As I rode around Subic's airport towards the racetrack behind it, I heard the shrieking before I saw anything. Racebikes make a scream like nothing else, and once you get used to it, you start to really love it. It means lightweight bikes made of aluminum alloys and advanced composite materials ripping around corners ridden by men of steel balls grinding a knee into the pavement. Doing something that even car racers admit is frightening.
The event was the Filipino leg of the Marlboro FIM Asia Road Racing Championship, an international competition with riders from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, The Philippines, Japan, and even a Brit. This was the 5th round of six, with four classes and as an added bonus the final round of the Filipino Open Superbike series. Only the 125cc Underbone class had a leader with a significant points advantage, so in every other class a win was extremely important. Mind you, each rider is racing not just for himself, but his team, and even his country. This kind of tension as you might expect made for some excellent racing.
During Friday practice and Saturday Qualifying, I picked out a rider I thought was super smooth, newcomer Youichi Nakajima riding for team Colin Marshall racing of Thailand. He rode the way I want to ride, brutal on the brakes, fluid through the corners, and out doing power wheelies, eyes all the while focusing far, far down the track to the next corner. Teammate Matthew Patterson was extremely consistent, which is what makes for fast lap times (and easy photography for me). Of course, he is a crash or win kind of guy when practice is over and it's racetime. the Malaysian Petronas Sprinta bikes sounded the best, actually, rising a note higher than any other bikes right before redline, and their top rider, Kuan Meng Heng with his lurid power slides was everyone's favorite bet for the race. The big budget team of course is Marlboro Team Roberts Asia, starring incoming points leader Chow Yan Kit, hot rookie Roy Arianto, and the ever cool iceman, Wazi Abdul Hamid.
The team Roberts machines bristled with technology, fully computer interfaced data sensors, and fine tuning as far as the rather strict rules allow. The 250 and 150 classes are based very closely on the streetbikes available to the public. This is not the case for the 110c and 125cc "underbone" classes. Underbone, by the way is a euphemism for the scooter-like frames which look more like scooter frames than motorcycle frames, meaning that you can touch your knees together while riding one. I honestly have no idea how anyone can roadrace a motorcycle that doesn't have a big gas tank in the middle to hang your knee, off, but they somehow do it.
These classes allow almost unlimited engine modifications, so they are built to such a high state of tune that they get rebuilt, get this, after every single practice. And maybe I can't figure out how the riders get their butts to sick to the seat without a gas tank in the corners, but the riders slam them hard into corners, often without even braking first for successive corners. Crazy people, and the lap times were impressive - the 1:30 lap times put in by dominant underbone rider Niphon Saengsawang of Thailand would put him in the top ten of the 250 class, and mid pack in the open Superbike classes.
Race day was a beautiful sunny day that thankfully got a tiny bit hazy in the afternoon when people were starting to dry out. The vast majority of spectators showed up on motorcycles, and the parking lot was a show in itself. Marlboro had a large squad of umbrella girls, and I noticed with amusement a bit of posturing between them and the Castrol girls. The teams also brought a few of their own umbrella girls, which makes me curious about visiting Indonesia all of a sudden. Castrol sponsored almost every single team, by the way, and the only thing missing for me was the smell of old fashioned bean oil. you see, the name Castrol comes from the Castor beans they used to squeeze to make two stroke oil, and a whiff of the smell makes old timers wax poetic.
The Underbone race was utterly dominated by Saengsawang, and made for brilliant spectating, as after him the riders were almost all paired off into little dogfights. There were a lot of spills, and sadly the first major spill was local teenager Bernardo Mendoza, who I was hoping would be noticed by Team Marlboro. At Batangas he's amazing in the rain, and his bike was nowhere near the level of modification of the foreign riders. Five crashes later on the final lap, our other rider, Jun Jun San Andres crashed hard on the last corner of the last lap. But the crowd went wild when he got up and limped the bike across the finish line. The 110 podium had a rider each from Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. you know, young people find their own ways to blend together like sports and music to which perhaps older generations should pay more attention.
The 150 race saw Direk Archawong of Malaysian Hong Leon Yamaha take an early lead that he maintained to the end. The big action was the battle for second as Krismas Vilairoj caught up with Yasir Said and finally passed him in the infield section which delighted the spectators on the fifth lap. The back section of Subic has some big long boring straights that are mostly about horsepower, but different things happened back there, and every time Direk on his #1 bike rolled around, the audience went crazy looking for the 2nd place battle. The pair passed and re-passed several times until the final lap. Krismas took a desperate crazy inside line pass on the final turn. They bumped and Said went flying.
The local Open Superbike class is basically unlimited, which means mostly almost new 750 and 900 cc bikes with, oh, about an average of P100,000 in modifications. The glaring exception is Martin Tancinco, who rides a basically stock Honda BDR600f3, and usually comes in top five. NAMMSA, the organizing body for these races, decided at the last minute to remove the final race of the series from Batangas, and hold it at Subic instead. They also apparently decided to drop the worst two scores from the season's totals when determining the series champion. This no doubt is a holdover from the days when NAMMSA's only job was organizing motocross races, which are held all over the country. Without the points drop, Raffy Bichara had 156 points, followed by Rod Chua with 141 points, Toti Alberto with 138 points, and JD Andrews with 127 points. With the points drop, thing narrowed down a lot, with Raffy coming down to 140 points, Rod to 136, and Toti and JD staying the same. The point spread between the top three went from 18 points to 4 points. First place gets 15 points, second 12, third 10, and well, whoever won this race might well win the series, depending on the order of who followed.
JD Andrews got the best start, followed by Alberto and Bichara, but Toti passed JD on the back straight and slowly stretched out that lead, although towards the end of the race that JD and Raffy were starting to close in. The finishing order was Alberto on a Suzuki GSXR, Andrews on a YZF750, Bichara on a Honda CBR900RR, Tancinco, and Chua on a Kawasaki ZX-7. Chua by the way won almost every wet race during the season and did pretty damn well considering the injury he sustained in a mid season practice crash. But Toti took the season championship. Bichara no doubt spent some time poring over the rulebook after the race, since if the two legs were not dropped he would have won the championship by a single point.
But the big show of the day was the 250cc race. Jolet Jao had already cinched the local championship by winning almost every single race at Batangas, which includes all the four stroke riders since they race on a mixed field. He and brother Jonathan are sponsored by Castrol Philippines and Jolet's Honda is supplied by Cyclemart of Makati. But he had a huge equipment disadvantage with the international riders, whose bikes, for instance, are over 10 kg's lighter and get the benefit of international level tuning. The other local rider was Rey Relativo on his basically brand new Suzuki RGV streetbike. He still had street gearing, which alone made finishing in the top ten a remote possibility, but in my book he won from the start, when Dunlop, who sponsors the series, gave him, and all the 250 riders, 2 sets of tires. Not only that, but he got tons of advice from the Hi-Rev Suzuki racers from Malaysia, particularly from the infamous "Mega."
15 racers were on the starting grid, and Nakajima took the early lead. In the casual betting before the race, everyone had laughed when I said I thought he might win, but there at his heels was series leader Chow Yan Kit, who just couldn't seem to pass. But heartbreak was his when his bike died on the 10th lap when a battery terminal worked loose. However, teammate Matt Patterson started making faster and faster laps until he was less than a second behind Kit. If the race had been a lap or two longer he might have won, but at the end of the 18th lap, the race was Kit's. Kuan Meng Heng was a distant third, and fourth was Hi-Rev Suzuki rider Takanori Okada, who had a brilliant ride after a terrible start, entering the first turn almost last. Marlboro Roberts teammates Wazi and Roy came in next.
Jolet Jao was visibly down on power compared to all the other bikes, looking like he was almost going backwards on the straights, but he managed a solid 8th place. In my opinion a tenth would have been respectable. Some of the other riders told me that with better equipment he belonged on the whole international series, with his smooth but aggressive style.
The whole thing is going to be televised soon on Star Sports, but of course when is anyone's guess, since apparently the only way to get accurate program listings from them is to subscribe to their fax service, something of an anachronism in this day and age of the internet. But I'm glad they show motorcycle racing, and in fact Star's Grand Prix and Superbike coverage are a deciding factor in the endless question of life here vs. the states. And I'm thankful that Marlboro was able to bring in air fences for the race, which make racing bikes at their track possible. The concrete walls aren't too nice on racing cars, either, but without the air fences some of the crashes could have killed or badly injured the riders. Hey, Mr, "Flash" Gordon, why don't you buy some air fencing? Paint slogans on them and I'll vote for you!