IF it were not for the dedication of a few people, motor sports in the Philippines would have gone down the drain for good a decade ago.
And there are very few familiar names in the local motor sports circle who have helped keep the sport alive up to this day even if adequate funds are hard to come by. Johnny Tan is one of them.
Tan, who raced karts from 1987, has been actively promoting motor sports in the Philippines and has three racetracks under his belt: Carmona, Batangas and Clark. He also owns Kart Plaza that supplies parts for karts.
His passion for racing dates back to his days as a spectator of kart races and rallyes.
“My real love is karting. When I was young, I was watching the karting races of Baby Luna, Dodjie Laurel. In Luneta, I was watching the races when I was a kid,” Tan said.
He also watched the rallyes in the Philippines featuring cars running on “alcogas” during the world oil crisis.
It was in 1987 that Tan started participating in karting races at a time when there was no permanent racetracks to host competitions. He would graduate to racing cars but this was short-lived.
“I went to touring car, then I went to formula car racing, but for a very short time, because at the time, my age was catching up,” he said. “I was about 36 or 37 at the time.”
Tan added that he quit racing believing he could do better for Philippine motor sports by organizing races and putting up venues. He also believes in the potential of Filipinos in becoming world-class racecar drivers.
“And when I saw the talent of the Filipinos, I told myself that they could go far because it is in motor sports that the Filipino excels very well. Apart from boxing and billiards, Filipinos are good drivers,” Tan said.
“Even now, when the Philippines sends a representative to regional competitions, we always do well in racing. Filipinos are very good in singing and dancing, and driving is one of the innate talents of the Filipino,” he added.
It was the lack of venues, however, that also made it hard for the country to develop more talents for motor sports. In fact, when Tan and his peers were participating in kart races, the only venues they had were makeshift tracks on the streets or parking lots. One of the makeshift tracks where Tan and his peers competed was in Libis, Quezon City.
Building the racetracks
But the loud roars of the karting engines prompted the residents in Corinthian Gardens to petition for the stoppage of the races held in Libis. Also, holding kart races in makeshift venues presented safety issues. This eventually prompted Tan to develop a property he owned in Carmona, Cavite, into the country’s first racetrack that opened in 1991.
Tan would also go into the business of selling karts and parts, and other equipment for motor sports because the original supplier of karts decided to concentrate on his other business.
“The suppliers of go karts, Doboy Benavidez, left the business because he wanted to concentrate on his core business, which is the distribution of Mercedes [Benz] spare parts,” he said.
Tan, however, did not have to form a new business entity because he already had Kart Plaza Manufacturing Corporation that was involved in the distribution of Yamaha golf karts.
“Kart Plaza was founded in 1988, its main business was doing Yamaha golf carts. So we integrated go kart parts and racing parts [into Kart Plaza]after the sources of parts were gone in 1991, 1992,” he added.
But the Carmona racetrack proved to be small to host car races. Tan realized this after the racetrack hosted four races of Kia Prides. Also, the Subic International Raceway put up by the Ramirez family was becoming a popular venue for motor sports events.
“In 1996, I started constructing the Batangas Racing Circuit. I chose Batangas because our first international champion is Dodjie Laurel,” Tan said. Laurel, who was the first two-time winner of the Macau Grand Prix in 1962 and 1963, was part of the prominent Laurel clan from Batangas.
The Batangas racetrack, which also sits on a property owned by Tan, hosted the country’s first Formula or open-wheel races. It was eventually expanded from 2.4 kilometers to 3.6 kilometers.
“We realized it was short, so we added [some segments]to expand it from 2.4 kilometers to 3.6 kilometers,” he said.
And in 2006, Tan signed the contract to establish a racetrack in the Clark Freeport Zone on a land that would be leased to him.
“There was an invitation from Clark [Development Corporation]. I was called if I’m interested because Clark was mostly factories and businesses, they had no tourism aspect,” Tan said. He got the invitation from CDC in 2004.
Today, Clark has a 4.2-kilometer racetrack that hosts numerous races every year.
“Every time we have a race, all the hotels are happy, all the restaurants are happy. And we bring crowds [into Clark],” Tan said.
Still elitist in nature
Although the country now has three established racetracks and interest in car and motorcycle races is slowly growing, Tan said motor sports in the Philippines still remains “elitist.”
“First and foremost, motor sports at this stage in our economy is still elitist, because not everybody has a car. But in motorcycle [racing]it’s starting [to gain more interest]. More people have motorcycles now,” he added.
Tan said only racecar drivers from rich families are able to compete outside the country, citing the case of Marlon Stockinger.
“Our problem really is corporate sponsors. There are more [racecar drivers]with talent who could not compete outside the country because they have no funds,” he added.
And while karting entails a lower level of investment compared to racing cars and more compete karting events, the lack of racing events involving cars means many of those who excel in karting have no option but to retire from racing.
“The dilemma is there are good karters coming up and they have nowhere to go,” Tan said.
On the other hand, motorcycle races are gaining ground because more people in the Philippines own a two-wheeler. Tan said more corporate sponsors, mostly related to the motorcycle industry, have started to fund riders. He cited that the six races of the Philippine National Super Bike Championship that he promotes has a super bike event where the machines cost above P2 million.
“In one [race]weekend, we have about 150 to 200 motorcycles racing [in the bike championships],” Tan said.
But he is not losing hope on the future of motor sports for cars or sedans in the Philippines, and he still wants to do more for the sport.
“As a passionate motor sports individual, I think I have not done enough, I want to do more. But at the same time, I know my limitation on my age, I am now nearing 60 years old so everything will slow down. But my aspiration is still to give more to the Filipino talents, so we can nurture these talents,” Tan said.