• A day at the races

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    Vios20140204I’M strapped to a thinly padded, plastic racing seat by means of a six-point harness. Very tightly. Think blood-constricting tight, then tighten it up some more. The thick FIA-rated racing suit, boots, gloves, balaclava and helmet do not help in making things comfortable inside a car that’s baking under an early afternoon sun. No big deal? The car’s windows are rolled up and the air-conditioning is off. This is a car with a gutted cabin—no ceiling, carpet or any form of insulation. I am looking at 15 laps of genuine wheel-to-wheel racing ahead, and already I feel drained.

    And there is another 15-lap race to follow later.

    That is how it felt like sitting smack in the middle (seventh place) of a 12-car starting grid at the Toyota Vios Cup exhibition race, the order of which had been determined 12 hours before Typhoon Santi wrecked plans and infrastructure at the Clark International Speedway (as well as in many parts of Luzon) in mid October last year. Pushed back by months, the event finally pulled through on January 25, and to say the experience of racing in it—as opposed to being there as a motoring scribe—is memorable is to call graduating from college “nice.” Or a marriage a “party.”

    Road to the track
    Racing in the Vios Cup started with a series of qualifiers, the first of which was committing to at least five practice/training sessions at the Clark track, which would start early mornings and run until afternoons. The next was taking on a series of fun driving activities at Toyota Motor Phils.’ motor show held in August, where the shortlist of participants was drawn up.

    Then it was off to track qualifying for the seven media folk that made the cut, with the five best performers supposedly proceeding to the succeeding practice sessions, and on the way to the October race. But, as it turned out, Toyota execs admitted all seven, who were then bunched up with the five chosen celebrities, to complete the 12-car, two-race Vios Cup exhibition gig.

    The final list counted in stars Aljur Abrenica, Phoemela Baranda, Fabio Ide, Rhian Ramos and Jinno Rufino; and media people James Deakin, Aris Ilagan, Vince Pornelos, Jeff Reyes, Iñigo Roces, Botchi Santos, plus myself.

    What followed in the next weeks was a logistical nightmare of practice-session scheduling, ferrying participants from Manila to Clark and back, adjusting training methods for each individual skill set, and a lot of smaller yet no less significant details to take care of. Now throw in the mix a news conference/presentation, photo shoots and other promotional jobs. That the 12 racers managed to put in at least five practice sessions to as much as eight come the original October race date was a feat, too.

    Of course, there were countless other things that Toyota and race organizer Tuason Racing School needed to put in place, not least of which was building the racecars, procuring sundry parts and racers’ gear, making sure spare parts were ready, and a host of organizational matters.

    And then Santi came, sending the Vios Cup launch affair back to square one in terms of event-day infrastructure and preparation. The nightmare of reconciling the disparate calendars of the 12 participants was relived as well. But after several dates were floated, finally January 25 was set, with the track opened up to the participants for refresher practice sessions on the two days preceding the race date (one other session was held in mid-December).

    Race day
    For the participants, race day started with an early-morning open practice session, which officials thought best should cover the entire race distance. That was easier said than done, because that meant tackling three 20-minute-plus sessions in a day. Now, a half-hour drive on the road, most of the time, is a breeze. Not so in a racecar driven at full bore, which is not only physically exhausting but is also mentally tiring because of the focus and concentration doing it requires.

    Then there was the meet-and-greet thing with fans. I’m guessing it’s an activity that isn’t at all strenuous for the celebrities but which, personally, was quite a chore. And that’s due to the simple fact that I do not have fans.

    It was almost a relief then to get back in the anonymity of the car’s cabin, unmindful my name is plastered on the rear-door windows. The grid was then shepherded to its starting position. Each competitor was raring to go. This was what the months of training, qualifying stints, trash-talking and a postponed race had come down to. Me, I just want to get it over with.

    But then a delay. The track ambulance was not on track. And so we waited some more.

    Finally, the five red lights came on one by one. As they went off all together, the grid filled with the spectacle of dumped clutches, squealing tires, engines revved to nearly the red line. I chopped off Santos, who was sitting a car’s length back to my left, to take the first corner. Directly ahead was Rufino, who made a slow start, and so was left open for passing come the third, right-angle “Acacia” corner. Two or three laps in Rufino got his position back. I was content with sitting midfield behind him and Baranda, who had slipped back from her pole position.

    At around the 10th lap mark, Baranda went off-track and onto the runoff. Rufino pounced on the chance. I followed him through. Shortly, at the next corner, it was Rufino who slipped off track, and this time I passed him. There was contact between us—my right rear door against his left front fender. Baranda followed through and got past Rufino. By Race One’s end, I was fifth.

    Race Two found Ilagan directly behind me, which meant he was sitting a car’s length back but is already on the inside line. A quick-starter, Ilagan passed by before the first corner and went off pursuing Roces.

    What followed in the next 15 laps were plenty of dicing, outbraking, outmaneuvering, outsmarting and, yes, passing between the three of us. I took my fifth place back from Ilagan and even managed to overtake Roces. He did not give up though and, with four laps to the checkered flag, got his fourth spot back.

    In front of the grid, Pornelos and Reyes were locked in a battle for the win. At the rear, the celebrities were taking on each other in a contest for their category’s championship. Guess Roces, myself and Ilagan merely wanted to hold on to our starting-grid positions of fourth, fifth and sixth. Accounts have it we—the entire grid—provided the spectators with quite a show. Or a really nice party.

    And that makes the experience more than just memorable.

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