Not many people know that there is another motor racing circuit of international standard in Malaysia. It is located in Pasir Gudang, Johor.
The Johor Circuit was built in 1986 by Johor Corporation as a means to promote motorsports in the state. In 1990, just after four years after it was built, the circuit was upgraded to comply to the strict FIM World GP specifications. Among the improvements made were lengthening of the track from 3.1 km to 3.86 km, introduction of new bends, reconstruction of run-off areas at some corners and improvement to the pit facilities. The track now has 12 turns or corners.
I was attached to the Engineering Department at Pasir Gudang at the time and hence became directly involved in the upgrading works. Our department was responsible for the construction of the track extension and supervision of the pit improvement works. The earthworks were carried out using departmental machinery and we worked round the clock to meet the tight schedule. The first race to be held upon completion of the upgrading works was the Johor International Formula 3 grand prix.
We managed to complete our portion of the works on time and I was proud of our in-house construction team. The completed track has to undergo an independent inspection before it can be certified to world standards.
One afternoon, I was at the track with two colleagues to check up on last minute preparations prior to the independent inspection. We completed our tasks earlier than expected and were taking a break sitting at the grandstand area while viewing the quiet and empty circuit. The tracks have been re-surfaced and the overall view was quite impressive.
Out of the blue, my colleague named Ismail remarked, "What a nice track and what a nice day..."
"Yeah," I said.
Ismail turned to look at me and asked, "You want to race?"
"You're kidding, right?" I replied. I looked at Ismail's face and saw that he was not.
And so I said, "Okay, let's race!"
It was a spur of the moment decision but it did cross my mind that we would never get the chance to take our cars for a spin once the track is formally opened. I had previously driven around the circuit before but those drives were more to inspect the progress of construction works by my staff. Now that the track has been fully re-surfaced, I'm itching to try out a spin at racing speed.
Ismail and I scanned the premises to make sure the circuit management staff were not around before we quietly sneaked in our cars onto the track. What we were about to do was something that was definitely against the rules. But hey... nothing ventured, nothing gained. We decided that the race shall be over 2 laps. Hopefully we can sneak out after those two laps without getting caught. Our other colleague named Samad declined to ride with either of us and so acted as the starter to flag us off. To show that he was serious about the race, Ismail even put on a motorcycle helmet.
I was driving a Mazda 323 Hatchback at the time. It has a 1.5 litre engine with manual transmission and was my first car. It was maroon in colour and had a rubber spoiler attached at the rear. Not a bad-looking car.
Ismail's car was a 1,000 cc Daihatsu Charade, the pre-cursor of our Perodua Kancil. To balance the mismatch in engine power, I agreed to take on a handicap by starting two grid positions behind him. I was confident that I could catch up by the end of the first lap.
How wrong I was! As soon as Samad flagged us off, Ismail's Charade took off at lightning speed. I gave chase with all my might. The Mazda's engine revved to the danger levels in a bid to squeeze every bit acceleration that it can deliver. When I reached the corners, I braked as late I dared and shifted gears downwards and upwards in near frenzy as the tyres screeched in mercy. It was constant gear-shifting between the 2nd and 3rd gears throughout. There was hardly any time to switch to 4th gear except for the long back straight.
Images of a Mazda 323 Hatchback and a Daihatsu Charade, mid-1980's model
As we reached the end of the first lap, I was nowhere near overtaking the Charade. We crossed the start/finish line on the first lap with me still 2 car lengths behind Ismail. Ini tak boleh jadi ni, I said to myself.
I floored the accelerator and coaxed my car to give its all. In a bid to make up the gap, I braked even later, causing the tyres to screech even louder. As we reached the last turn on the 2nd lap, I was side-by-side with the Daihatsu. I took the outside line, made a smooth gear change and stepped hard on the accelerator as we exited the last corner. I overtook my friend just as we crossed the finish line. The rush of adrenaline was indescribable!
Suddenly, I saw a man standing in the middle of the track with both arms spread out wide... an obvious signal for us to stop. It was Harvey Yap, the Track Manager. Crap, I thought... we're gonna be toast!
As we brought our cars to a stop, we heard Harvey yell, "Are you guys CRAZY! You want to kill yourselves?!!!"
Ismail quickly got out of his car, took off his helmet and approached Harvey. "Very sorry, Harvey. Very sorry," he pleaded profusely. We were like begging Harvey for our lives at that moment.
Mr. Yap, a retired race car driver, gave us a severe tongue-lashing but quickly cooled down. He let us off with a final reminder, "Next time, if you want to race, you let me know first! I'll show you how to do it properly."
We thanked Harvey for the let-off. He kept his word by not reporting our crazy escapade to our bosses.
And to this day, not many people know that the very first race on the upgraded Johor Circuit was run by two amateurs who, at that time, do not know the meaning of the word `insane'.