for road safety is ongoing and never-ending, safety in motorsports is a whole other kettle of fish. The measures are stringent, the scrutineers are strict, the organizers place the largest amount of resources towards it but fatalities still occur. It is the curse of motorsports that participants may at one point or the other have to lay down their lives in the pursuit of glory. That being said, our fledgling enterprise, the Time Trial (TT) Motorsports, has never seen a single casualty. Not one. Sure, some cars may have left the road in spectacular (and in one case amusing) fashion, but these did not result in any injuries, save for maybe a bruised ego here and frayed nerves there.

Rallying, on the other hand, can boast of no such record. We have seen rally cars clearing whole groups of spectators like a highly decorated chainsaw felling a stand of flimsy trees. There was a news item not too long ago about a rally car colliding with an ambulance, the racer taking out the exact same vehicle that was supposed to help him in dire straits. These incidences extend to spectators too: some try to race the rally cars, while others, obviously inspired by the spirited driving they have just witnessed, fancy themselves experts behind the wheel and try to achieve similar speeds. The results of these stunts are undesirable, to put it mildly. Nobody points fingers at rally drivers whenever a road accident occurs. Why, then, would Club TT Motorsports come under the spotlight following last Sunday’s crash?

Just like road safety, even the most draconian of laws will not prevent accidents in motorsports. The same cars that drive into crowds, or roll over, or ram into ambulances have passed the safety inspection tests, the driver is definitely competent (for the most part), he even has a navigator to tell him what to expect ahead, the marshals control the crowds, the sweeper ensures the road is clear, but despite all this, just like in a road accident, there will come a time when the right combination of factors (or wrong combination, in a manner of speaking) will come together and there will be a terrible accident. Then what? Will we create more laws? Come up with even stricter measures? Or should we just ban motorsports completely and say to hell with it?

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One thought on “The last moments of Amir Mohamed

  1. I have never read anything with as much fact, heart and truth as this post. Amir was nothing less than an inspiration to us all. May his soul rest in peace.

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