During a live interview on my weekly radio show, Tuason Racing school director, JP Tuason posed a challenge to me to become a race car driver for a weekend. The idea was to get me off the cushy testing tracks and go mano a mano with real life competition. He figured that it would complete me. And he was absolutely right. Well, asides from the cheesy Jerry Maguire reference, it actually made perfect sense. As JP put it, “You will go full circle.” You see, truth be known, I actually got my first formal driver training on a circuit with JP and the TRS Lynx cars in Batangas three years ago. I've since driven an F3 car, a Formula One car and a string of other exotics in historical circuits and testing tracks around the world. But I've never actually raced wheel to wheel. With tears welling up in my eyes, I said, “JP, stop. You had me at: C! Magazine is willing to pay for your seat...”
I'll admit, I started out reasonably cocky, expecting to do well straight out of the box. I've always fared very well in driving exercises and I figured that even though I was joining an established series, I could hold my own around a racetrack. I was sort of like the automotive equivalent of the guy that hangs out in the driving range all day long whacking golf balls week in and week out, but never actually ventures out into the golf course to compete in an 18 hole game.
I guess everything only really started to sink in when I saw my name on the side of my race car for the first time. I'm getting goosebumps now just remembering it. I had qualified third on the grid, just behind Autoplus' chief engineer, Fransisco Blanco and Vic Joseph Nodalo, from the highly respected Nodalo racing clan. There were some seriously quick guys like Ken Boren behind me who were suffering from some bad luck all weekend. This was it. The main event. I think I lost three pounds in the moments leading up to the race, just before the five lights went out. The last thought I had was, “Why do I keep letting myself get talked into things like this?
I felt as though I was in a daze. It was somewhat surreal. I could make out some familiar faces waving me on from the pit wall but they all seemed a little disconnected; I imagined it would be how a fish in an aquarium feels when being viewed. The sounds are there, too, but they're distant, almost indistinguishable. You start to slip into a zone. A world of your own – population 8.
I'll never forget the feeling when the lights went out and 16 front wheels screamed in unison, all vying for that all important first corner. I had a good start but Nico Montinola tucked in behind me and gave me grief from lap 1 to 8. I matured more in those first eight laps than I have in the last 4 years at C! Magazine. He was like one of those Rottweilers you see in those gory “when animals attack” video shows. He never let up. I eventually named my new ulcer after him.
At the end of the back straight we would still be side by side at 150km/h trying to see who could brake deeper into the tight, right-hand, double-apex hairpin coming up. The 100 meter board would fly past and neither of us would flinch; it would eventually be decided by who had the inside line. He attacked at just about each corner and never gave up, making my second place finish behind Fransisco Blanco the most satisfying and well-earned podium finish I've ever taken in my life. It was so gut wrenching that I thought I would pop an artery. When it finally ended, I was so relieved that I just about jumped out of the car a when I saw the checkered flag to give the flag waver dude an open mouthed kiss!
The next race was even harder. Because I had finished second, and they reverse the top four drivers on the grid, that meant I had to start from 3rd, while the 3rd placer would start second. The guy who won starts fourth and 4th placer goes up to 1st. Desperate to get back some points, Nico closed the door on me as we took off. I went off the racing line on the outside of the corner and dived in as he defended from Columbian driver, Fransisco Blanco. Because they had a slower exit, I sling-shotted past with better momentum and took them both at the first corner. I now led the race.
I could hear the announcer belting out on the loud speakers that I was now running first. Not the nicest place to be when you have 32 smoking wheels chasing you down! We went side by side - 3 deep - into a downhill technical right hander and swapped paint as it tightened up. I managed to hold them off and pull a little gap. I maintained the lead for the first half of the race. On lap four, Fransisco pulled a "Hail Mary" (a 'close your eyes and pray that it sticks maneuver') move on me into the hairpin. There was nothing left for me to do but to give up the lead. It was heartbreaking. I tasted defeat and it gave me acidity.
I became totally fixated on this guy. Even though I must be a cool 50 pounds heavier, I tried matching his braking points and would close the gap under the braking area, but this meant it would ruin my exit, not allowing me to carry enough speed through the corner. My only hope was to pressure him and force him to make a mistake. I started getting desperate. He wasn't flinching and he was soaking up the pressure very well.
I could see my friends on the side of the track waving out to me and taking pictures. I couldn't let them down. I would plan my attack on the one corner where I felt a little stronger - a third gear flat out right hander that spills into the start/finish. I tried three times but couldn't make it stick. It would be easier to pass a kidney stone than this guy. On the third go, I was so consumed, I had totally forgotten about a very clever Nico Montinola who was following closely, just waiting to snatch a place through some ambitious move that went hairy. He got it. While bitterly battling for 1st, I now found myself 3rd. The pain was tangible.
With one lap to go, I attacked relentlessly. I was getting ragged and sloppy. I had driven the car so hard that I had overheated my tires, pads and boiled my brake fluid. I lost some pedal pressure just as I was tailing Nico into the 150km/h back straight just before the hairpin. After pumping the pedal, I ended up locking up all four wheels. I swear I saw a red warning light illuminate on the instrument cluster that said, “Remember, you have a 50,000 peso deposit with JP” I pitched myself sideways, over the grass on the inside of the corner and nudged him out by banging fenders. Not the most gentlemanly way of racing so I apologized and eventually finished in third spot.
The third race was the decider. Fransisco had won again, but there was an unsettled score between myself and Nico. It may as well have just been just the two of us on track, which goes to show it only takes two people to make a race. Unfortunately for me, they do not reverse the grid on the last race which meant I had to start from 3rd while he started second, giving him the inside line and control of turn 1.
As we peeled off, Nico pushed me as far out as possible, right up to the edge off the track. Someone tucked in behind him, which meant he had control over the turn. He left his turn in really late, giving me no place to go. I guess I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book; a common novice mistake. He left the door wide open; I counted 4 cars pass us as he blocked my path. Each one was like a stab in the heart. I was devastated. I was now running last.
With eight laps left, I caught up with the field. I passed a couple of cars and was now chasing down third and fourth. But by the time I got close enough to make a move, we had run out of laps. I finished fifth. As disheartening as it all was, if it was the experience I was racing for, then they couldn't have written a better script. The race taught me so much. I tasted the sweet taste of champagne from the winners cup (2nd still gets a swig!) plus I learnt humility and strategy. Most of all, I learned a lot about myself. I will never forget that weekend. The racetrack really lends perspective and can be a very humbling experience. In the end, it really didn't matter if I finished on the podium for that race, I did what I came out to do that weekend – RACE.