Unlike most race car drivers, Gaby Dela Merced didn’t spend her youth on a kart track honing her skills. Instead, she spent it at home playing racing games.
“My brothers pretty much had every console you could think of,” the bubbly 30-year-old told The Manila Times in an interview. “What drew me in was an obscure 2D game called GT 2000, where you could play as a formula car, a tank or a hovercraft. It wasn’t even a serious racing game, but I fell in love with it.”
More than that, Dela Merced said she fell in love with the speed and the g-forces of a moving car. “I didn’t even know what g-force meant back then, but I just really liked turning fast,” she said.
A high-performance ‘debut’
As she matured, Dela Merced said she told her parents, “When I hit 18, you can’t stop me. I’m gonna race.”
While most well-off girls get a shiny, new car from their parents at their debut, Dela Merced’s dad got her a beat-up, 1980s Toyota Starlet. On August 2000, Dela Merced joined her first race: the Shell Helix Slalom Challenge.
Dela Merced said preparing for it was an interesting experience. “My dad’s friend took me to his garage, which wasn’t much bigger than a coffee shop, and taught me how to do a donut [maneuver],” she said. “We did that for 30 minutes and the next thing I know, I’m going to a race.”
Although her parents thought racing was just a thing she wanted to do for a short while, having tried out numerous sports as a kid, she said the universe seemed to tell her to stay behind the wheel. “I actually tried applying for the University of the Philippines Open University,” the former UP visual communication student said. “But each time, the date of the exam fell exactly on the date of a race I had to attend, so it was either-or. And I chose racing.”
With her little Starlet, Dela Merced said Danny Santiago became her first mentor, eventually taking her under his wings. Although she had always wanted to do circuit racing, she said her dad told her to go into slalom first. “With other forms of racing, you’re only racing with the person in front of you,” he said to her. “But in this one, you’re racing against time so, in a sense, you’re on an equal platform.”
After two years, Dela Merced raced in Subic for the “Run What You Brung” event staged by the Ramirezes for a year in between slalom events. She then got into touring car racing with an EG Honda Civic LX sedan.
Although being a girl made her open to attack from male racers at the start, she said her gender didn’t really become a hindrance as she progressed through her career. “There is really no gender or sex advantage in racing,” she said. “Regardless if you’re female or male, I will pass you.”
In 2003, Dela Merced said she heard about Formula BMW, which her dad disapproved of because she was doing so well in touring cars. Still determined, she sold her Honda VFR motorcycle and set off to Johor in Malaysia.
“There were 11 of us who tried out, including another female, and they said they were only going to get four,” she said. “It was frightening trying a formula car for the first time. But when I got back home, I got an e-mail a few days later saying I had been accepted as a scholarship driver.”
Dela Merced said a lot of her motor sports foundation came from racing with Formula BMW across Asia, which she did along with Formula Toyota in the Philippines. By 2004, she left formula racing and went back to touring cars a year later, joining the Open class in an EK Civic, and then joined Asian Formula 3 (AF3) in 2006.
After one season in AF3, Dela Merced said a race car driver talked to her about something she had always wanted to do: race in the United States. “But a month before our meeting, he just suddenly disappears,” she said. “So the same way I handled Formula BMW, why don’t I just make my own opportunity?”
And off to the US she went with $1,000 in hand, where she stayed with her best friend in San Francisco who she hadn’t seen since grade school. “I harassed anyone I could harass,” she said. “I was sending around 50 e-mails to see who could answer.”
But fortune wasn’t on her side at the time, so she went back home and joined Pinoy Big Brother at the end of 2007. After that, she qualified for and participated in the Lyn St. James scholarship for female race car drivers to hone their skills. Dela Merced then got a spot to race a BMW M3 in a 25-hour endurance race in Thunderhill Raceway Park near Sacramento, California, in 2008.
In 2009, she signed up with Spoon Sports USA team in 2009 and drove an FD Civic in endurance races until February 2010, when she sustained a serious injury to both her knees, cause unknown then, and had to stop racing.
Passion for art
Coincidentally, February 2010 was when Dela Merced was set to open Vinyl on Vinyl, her art gallery in Chino Roces, Makati that showcases contemporary and experimental art like street pop, surrealist and other sub-cultures. She said in between races, she would visit art galleries in the US and bring back what she saw there to the Philippines.
“Our name originated from vinyl toys,” she said. “These are often characters made by artists and are created with care and quality. It’s an underground culture that emerged in the early 2000s and gained mainstream notoriety around 2007. I’ve been collecting these toys for years.”
Back in the hot seat
In 2014, Dela Merced said her manager from Formula BMW referred her to a Korean team, which she raced with all around Asia, including the Korean Speed Festival. Although she was contracted to drive a Hyundai Veloster and a heavily-modified Hyundai Genesis Coupe, she also got behind the wheel of a prototype stock car. “It was chaotic. My neck was snapping left and right,” she said laughing. “Basically, it’s a 480-horsepower car and is twice as strong as a Formula 3 car.”
Meanwhile, after years of consulting a variety of doctors about her injury, Dela Merced said she found out that she had plicasyndrome, which caused the plica – a lining in the knee joint – to become inflamed. “When they surgically took it out last year, they said I was already stage-two chondromalacia,” she said. “If they had found out five years ago, they could have prevented it.”
Besides participating in this year’s Cannonball Run in the Philippines, Dela Merced said she has been doing a lot of physical therapy sessions to prepare to race again this year. “I want to go back to my roots – the Philippine Touring Car Championship – it’s what I know,” she said. “But everyone’s talking about GT now, so it’s a toss-up between the two.”