When I was younger, all I aspired to be was a racer. I could say I was one of the lucky few to be able to live it out in a small way. I was fortunate enough to have had some initial training in the form of go-karting but reality quickly set in that racing professionally was an unattainable dream as the costs were just too high to justify.
Little did I know that fate would swing my way decades later. I was to hop back in a go-kart and drive competitively again in a 12-hour endurance race.
So, how did that come about?
It was a happy chance that our publication was invited to the inaugural race at the brand spanking new Pampanga International Raceway being owned and operated by CityKart. That also meant a slot for us to race at the inaugural 12-hour endurance race.
Our Editor-in-Chief offered me a spot on the team, and I was more than happy to oblige. I knew I was going to be part of a very capable team as our internal editors are not only wordsmiths but know their way around a racetrack as well. We were to field a team of 6 racers evenly distributing the 12 hours into 2-hour stints each, it sounded easy enough to do especially for me being a novice at best, and just to spice things up a little bit we found out our race would be from 10 pm-10 am giving us the full night race feel.
The closer we got to race day though, a few of our drivers suddenly had obligations to attend to. That left us with fewer people behind the wheel to put together what could only be described as a “ragtag” team. The night before the race, as I tried to get some much-needed sleep, I was contemplating the problems that usually plague teams during endurance races. Needless to say, I barely got any shut-eye that night.
The next day, we headed to the track, which was situated right off the Porac Exit of the SCTEX (Subic bound) in an area under development for a future township community (think Nuvali 10 years ago). When we got there, we were greeted by the sound of go-karts screaming and screeching by, making our way to the pitlane for the opening ceremony. We got a glimpse of the track layout and it consisted of long sweeping turns and technical hairpins. I will admit that my nerves started to build up. After all, it's been years since I drove a go-kart.
We slowly realized that while we were racing go-karts at some flat out segments of the track we’d be reaching speeds as high as 85kph, mind you that doesn’t sound so fast but considering the fact we had no seatbelts and only had helmets for protection, it was going to be one hell of an experience.
After a few hours of rest, we went to the briefing and started our practice runs. My first run had confirmed all my suspicions: this race was going to be no walk in the park. From long sweeping turns to technical corners, the track demanded respect. Not to mention the fact that I’d be racing with some of the fiercest competition there is, meaning I had to take into account that there would be faster racers trying to pass me all throughout the race.
The practice session was followed by Qualifying and the quickest driver in our team was able to clock in a time that rendered us 7th on the starting grid. The race was to have a Le Mans start, which meant drivers would have to run to their karts once the flag drops adding more intensity to the start.
By 11:15 pm, the flag dropped and off the 1st batch of drivers went. It was a struggle at first as our man was slow off the start and fell behind the pack. He did race up the grid, and by the time his 50-minute stint was up (Drivers were only allowed to drive 50 mins straight per stint) we were in the mid-pack. Soon after our 2nd driver had gotten going we were right in the thick of things with far more established and experienced teams. At this point, all the rest of the team had to do is maintain pace, overtake, and keep pushing. No pressure then, until I realized I was next to drive.
I set off well past 2 am, and the field had more or less spread out already as each team went their own way in terms of strategy. Our strategy? Don’t crash.
As I slowly got used to the track and the tires on the kart started to heat up, I began to push a little more by braking late into the corners and take more liberties with the racing line, our team had a whiteboard where we could write messages to our driver and flash them as we sped by the pit straight, and throughout my whole stint, they kept telling me to push. I kept going, trying to eke out milliseconds from every lap, and once my 1st stint was done I made my way to the pits for a driver change. I walked over to the live timing board and saw I had done my job; I didn’t gain any places but I sure didn’t lose any as well.
However, the toll of endurance racing started to creep in. Our team had done well in the beginning but one of our drivers had figured in an accident and was injured, rendering him incapable of continuing for us, meaning only one thing: more seat time for us remaining drivers.
Apart from the accidents, some of the go-karts started to experience breakdowns; some minor, others major. We were unfortunate enough to experience 2 major breakdowns that dropped us down the order. A climb back was a tall order for us also, as we started to feel the need for sleep catching up to the rest of us.
At least my final night stint did have a bright spot. Fueled by the adrenaline of losing one driver and dropping a few places, I gave it my all. I passed some people on track and clocked in my fastest time, which was just 2 seconds away from what the pros were averaging. After that though, I was completely exhausted and reeking of burnt fuel and rubber. I got some rest after, reassured that I had done enough to keep the team moving forward.
But as morning broke, the timing board showed we were lower down the order. Physically, we were exhausted, and the new karts were getting the rudest 'break-in' they could possibly get. If it wasn't the performance of the machine that was slowing down, it was man. You can be a fast driver, but you can never escape the effects of fatigue.
To catch up, the team had decided to field its fastest drivers (including me) in the hope that we’d climb a few places higher on the standings. Two drivers were set to run before me to give the team a fighting chance, hoping we'd capitalize on teams that were just “cruising” till the end and maybe catch them by surprise. Next thing I knew, it was my turn so I fueled myself once again with coffee and plopped into a barely running kart, setting off into the mid-morning sun.
They say it’s more challenging to run at night but I’d beg to differ. Halfway through my morning stint, the sun had started to pierce through my visor making cornering almost impossible. The air started to get warmer too, further accelerating fatigue. It was grueling, to say the least.
I had one more stint to go after that, which was the final drive to the checkered flag. I pledged myself to give it all knowing I had nothing to lose. I got it and set off one last time in pursuit of personal glory. The kart I had gotten for my last stint could barely make it off the line yet I drove it as hard as I could, nailing every corner flat out if need be. I was driving so fast that at one point I saw some rubber thread come off my front tire; only then did I decide to rein my pace in and settle down for the rest of the way.
At exactly 11:15 am, the race was declared over and I cruised past the start/finish straight. Finally, I could breathe properly again and, for the first time in 12 hours, my heartbeat returned to normal. I checked the timing board and our team had done enough to secure a 2nd place in the media class and 10th out of 13 teams overall. Cue the collective sigh of relief and the feeling that each and every one of us was a winner in our own way.
To say I was filled with emotion was an understatement, this may have been a small event for some but for me, this was one of my life’s greatest achievements. Having been able to compete with pros in a full-on endurance race is something not many people can say they've done, let alone complete.
By the end of the race, I had been pushed to physical and mental limits. Any person would understandably question me why I would subject myself to this kind of thing. The thing is, the joy you get out of racing isn't something I could easily put into words. Personally, I was glad I didn't let the team down, and we forged through despite the trials. You get more than just a trophy when you race, you win a lot of experience too.
For me, that's what makes it all worth it.