Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Racing's Asian Tiger

Malaysian Gets Noticed on Auto Circuits

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
NURBURGRING, Germany - The jagged roar of race-car engines circled the paddock, while Alex Yoong, Malaysia's greatest driver, sat dejected in his team's motor home.

For the second race in a row, in the Formula 3000 race before the European Grand Prix on Sept. 26, Yoong was pushed off the track by the same rival driver. He was lucky this time, however, for in Spa, Belgium, in August, his car went off at 260 kilometers per hour (160 mph) and he was knocked unconscious for nearly 20 minutes.

''They thought I had a broken elbow, broken knee, broken ribs,'' Yoong said. ''My body was contorted and apparently I was screaming like a stuck pig.''

He got away with only an injured ligament in his knee, but while medical opinion differs on the severity, Yoong said it doesn't affect his driving.

At the time, the worst was feared. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, wished him a quick recovery. As one of only three Southeast Asian drivers with Formula One potential racing in Europe, to lose him would be a blow to a region that is both struggling to produce drivers and about to host its first Grand Prix, in Malaysia, on Oct. 17.

While the next generation of Malaysian drivers must still rise from go-carts up through a shaky motor-racing hierarchy, Yoong, 23, came to racing in a privileged manner. His father, Hanifah Yoong, raced sedan cars in the 1970s. He was a director of the Shah Alam circuit near Kuala Lumpur, then the country's leading track, where he introduced international motorcycle racing.

His father was born in Malaysia of Chinese parents, and his mother is a British expatriate. His sister is a top water skier, and Yoong, too, skied in competitions, rising as high as the top five in Asia.

At 15, he began racing Proton sedan cars, and won two of five races his first year. The next step was Formula Asia, a single-seat open-wheel series that raced in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and China. Several podium finishes were followed by victory in the last race, in Zuhai, China. The next year he won six of the 14 races and the Malaysian championship, but he missed the international title by two points to a British driver.

He was noticed by Paul Stewart, the son of Jackie Stewart, a three-time Formula One world champion. Yoong dropped both school and water-skiing, and came to Europe and tested Stewart's Vauxhall series car, but then raced in Formula Renault.

Last year Yoong finished frequently in the top six in British Formula 3, and drove in the legendary Macau race previously won by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher along with only 30 of the world's 130 to 150 Formula 3 drivers.

''Macau is the most daunting circuit around,'' he said. ''It's challenging, it's long, it's dangerous, and it's a heck of a lot of fun.''

Yoong finished ninth the best result ever by a Southeast Asian but said he could have done better if not for financial problems. The Asian economic downturn cost him his sponsors, and his father started pouring in the family's money until they were deeply in debt.

Finally this year the Malaysian government and other local sponsors provided bank loan assistance and insurance. By then, however, he only had time for part of both the Formula 3 and the Formula 3000 seasons. He now hopes that the Malaysian Grand Prix will help him.

''Once this Grand Prix comes and they see how exciting it can be and the possibilities for sponsorship,'' he said, ''it will open up more doors for me.''

For Japanese drivers in Formula One, sponsorship has rarely been as much of a problem as the cultural and language barriers. Yoong feels Malaysians have an advantage, since English is widely used there. But cultural barriers still exist.

''When I first came to Europe,'' he said, ''I had a really Asian way of thinking. 'Yes' means 'yes' in a different way in Asia and in Europe. 'No' means 'maybe yes' in Malaysia. 'No' is 'no' here. But I understood what was going on because of my English side, my mom.''

But he sees himself first as a Malaysian, then part Chinese and part English. ''I see myself exactly as the ratios dictate,'' he said.

''There's only half-a-Chinese who has ever raced in this world competitively, and that's me,'' Yoong said.

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