If you’re a fan of sport in any of its many forms, you are not necessarily a fan of motorsport. Loud and repetitive to some, the essential qualities that keep fans of burning rubber around to see the checkered finish flag are drawn from precision and reflex. The science of engineering means that each division and level plays by its own rules, regulated by engine calibrations and chassis-sizes and materials that in the end demand that a dominant performance be measured in fractions of a second.
The Zhuhai International Circuit (ZIC) began with high hopes, and expectations to make the city, which lies on the border to Macau, a center piece of a sport wildly popular throughout much of Asia. Back in 1993, a track was cordoned off from city streets for the project’s first few races. Then Malaysian investors provided management and financing, partnering with China, who provided land to build a track to host one of the world’s premier racing competitions.
Formula One Racing is considered by many to be dialed in permanently at the zenith of four-wheeled racing. However, the ZIC was built to meet FIA Grade Two standards, a step below requirements, and setbacks and the Asian financial crisis of that decade caused track officials to give up on the dream, and the track’s general Manger Stewart Tan, credited with being vital in the formation of China’s first race track, left in 1999.
“I think the situation of the time in the Guangdong area, I think we could not succeed to get the Formula One in Zhuhai because at that time the development here in Zhuhai was not mature,” said Tan.
Six years later, the tide returned. The difference in that short amount of time was the number of cars on the roads. As the country found budget space for a new car, so, too, did the marketing departments, which cleared room for sponsorships, and in 2005 Tan was asked back to the ZIC.
Since the track’s second chance at glory, strategies have changed. They are little more realistic. And it is fulfilling the dreams of local and international grease monkeys, creating a scene for both drivers and fans. People are showing up for the pageantry and curiosity, but some are leaving as fans of motorsport.
“All these stands will be full. There’s live TV for all the races, but five years ago these stands might be half full; they might be empty. There was no promotion,” said Pete Olson, instructor and marketing manager for PS Racing, one of the almost 40 teams headquartered at ZIC.
Olson believes the attention focused on the local market has brought some excitement to the area. There is no doubt that, with the roaring of motors, the smells of burning rubber and the taste of a quality food court, the track is a tickler of the senses.
Most popular among the crowds, according to Olson and Tan, is the Pan Delta Super Racing Festival. The series takes place on a weekend in March, June and September, with an average of around 20,000 spectators for each event.
Tickets to the festivals are free, and incentives like raffle giveaways, bring in the crowds. To entertain them, the two day events supply local drivers in the a competition they call Circuit Hero, along with old crowd favorites of drifting and stunt-biking intertwined with the weekends’ high-level headliners, Superbikes and Renault Series formula cars, take the track.
The China Superbike Series and Asian Formula Renault entice international talent from around the world following their career aspirations and business opportunities. For some it is a place to get the driving time needed to compete
in the sport.
“Out of every month, there’s two weeks taken by companies for track days. And then the other couple of weeks will be open practice days, and that’s when we and a bunch of other teams are allowed to use the track, and then we’ll have driver training,” said Olson, who finished third in last year’s series.
He and his teammate Maxx Ebenal, one of the top performers in June’s festival, worked their way up through the Canada Bridgestone Racing Academy. “Yeah, we’re basically doing this for the driving, trying to make it big,” he said. We’re able to get a lot of track time because we don’t have to pay to go and test the cars for the customers. That’s part of our job.”
In Zhuhai, the driving teams make their ends meet putting “gentlemen drivers” behind the wheels and training them in the costly sport. “That would be more like 60 to 70 percent of the drivers for any of the teams here,” said Ebenal, a driver/instructor for PS Racing, as he described the businessmen hobbyists that come from the region, often from Hong Kong.
The ZIC, it seems, is propagated by potential. The markets for car owners and motorcycle enthusiasts are growing, and so too is their disposable income. The sponsors follow the market, and talent follows the sponsors. It’s not like football, which only requires a ball. “The guys who have the money are good because they get lots of practice,” said Ebenal.
Part Speed Demon
The languages spoken in the pits and press rooms at the Pan Delta come, in a general sense, from the North American team members, European sponsors and the young Asian men, and a few gals, fighting for their chance at glory during the Pan Delta. It is certainly an international venture, but the focus is on the local market and its heroes.
Local talent is often given more attention in the local press. Dan Kruger, rider of the No. 71 Kawasaki Superbike, speaks of a time that he won a race, but when he went to read about it in the local press, he learned that he had, evidently, come in second.
Though the racer, who says competitors have to be part speed demon and part business man, doesn’t regret his rivalry with local favorite Huang Shizhao. “Racing is actually in a lull around the world. They’re pretty smart combining all of these things. That’s how you get the people,” said Kruger.
Getting the people, filling the seats and creating atmosphere are the prime objectives, whether it’s for the benefit of the represented brands or the growth of the riders and drivers.
“If it’s not Formula One or MotoGP—those are the two pinnacles of four-wheel and two-wheel racing—so forget about those for a second. All other racing is dead in the world,” he said. “So if you can come to china and get 30,000 people to watch you race, that’s pretty cool.”
If it is to catch on in China, they will need their local heroes to motivate the young crowds to care, with cash streams bringing the rest into the realm of possibility as locals learn to appreciate the sport.
“Racing is in a unique place right now; it’s more competitive than club racing, but it’s still not world class racing caliber. So, it’s kind of an awkward place, because you’ve got a lot of guys that want to get in racing and they come out here and they get intimidated because the fast guys go flying by them,” said Kruger.
What will come of the changes and growth at the track is uncertain, and Kruger has tales of growing pains, but he sees them as positive problems. “Because there are 40 guys on the starting grid. Go to any country around the world and it’s hard to get 40 guys to show up at the race. The global economy is just terrible. It’s a testament to how it’s going. “
Kruger spends four to five days a month in Zhuhai with his team, along with a schedule of races around Asia. “I haven’t been home in seven weeks I’m in Japan for testing and then back again,” he said. Fans in Japan are fanatics. Across the sea, Chinese audiences are still learning an appreciation of the sport.
“They’re not sure who’s who. They know me as Dan and they know [my rival] as Huang Shizhao. That’s basically all they know about the racing, that there is a crazy rivalry between a Chinese guy and a foreigner,” said Kruger.
Launch Their Bodies
ZIC is playing the name game. It lures audiences with celebrity racers from Hong Kong, and hopes that as people arrive, enjoy the food court and taking pictures with well-engineered machines and well-put-together models, they are learning about the sport.
Motorsport, remember, is not for the faint of heart. The wrecks build much of the excitement for fans. Kruger believes that the ZIC track is pretty safe. It has plenty of space along the way for run-off and air fencing. He also thinks they have done a good job preparing gravel traps to slow racers when they overrun a corner.
And though this is all true, he does have some concerns. “It can be more dangerous to race here,” he said. To qualify for the races requires a fast lap and Kruger feels that the track would be safer if the events were split into further divisions keeping the faster riders together and separating the less experienced riders rather than putting them all on the track together. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
“We’ve managed to get them to split up the qualifying into half and half,” Kruger said. It was an easy effort, he explained, because management understood, as Kruger put it, “If they have one death, let alone two, they’ll stop [the races] for sure.”
The issue is less a consideration of safety, though it is always on the racers minds, they discuss these issues in as practical manner as is possible when dealing with the men and women mad enough to launch their bodies through straightaways and around hairpin turns. The drivers and riders and the ZIC all want to be able to clock their best times on the track. And if they have to avoid slower cars or bikes, their times will suffer.
But that does not mean they are holding back in Zhuhai. At the Isle of Man, a race on a small island in the Irish Sea considered the most dangerous in the world due to narrow lanes that twist around stone walls, Kruger, who lost a team mate in the race this year, says that survival instincts lowers his aggressiveness by 10 percent below maximum. Another example Kruger cites for lowered aggression is the Sazuka 8 Hours, a closed circuit eight hour team race with switching riders every hour. “There are 35 team members and US$100,000 budget for the race, so for me to fly in and do two laps and crash the bike and get on a plane and fly home,” he said. “You’ve got to let self preservation and that 10 percent kick in there a bit.”
The difference between these events and the race festival is considerable, but driving against lesser competitors at a level that demands a strong performance at every race if the driver wants to move up to F1 or MotoGP, leaves no room for failure. “An event like this—like Zhuhai—you’re 110 percent. You still don’t want to crash, but you’ve always got to be prepared. You’ve got be a little bit over the limit. You let it all hang out,” Kruger said.