If you are just reading this column now, you have missed my rendition of Frank Sinatra’s iconic song last week. Seriously though, I had just enough space last week to trace how I started my racing career in my earliest days during the 1980s. So let’s proceed with My Way Part 2:
After two years of not finishing a local rally, most people would have thought twice if they were really made for motor sports. Some who joined for the wrong reasons, like being a race driver would impress the girls, will be making up reasons why they stopped. Others though were really good drivers who didn’t have the logistical means to continue and these were the ones that would have been great for the sport.
Luckily, I was the one of those hardheaded ones that never gave up on achieving my goal of being a good driver and I really loved motor sports. After just one year of karting, I started to notice a great change in the way I handled a rally car and knew more about its preparation. I grew more confident after every kart win and I felt I had already graduated to a higher level of racing. Even with this knowledge, I never stopped karting and used it to hone my skills in between races.
SLALOM HERE WE GO!
Our good friend and idol, past national rally champion Robert Aventajado once told me that if I had the capacity to join the different motor sports events, I should. This will make me an all-around driver who can handle different racing situations and that would make me a better racer.
So even though we had no experience in slaloms, we decided to join it in 1986 along with karting, rallycross and rallies. Slaloms looked exciting and I was impressed at how cars were made to make 360-degree turns at the flick of the handbrake. The balancing of the accelerator, the braking by foot and hand, and sliding/turning all at the same time is really something a racer should master. Add your heel and toe technique all coordinated in less than a few seconds per lap, and this makes for a very intimidating and challenging sport.
Slalom’s steep learning curve was even made worst when you know that you would have to go up against the premiere racing family, the legendary Pocholo and son George Ramirez. They were my main competitors for the championship and if you didn’t get scared by that thought, then you don’t know what both of them stood for.
I knew I couldn’t beat them in the skills department (remember I only started karting the year before), so my MP Turbo Team and I had to make sure we had the best car available for the event. We modified our rally-prepared 1985 Toyota AE86 for slaloms and had to find the right suspension, engine tuning and driving skill to make everything jell together. The Ramirezes were sharing Billy Johnston’s heavily modified 1974 Toyota Starlet and it was a rally winning machine plus much lighter than the 86 we had.
After a huge see-saw battle during the whole season, the final leg would be the decider for the championship. It was winner take all, as we all had the chance to win it. With much struggle and daring runs, I finally got the best time and sealed the championship! It was definitely a good sign that we were headed in the right direction and this win gave us more reason to move forward.
INTERNATIONAL RALLY FLAVOR
Even though we were chasing the slalom championship, not many knew that we were also busy preparing for our first international rally-the 555 Hong Kong Beijing Rally in 1986. Our preparation was very much coordinated with the 1985 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally’s eighth overall winner and local rally champion Mandy Eduque and Hong Kong’s own champion Michael Lieu.
It was Lieu who showed us that the best way to go rallying was to rely on new, solidly designed and robust production cars for reliability’s sake. Before that time, we were running cars like the 1976 Mitsubishi Lancer L-type and trying to re-engineer it. The big problem before was we didn’t have the proper engineering background (as I graduated from De La Salle University with a degree in Industrial Management Engineering in 1989) and it was more a trial-and-error style of preparation. This would not do anymore if we would like to win and we had to upgrade our equipment.
With Lieu’s recommendation, we picked the 1985 Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo 1800 for the Beijing Rally and were able to ran the car here before the international event in right-hand drive form. The theory proved to be very good and it gave us our first rally win in the boondocks of Nueva Vizcaya, including the long and treacherous Pantabangan Dam stages. Even though we inherited the win after Eduque’s Escort had fuel problems, we were just so happy that we finally won one! We also found an omen during that rally — we forgot the keys of the car and this problem turned out to be one of our lucky charms.
The great lure of the Hong Kong-Beijing Rally was it would take us to the back roads of China where it was forbidden back then to drive from Hong Kong. It was a very punishing, six-day route for 3,500 kilometers and would end crossing the Great Wall on the outskirts of the city. We had to bring our own service vehicles, crew and parts along the route. If we broke down, we would have to still go all the way to Beijing with the rally car, as it wasn’t permitted to go back to Hong Kong.
Being novices back then, people thought we were crazy to enter an international event early on in our career. However, we always knew this rally would not be open forever as China could always close its borders, so we decided to go for it.
We had great backing and support from our family and sponsors. We planned long before the event and were able to get a great group of guys together to join us. Our MP Turbo Team included my navigator Jojo Estrella (who participated in the same rally in 1985 with Alex Limjuco), co-team managers Art Policarpio and Larry Mangubat, and a lot of friends that devoted their whole time and effort to make it come true.
The rally was an eye opener for us as this was the first time we saw factory cars like the Audi Quattros, the Ford Cosworths and the mighty Toyota Celicas. Our rally idols were there like Stig Blomqvist, Bjorn Waldegaard, Ari Vatanen and a lot more. To say we were star struck was an understatement! The best thing was that we would not be only rallying with them, but also eating, talking and sharing stories with them throughout the whole event.
The rally was flagged off on top of the parking lot of Harbor City Mall overlooking Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, amid all the pomp and pageantry. I barely remember that time as I was really nervous about the whole thing; I just wanted to get to the rally proper ASAP. Driving a right-hand drive Lancer in RHD traffic in our first, big international rally was enough to make ordinary people lose their breakfast in a hurry.
We had many great experiences during the rally and we will never forget them. One of the most memorable stories was when we stopped after a transport stage, we noticed that there was a funny smell coming from the outside. Then a man approached us and went on top of an open pit and just dropped his pants and started pooing! It turned out that we were right beside a community toilet pit and we rushed out of there.
After many trials like clogged fuel filters from dirty fuel, clogged special stages from millions of people standing beside the roads, sleepless nights of rushing and rallying into the next stage, and our service vehicle over turning going to Beijing, we never quit and pushed on regardless. The great natural and manmade wonders of China that we saw, and the challenging stages made it all worthwhile when we finally arrived in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
We were already celebrating early as we saw the Great Wall for one more tarmac stage along with all our crew and the rallying survivors. This was already the best we could hope for as we had already conquered and attained our goal to finish the rally. When the results came out, we could not believe our eyes as we won second in Group A4 and eighth overall in the rally! We were awarded on stage with the rest of the winners and idol Stig Blomqvist and Bruno Ecklund of the 555 Rally Team Audi Quattro finishing in first place.
I could fill a whole book on the experiences we had in this Beijing rally and sorry if it took a long time before writing about it. I will again have the next chapter of our racing career discussed next week and hope you all follow My Way in racing. Godspeed!