Don’t worry about the IS tag and it’s not for the ISIS radical movement, but the Inside Story on our Asian Formula 2000 journey. As I promised last week, I will write about the juiciest inside story of my racing career that not a lot of people know about. This was the battle for the AF2000 championship in 2002.
Our family-owned company, BLTBCo, had been raided by a shrewd business group in December 1997 that we fought with intensely in the judicial courts and out of it. We were in control but there were very bad elements that would like to get the company at all costs.
This led to a failed takeover of our Batangas Terminal with 2 people killed in their illegal takeover.
I stopped racing for 2 years to fight this group and had so much problems then. I only went back when the company was stable and had to find an outlet to take out the stress from work.
With our new manufacture, the Hyundai brand, which was distributed by the Francisco Motors Corporation back then, we again embarked on putting Hyundai in our local racing history. And this we successfully did in 1998 when the Mazdaspeed variant of the 323 was outlawed in the National Production Championship. Carlos Anton took the Hyundai Elantra to its 2 consecutive championships in 98-99.
AFOS in SUBCI
The Asian Festival of Speed was coming back to the Philippines in 2002 after a long hiatus. This was also the last year the AF2000 championship and we had a car that we let the organizers rented out during the series. For the Philippine leg, we were the one that was going to use it and just to have local participation in the series.
What transpired was a big crossroad for me. In the first race, I started in 4th position according to my qualifying time the day before. You can imagine the hoopla when I finished 2nd overall after the race! With not much practice or even a good team engineer to set up the car, the whole arena, including my team, were going bonkers!
My car was always sliding and I knew it wasn’t the best way to drive a formula, but we never found the grip due to our limited knowledge in formulas. We were lucky no one had prior knowledge of properly setting up their cars for the Subic track and it was our local knowledge and big heart that got the result. It sure entertained the fans and I still get comments that that was the best race they ever saw!
The winner was Singapore’s Denis Lian and everyone after the race started paying attention to our Filipino Team. Drivers Mickel Ali of Indonesia, Mike Miller of Singapore and Tohru Jitsukawa of Japan all congratulated me after the race and said they will all look out for me.
In the second race, I started in 8th after clouting a tire barrier in qualifying the day before. However, I knew this will be a better race. When we started, I already climbed to pick each car in front and then saw the leader, Mike Miller, spun out in front in the hairpin. I managed to overtake Miller before he recovered and he was now on my tail.
We diced for a couple of laps with the chicane (a left-right, right-left combination) before the back straight was becoming faster and faster because the tires that marked the beams were being pushed back by cars hitting them. Then on our 3rd lap across the chicane, we never saw that the marshals had just put the tires back and we were going too fast into the chicane. I bumped the tire squarely and my car flew!
I thought it took a long time and when it landed, it made such a big impact that I thought something broke after the impact. Luckily, the car went straight, braked well and turned into the hairpin in the end. I knew I was lucky to escape such an impact and regained my composure.
However, I didn’t see the erstwhile leader behind me and thought he must have had a problem. When I passed the chicane again, I saw Miller’s car on the side of the road and knew he had broken something when he went through the same tires. I was really in the groove and was up to 2nd overall and catching the leader when I saw the red flag come out.
I knew it was for the stricken car in the track and we all parked our cars in the grid of the main straight. When I came out, the whole crowd roared and I never experienced that before! People were shouting my name and making high fives. This was definitely the best time ever!
After a long wait, we heard the reason for the race stoppage and the leader had to be taken by the ambulance to the hospital. The marshals then started to tell me that when my car hit the tires, one flew right in front of his face and they think it knocked him out. This led to his car going to the side of the track and crashed on the barriers. From a big high, I was now floored at this information and was really concerned.
When the decision came out to stop the race, I welcomed it wholeheartedly. Even when the result came out that I got only 3rd because of the count back of 1 lap down for the official result. There were muted celebrations in the end and no one really knew how the driver was. Finally, the organizers told us that Miller was in a coma after the crash.
After a week, Miller succumbed to his injuries and passed away. I was definitely stricken by grief and felt guilty about the accident. Even though it could have been I that could have crashed if something broke in my car. I never saw Miller’s family to even extend my condolences as we were kept in the dark on how Miller was.
That was my first trial and crossroad in AF2000 and asked myself- would I continue driving in such a dangerous sport or just hang up my racing gloves?
I campaigned intensively for reforms for track safety and marshal coordination with the
Ramirez family who took care of the Subic Track. I also appealed to the AFOS organizers to make sure that the life of Mike Miller not be in vain. I really hoped that we all learned a lesson from this tragic incident.
As for me, I decided to go on and compete in the remaining rounds of the AF2000 and be the voice for safety. I would also be our countrymen’s representative for this race which I believe we had the chance to win. Next week, I will share more inside stories of this series and how it has forever changed my life. Godspeed!