MOTORSPORT FEATURES

The unsung Pinoy Heroes of motorsport

The unsung Pinoy Heroes of motorsport image

Text: VJ Bacungan / Photos: Brent Co | posted May 09, 2014 13:23

Behind every racing driver is a dedicated team of mechanics

Make a list of the biggest racing heroes in your head and names like Senna, Schumacher, Makinen, Burns and Loeb, among countless others, would likely pop up.

One thing's for sure: the world's most-celebrated racing heroes are the drivers... and why wouldn't they be?

They're the ones we see battling it out on the track or on the rally stage at the helm of their high-performance, four-wheeled steeds, driving at mind-boggling speeds that many of us could never achieve (legally) in lifetimes of traffic jams and rutted roads.At the end of the races, the victorious drivers are the ones we see standing on the podium, basking in the adoration of their fans and bathing in the ceremonial champagne.

Indeed, racing drivers are like today's (albeit less brutal) Roman gladiators, with fame, glory and huge paychecks as their spoils of war. But even the most brilliant racing driver would be completely and utterly useless if he or she just spends most the race sitting on the guardrails, waiting for the tow truck to wheel away their speed machine after a horrendous breakdown.

Without a doubt, the men and women in the pits we never hear about also deserve a huge chunk of recognition that racing drivers get, particularly the mechanics who help keep the car running and, thus, keep the driver's career afloat.

As our Labor "Month" special, AutoIndustriya.com interviewed three Filipino racing mechanics who are not only dedicated to their careers, but are also banners of how excellent Filipino workers are, even in the fast-paced arena of international racing.

Rolly Relanes

Rolando 'Rolly' Relanes - Pit Supervisor, Porsche Carrera Cup Asia

Rolly is truly someone who made it big from almost nothing. But he didn't really want a messy and laborious job at first.

"My family was so poor. We didn't earn much from our farm. I really wanted to work in an office," said the 50-year-old, high-school graduate from Bicol.

Fresh out of the province, Rolly came to the metro in 1989, staying with his cousins in Tondo, Manila. A year later, he got a job as a helper for a latero (tinsmith), making Php 19 a day.

"I didn't like the work at all. I hardly made any money and I was just so sick of doing dirty jobs."

One day, while he was looking through the classified ads, he finally found the kind of job he had always wanted - being an insurance salesman. He stayed in the job for a while, until his brother told him to stop because "he could be robbed."

Rolly then moved to working in a factory that made export-quality, single-use raincoats.

"It was a really big factory and I was happy being there. There, I realized that I had to work hard and prove myself to the others."

After a year, the factory shut down. But the company still retained him to help run a 75-ton machine that required special operators. Then one day, everything changed.

"I had an accident. My hand got pinned in the machine. I was all alone."

After being hospitalized for a month, the company transferred him to Quezon City to handle quality control at one of their plants there. He eventually left without notice after the Chinese supervisors told him he was "weak" and that "his performance was not good enough."

Rolly then got another job operating a 550-ton injection machine. But he was given a 15-day suspension after the Chinese company owner caught him sleeping on the job.

"Even though my performance was very good and I had no prior offenses, the owner still said what I did was illegal. I never got the chance to explain myself properly. So throughout my suspension, I sold watermelon seeds with my girlfriend, at the time, in buses plying along Lawton in Manila."

After his suspension, he went back to the company, asking for a 15-day vacation. When the company didn't approve, he resigned and became a full-time vendor.

"I became good friends with the other vendors there. And I was so happy because I always had a lot of money in my pockets, even though we didn't look like we earned much."

But the bus company shut down after the drivers went on strike and, by December that year, Rolly was bankrupt. His brother then told him that there was a new motorsport shop being set up, owned by a budding Nissan 240RS rally driver named Jackie Enrile, son of incumbent Senator Juan Ponce Enrile.

"I was apprehensive at first, because I do not like politicians. But I needed the work, so I showed up that December to apply. But they told me to come back the month after. So by January 2, 1991, I showed up again in the afternoon and Jun Magno, my godfather in racing, interviewed me. I was hired on the spot."

Thus started Rolly's expansive career in motor racing.

"I really looked like an amateur back then. I remember stuffing all the tools in my overalls so I could quickly hand these to the mechanics. But working at Team Enrile Sport helped me develop myself as a mechanic, especially with the others teaching me how everything worked."

After Jackie quit racing in 1992, Rolly worked briefly as a mechanic in Saudi Arabia fixing high-end cars, afterwards coming home and working shortly as a latero at Toyota Alabang. 1992 was also when Jun Magno invited him to be the chief mechanic for the local Shell-Mitsubishi Rally Team. While there, he was discovered by the Hong Kong Ralliart team, which asked him to work for them in events abroad, including the Dakar Rally.

Throughout the 1990s, he worked for several local and international racing teams, serving as a mechanic for the Three Crowns Racing Team in Thailand and for Jojo Silverio in the Southeast Asian Touring Car Zone Trophy (predecessor of the Asian Festival of Speed).

It was in 1999 when he first got wind about working with his current company.

"I was on a ferry to Cebu to attend a drag race. I got a call about a job in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia. I didn't really know what that was. After working with other race teams for some time, I underwent supervisor training with Porsche at Weissach, Germany by late 2002. I started as a supervisor when the season opened in 2003."

Rolly supervises the mechanics for two to three cars in the series, teaching them how to work on the cars. On race days, he leaves his hotel at 7 a.m. to set up the pit crew area and the cars. Although his hours are officially 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., he often works overtime on the cars with the other mechanics.

"A good attitude is a must in this job. Skills can be developed, but attitude can never be changed. A good mechanic is someone who is humble, nice, willing to learn and listen, and can work well in a team."

But he does encounter some problems on the job. For instance, he works a lot with the Chinese and the Germans, so language and cultural barriers can get in the way. Fortunately, "they can adapt easily to us," he says.

However, working with British drivers and engineers can be a hassle, since they tend to look down on Filipinos.

"I would rather work with 10 American engineers than one British engineer."

Being abroad frequently, he misses his family a lot and is usually excited to go back home after a week.

"When I started a family with my second wife, I realized how to be a parent. It's so nice to have a young child. I love walking around and playing with my kids."

Outside of cars, he is very fond of music, especially the genres he heard in major points in his life – instrumental during his Bicol years, rock while he was in Saudi, jazz after hearing it at a hotel bar and Western/country that, he says, Jackie is fond of as well.

He is also a dedicated mountain biker and enjoys going on long bike rides alone when he's in the country.

"I regularly bike from my house in Parañaque to Silang in Cavite. I prefer going by myself because most of my fellow cyclists are too slow."

He also tried fishing, but he found it too expensive.

Rolly says he does not really have any long-term plans. But he does want to build more race cars, which he has been doing since 1995.

"I want to put up a motorsport shop and make my own cars. I just need more funds. Right now, I'm just borrowing space from Jun's shop here in Alabang. I can't really work on road cars since I'm not a college graduate, especially with all the diagnostics equipment modern cars use.

"In making a race car, I tend to focus more on the chassis. I love making roll cages. They are a great challenge for me."

Filipino team from PCCA

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Filipino team from Absolute Racing

Eric Camarillo - Parts Manager, Absolute Racing China Co. Ltd.

Younger Filipino mechanics have a lot to thank for the work that older mechanics have done.

"People like Johnny Tan, Eddie Peña and Rolly, they are all part of Philippine racing history. They started by helping each other out and paving the way for us," says 42-year-old Eric, who since 2011 has been with Absolute Racing, the company that manages the privateer Audi R8 LMS Cup in China.

"I take care of supplying the parts for the 24 cars in the series, with the full support of Audi Customer Racing. I also take care of invoicing the parts and handling logistics for the 20 Filipino mechanics working with the teams."

Based at the Zhuhai International Circuit in Guangdong, Eric starts his day at around 4 a.m. during race days. He helps set up all the garages and the cars.

"In motorsports, there is no schedule and no days off, since these races happen on weekends. We don't have the normal 8-to-5 schedule. We work until 10 p.m., sometimes longer if more needs to be done. In essence, we continue working until we get the job done. That's how we do it."

A business management graduate of the Philippine School of Business Administration, Eric entered karting in 1997 long after college.

"I was racing with Kart One under Philip Alvendia. Eddie Peña was our principal. I stopped karting after the Asian Financial Crisis when it became too expensive. I still wanted to stay in motorsports though because I loved cars, so I joined Eddie when he put up the Asian Formula 3 (AF3) Championship. I handled logistics and parts for that series."

In around 2003, Eric was hired to manage Richard Joson's AF3 team; JF3 Racing. When the series folded in 2007, he went on vacation for a year.

"Then I went to E-Rain Racing in 2009. It's a Korean-owned company based in Malaysia and they run Formula BMW. In 2010, I sidelined with Absolute Racing until I started working with them full-time a year later."

After a two-week apprenticeship at Absolute, he initially felt apprehensive working with the German and French directors and supervisors.

"They're very straightforward. If you make a mistake, they will point it out, sometimes using unpleasant words. They don't really mean to hurt us. It's just their way of being helpful, since they do teach us how to do it correctly. It's a matter of understanding their side. The next day is another day. They're still your friend."

Apart from understanding, he believes openness, sipag and tiyaga are important attitudes for someone who wants to do what he's doing.

The most challenging part of his job is dealing with time pressure. He and his crew of mechanics need to make sure that the cars are running well and on time, especially since they are accountable to the privateer drivers who paid for everything. But he says dealing with the drivers isn't such a hassle, since each driver has a dedicated supervisor to address his or her concerns.

Living in an apartment with five mechanics when he's in China, Eric says he doesn't miss his wife and four kids at home that much.

"Luckily with technology like smartphones, Skype and WeChat, it's just like dealing with them. If they need something important, they send me a message. If you look at our apartment's living room, it's like being in a call center since each of us has our own tablet."

While in China, he enjoys jogging with the other mechanics. At home, he likes going biking. He also maintains a die-cast car collection.

Eric hopes to be more involved with the cars in the future to better help out the mechanics.

"Hopefully, the company allows me to attend seminars or schooling for data management, engineering and kinematics of the car."

Eric also believes that in his decades in motorsports, he works with really great people.

"I think I have the best mechanics right now. When there's a big crash, it's usually these guys the supervisors tap to make sure that the job is done properly."

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Emmanuel 'Jun' Saavedra – Full Racing Mechanic and Pit Supervisor, Absolute Racing Co. Ltd.

Among Eric's amazing mechanics is 39-year-old Jun, who works directly on the cars and handles pit-area management. He has been working with Absolute since 2011.

Jun is a certified engineer, graduating with a degree in electronics and computer engineering from the Technological Institute of the Philippines. He started out in 1999 at Formula Toyota, working with the Shell Racing Team. In 2004, he moved to Asian Formula 3 and, after it folded three years later, moved to Formula BMW in 2008.

At Absolute, he says he initially experienced some discrimination since their supervisors thought Filipinos were troublemakers.

"In time, though, when we proved ourselves, they would really say: 'You're the best mechanic out there.' Sometimes, we don't even eat just to make sure the cars run when they're needed."

In addition, he finds it easy to work with his fellow mechanics because he thinks they are "superb."

Because he works more closely with the drivers, Jun says the language barrier can be an issue, since many of them don't speak English.

"Often, they just tell us the basics: brakes, handling, etc. But concerns generally go through the team supervisor first. Plus, the engineers and the technical supervisors also work with us, so our workload is not so heavy."

Jun says patience, efficiency and tiyaga (perserverance) are what have helped him survive as a racing mechanic in the R8 LMS Cup.

Like Eric, Jun is thankful that technology has made it easier for him to talk to his wife and two kids in the Philippines. And when he's at home, he's an avid basketball player, sidelining as a basketball referee for barangay-level games.

Jun also studied music and enjoys playing the piano.

In the future, he wants to put up a performance car shop.

"I want something like AutoPlus. I want to not only fix cars, but also modify them for racing too."

Filipino team from Absolute Racing

Message to all Filipino workers

As a closing question, we asked each of the mechanics what they would like to say to Filipino laborers working here and abroad.

Rolly: "If you have the skills, shop around for someone who's willing to pay you what you want."

Eric: "Be assertive. Be proud of what you're doing. And don't be afraid to tell your bosses what you need. They will listen to you. And if you're not going to do something right, don't do it at all."

Jun: "Wherever we go, Filipinos are inherently excellent. It's in our nature to work well. And I think we are blessed by the Lord, wherever we go."

So the next time you watch your favorite racing driver smiling at the podium, never forget that he or she had an army of heroes to help him or her get there. And one of them could be a Filipino.

Mabuhay ang mga manggagawang Pilipino!