His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. He's been standing here for days now, through paralyzing humidity, searing heat and cold rain. Yet much of his focus is on his right palm pressed down against the decal by the other hand. One slip and it's all over.
That's all it takes to count yourself out of the MediaCorp Subaru Challenge 2012: The Asian Face-Off. Now in its 11th year, all participants have to do is keep their hands on a palm print decal on a car. Challengers are given up to three warnings each time a part of their hand is outside the decal. It's simply a test of endurance to be able to win their very own Subaru. A Subaru XV if the winner is a Singaporean (without a certificate of entitlement) or a Subaru Impreza (outright) for a Filipino or other models depending on the country and equivalent value.
The problem is, they have to keep this up for days. Past winners have clocked in an amazing 75 – 81 hours (3 and ¼ days) and there's no indication that this year will be any different.
Naturally, participants were given 5-minute breaks every six hours (1pm, 7pm, 1am and 7am) to recharge with food, rest and to relieve themselves. In between, they had to fight off harsh weather conditions and the compounded effects of sleep deprivation, hunger and thirst, all while keeping their right palms firmly on the Subaru Imprezas.
A qualified paramedic team and ambulance was on standby throughout the Challenge to tend to any emergencies. Regular health checks on contestants were also conducted to ensure that they were well enough to continue.
A total of 400 finalists gathered last October 27 at Ngee Ann City's Civic Plaza. 310 were Singaporeans who called in to MediaCorp's radio stations to enter the first qualifying round. The final qualifying contestants were determined by a draw held on the same day. The remaining 90 were regional contestants (ten from Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam) who were selected after completing a series of endurance tests and games organised by Motor Image offices in the region. They were flown to Singapore on an all-expenses-paid trip to take part in the Asian face-off.
Besides vying for the grand prize, regional contestants would also compete for three additional titles and cash prizes; the title of Country Winner, Asian Winner and Country Team Winner.
To mark the 11th anniversary of the Challenge, an additional 11 seconds extended the evening break to allow contestants to utilise the precious seconds to help them push further in their attempt to win the top prize. In addition, the last 11 standing contestants were awarded a "Wild Card", where they could choose from a list of items such as a drink or an extra break.
Once the clock struck 1pm on the 27th, all contestants were already at their positions on the cars. With much of the field being repeat contestants, it took a while to thin out the crowd. Honed strategies were clearly in play as some participants made methodically efficient use of their breaks.
By the first day, the field had been wittled down to 3/4. By the 2nd day, only half remained. Alternating heat and afternoon rain showers helped the remaining steadfast contestants make it through the second day. Participants who had dropped out earlier and supporters came back in full force to cheer their countrymen on. Even last year's winner, Chong Kait Chi, a 42-year-old Singaporean who checked in 75 hours and 36 minutes, returned to cheer on the remaining Filipinos, being married to a Filipina.
"It takes a bit of team work," he says. "They have to stay in the challenge, stick together and motivate each other."
By dawn of the 3rd day, only some 50 participants remained. All of the contestants of the Philippine team had already been eliminated despite a very strong showing last year.
At the 1pm break, 10 contestants remained in the contest. From there, contestants began to drop out in rapid succession. At around 2:30pm, contestants from the regional teams and Singapore were neck and neck with four on each side vying to win the top prize of a Subaru car. By afternoon of the 3rd day, just 11 remained, scattered about the now mostly empty cars. By dusk, just the persistent final three were left standing.
The last-standing regional contestant, Samach Tepsen from Thailand walked away with SGD5,000 in cash and the title of Asian Winner. The triumphant Thai held up a picture of their King as he walked away from the staging area. He was also the second runner-up with a time of 76 hours 8 minutes.
The Country Team Winner title (with a cash prize of SGD10,000) was awarded to the Vietnam team who achieved the longest combined standing time of 761 hours 24 minutes (the total time of all 10 representatives from the same country).
Runner up, Mr G Jaishanker received a SGD5,000 cash prize. The 47-year-old catering officer gave an extremely tough fight despite being a first-time participant in the challenge. He promised to return next year.
This allowed 42-year-old Singaporean Gan Yu Shen Tholmas to take top honors after a grueling 78 hours 30 minutes face-off, clocking the second longest winning time in the 11 years of the Challenge. The three-time participant, Mr Gan, was a direct entry contestant who was selected from an online competition organized by Motor Image on the 'I Love Subaru' Facebook fan page.
Gan had to be rolled back in a wheelchair to receive the coveted prize.
"I am totally amazed at the resilience of the contestants. They really did dig incredibly deep to stay the distance, " said Mr Glenn Tan, Executive Director, Tan Chong International, parent company of Motor Image Subaru.
A break in the fanfare allowed me to interview Alex Neblasca, Jr., last year's 3rd placer, 4-time participant and the country's top seed had opted out owing to aching shins.
"Everything can be trained," said Alex in Filipino. "But there's a great deal of luck involved; luck with the marshal, position and condition of the mind and body."
"Before the event, up to two months, I trained by jogging, dieting, taking vitamins, practicing sleep deprivation and keeping my hand in place."
"Support is a very big factor. You're very sleepy, tired and once you see them cheer for you, you're alive once again. It's only until there are a few of you that you start to become competitors."
Nevertheless, this won't be Alex's last attempt, nor will it for much of the Philippine team. "We don't want to stop until we've won it."