A day in the life of a race car driver

- Manny N. de los Reyes - The Philippine Star

It’s true what they say about race car drivers. They live the life of a rock star.

I got a glimpse of this right after I came into the pits—all sweaty and hot and exhausted. It was the end of Race 1 of the 1st leg of the Toyota Vios Cup held in Clark International Speedway. It would be a long wait at the entrance to the pitlane as all cars and drivers have to line up to get weighed and have their remaining fuel measured. Just like in F1. And I’m not exactly one of the top finishers, so my car would be among the last to be scrutineered.

Then the race officials opened the pitlane gates to the public. Race fans started streaming in, many of them running towards the race cars. Surprisingly, most of them passed the top finishers. In fact, most of them were making a beeline to—gasp—me! Yup they were all looking at me and pointing at me. Young and old, male and female—they seemed to be rushing straight to car number 7.

Then just as I was thinking whether to open the window (the aircon was on by then) or the door—I wouldn’t want to be called a snob—every single one of those fans streamed right past my car. Suddenly the car behind me was engulfed in people. Flash mob!

Only then did I realize that it was Rhian Ramos stopped behind me. I couldn’t see her car number from the front and she was wearing her helmet and balaclava. Figures.

But a few car guys and girls (including one with a cute Pomeranian pup) waved, said hello, or even stopped to have their photo taken with me and the car. Maybe it was better than waiting to get through the crowd for a shot with Rhian.

But enough about trying to act cool before a crowd. Truth be told, the whole morning (and even the day) preceding the actual race was filled with bouts of anxiety. Hitting Rhian Ramos’s car and spinning her around wreaks havoc on one’s confidence—especially if it happens during a practice session and not even during the race. Having the front end of your car stripped as repairs are made two hours before the race start is enough to give the coolest, calmest person an anxiety attack.

Going on your first wheel-to-wheel race in front of thousands of spectators is like going on your first recital. But while you only embarrass yourself (and perhaps your music teacher) if you flub a note while playing the piano or violin in an auditorium, in a high-speed race track, you can actually die or kill someone. Or die. If you make a huge mistake. Or if some other driver does. I didn’t want to die. Heck I didn’t even want to break a leg. Plus those things are not covered by my life insurance policy.

And this was no ordinary race. With 30 snarling race-prepped Vios race cars, this would be the biggest grid in the history of Philippine motorsports. More than that, the racers are as diverse as the cars are identical. There are racing champions, bonafide race car drivers, and seasoned amateurs. Then there was us: a ragtag band of media drivers and celebrities, some of whom, however, proved more than a match for the privateer racers. But the diversity in racing skill and experience level left many pundits predicting carnage at Turn 1, where the cars hurtle headlong coming from the front straight at 175-180 kph. They enter Turn 1 still doing anywhere from 110 to 140 kph. It’ll really separate the men from the boys.

But by some miracle, all the cars managed to pass not just through Turn 1, but through the rest of the track and complete a whole lap unscathed! The repeated stern warnings and admonitions by race officials (led by Race Director Ferdie Ong and Toyota Racing School top gun JP Tuason) against unsafe and unsportsmanlike driving were drilled into our heads. “To finish first, first you must finish” never rang so true.

Still there was little give and take. The racing was fast and furious no matter which part of the train you watched. There was no quarter taken at the front. There were heated battles in the middle. And there were equally thrilling bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door racing at the tail end. 

I should know. I’m not a drag racer but I’m pretty good at full-throttle launches. In both Race 1 and Race 2, I managed to squeeze through the pack accelerating from the starting line. I’d pick up as many as four or five grid positions as we sprinted through the main straight. I’d pick up two or three more positions with opportunist moves going into the corkscrew. (Of course, the faster cars—or more to the point, the better drivers—that I overtook at the start would eventually catch up and pass me in the ensuing laps.) With 30 cars trying to fit into a tight line that would normally have cars in a single file, this is not as much pure racing skill as it was high-speed singitan. You would see cars jinking left and right and braking hard to avoid the car in front. It was breathtaking (probably for the race officials and marshals who were praying for an incident-free race as well) and insanely fun!

I had passed media rival Ira Panganiban of Autocar in the earlier laps. He was tailing me closely as I followed a three-car scrap barely two-car lengths in front of me. Then the lead guy overcooked it approaching a hairpin turn and almost spun, so the two cars behind him took avoiding action and braked hard and swerved at the same time. I did the same just as I approached the apex of the corner and what did I hear? A very long tire squeal followed by the sound of two cars making contact. Ira touched my right rear fender with the left front corner of his car. It was enough to send my car into a 90-degree spin. Thankfully there were no cars behind us. I slipped it into 1st, turned the car around and accelerated. Ira was sportsmanlike enough to not take advantage of the situation and pass me; instead he even stopped for a couple of seconds to let me pull away for a bit.

The big surprise was when we caught up again with the battling trio. It was hard enough to pass one car, let alone three who were intensely dicing. And soon enough Ira was glued to my bumper again. The three cars ahead were passing and repassing each other that I was almost tempted to just follow and watch. It was already the last lap and I was busy finding a way through one of the cars while defending from Ira. Unfortunately, approaching the big loop, I missed an upshift from 2nd to 3rd gear. I tried again and it still wouldn’t go in. I downshifted to 2nd gear and the engine bounced off the rev limiter.  I tried 3rd again. No dice. So I slipped it into 4th and the engine revs dropped. Ira zoomed past me like I was standing still. It was already the last few turns leading to the almost-impossible-to-overtake series of curves of the chicane and double apex next-to-last turn so it was virtually impossible to repass him.

After the race, it was high fives all around. Race 2 was pretty much the same. I diced with the same people for much of the 12-lap race: Ardie Lopez of C! Magazine, privateers Robert Lilles and Jeje Villena, and Ira once again. Unfortunately for Ira, he spun out heading into the corkscrew while dicing with Rhian Ramos and got beached in the gravel for a DNF. 

For this race, I never had a chance of winning. But I took more than my fair share of consolation from the fact that I finished higher than my qualifying position and that I posted laps faster than my qualifying time. And more than that, I learned so much more than what I thought I already knew about race car driving. And for that a big shout out to JP Tuason (and the rest of the TRS team) who patiently trained us (JP even sat me down for a heart-to-heart talk on our last practice day to help exorcise all the stupid things I’ve been doing on the track) and to veteran racer Miguel Ramirez (who made me realize how little of the car’s potential I was using and how wrong my racing lines were).

Last but not least, a big thanks to Toyota for putting together such a wonderful project to promote grassroots racing in the country—and for letting us media hacks experience it first-hand. You’ve simply got to experience it to believe it!










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