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“That car we just passed on the shoulder back there? That was a police car.”
I look back and sure enough, Bobby’s right. It’s a Proton Wira, which is an old Mitsubishi Lancer built right here in Malaysia, by a state-owned corporation, to a standard kindly described as unambitious. There’s a policeman driving it. With the policeman hat and everything. He looks completely unconcerned that he’s just been passed by a bright-yellow Renault hatchback doing more than twice the speed limit.
On the shoulder.
“It’s all right,” Bobby laughs. Strictly speaking, his name isn’t Bobby, but it’s the name he uses because his real name, which is Mandarin, isn’t easy for English- or Malay-speaking people to say. So he’s Bobby. Like almost half of the people living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, Bobby is of Chinese background. At nearly six feet tall, handsome and self-assured, he speaks perfect English. He’d make a great American, I think. He certainly has a founding father’s share of disrespect for authority. “If you have an expensive car here, the cops generally leave you alone,” he says. “He couldn’t catch us anyway.”
In the time it takes Bobby to say those words, he’s made another high-speed shoulder pass, ducked across four lanes, split a gap between two 50-cc scooters, and shifted up into the fifth of our Renaultsport Mégane’s six forward gears.
“So, let me get this straight,” I say. “Because we’re driving a $25,000 car”
“But here,” Bobby reminds me, “it’s 240,000 ringgit.”
I can do that currency math in my head. I’ve been doing it for days now. That’s about $80,000.
“Okay. Because we’re driving an $80,000 car, and I still can’t understand why a $25,000 car is an $80,000 car here, but that’s okay, because we are driving an $80,000 car, we can go as fast as we want.”
Bobby’s nose crinkles as he considers what to say next. He’s a stickler for truth and accuracy; as we’ve bombed across Kuala Lumpur and the neighboring state of Selangor like Cannonball Run entrants, he’s spoken eloquently about the younger generation’s lack of respect for Confucian principles.
“It’s possible,” he allows, “that you could get pulled over. You’d have to pay the policeman. Maybe 100 ringgit. Or a little more.”
“So as long as I have 30 bucks on me, I’m free to violate any and all traffic rules.”
“Make sure you do, in fact, have it on you,” Bobby advises. “Your platinum American Express is not valid to a policeman.”
“Driving in Kuala Lumpur is a full-time job. No distractions, lest you wander six inches to the left and kill a father of six.”
A minor gap appears in traffic, Bobby grabs fourth, and the Mégane snarls ahead at triple-digit speed, blasting by a ratty old three-cylinder Perodua Nippa so hard that the tall, narrow city car sways in the wake of our passage. There is no penalty for this. The policeman is long gone. The locals expect that anyone insane enough to spend the price of a multifamily dwelling on a four-cylinder hatchback will be speeding with utter impunity. They are correct.
For a moment, I stare at the world around me, the incomprehensible symbols, the confusing billboards, the faces that are not like mine, blurred in the windows at this speed, a culture shock delivered with two paddles directly to my graceless heart.
“Are you sure,” I ask, “that I have to go home?”
Understand this about Malaysia: It’s not forever. The center’s unlikely to hold. Nominally, it’s a sort of federation of individual states, with sultans rotating in and out of power, and a democratically elected, parliamentary-style government in charge of handling the budget and foreign policy. The borders of the country were drawn up based on colonial spheres of influence, and in the 50 years since Malaysia became formally independent, they haven’t sat still.
I’ve come to compete at the Sepang Formula 1 circuit in a homegrown time-trial series called MegaLAP. The 3.4-mile track has only been open since 1999, but its massive sunshades and unusual layout have helped it stand out from the rest of F1′s Hermann Tilke-designed circuits. It was intended to be part of the Ecclestone circus, a place where the wealthiest Malaysians could pay dearly to see premier motorsport, and it has fulfilled that purpose. But that only accounts for a few weekends a year, so the track’s management opened it up for grassroots events.
MegaLAP is Malaysia’s answer to the SCCA-rivaling National Auto Sport Association; it’s a run-what-you-brung time-trial series that puts 1.3-liter Protons on track with mirror-wrapped Nissan GT-Rs. Rules are minimal and enforcement is through community agreement. Most important, MegaLAP is a multicultural event. Many of the cars proudly display a sticker that says “We are RACERS … not RACIST.”
My original plans to visit Malaysia and compete at Sepang were unceremoniously terminated by the decision of the country’s prime minister to dissolve its parliament on April 3, 2013. This meant that there would be a general election on May 5. Which meant that the racing would be canceled. “Why are we canceling a race due to an election?” I asked Mohamed Azman, my prospective teammate and owner of the Proton Satria 1.3a state-built version of an old Mitsubishithat I’d be running. “Do they need the racetrack for voting booths or something?”
“Oh no,” Azman laughed. “They’ll lock the track down and guard it with security personnel. There could be a lot of violence. Nobody will do anything on that day they don’t have to. We’ll move the event. It’s safest.”
The nerve of the prime minister! If President Obama moved the date for NASCAR’s Bristol night race, Congress would probably impeach him. But this is not America. Nor were the concerns about violence misplaced. An IED was set off during the campaigning. Hundreds of small but violent incidents occurred in the month between the announcement and the election. Yet it could be worse. Every Malaysian knows the story of the 1969 race riots, in which as many as 600 people, mostly ethnic Chinese, were killed at the hands of Malays. The military stepped in to implement emergency measures, many of which have never been relaxed.
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: The country is half ethnic Malay and one-quarter ethnic Chinese, and the two groups don’t get along. When the British called time on their colonial aspirations, they left the Malays in power, and that’s been the case ever since. The Malays resent the Chinese for taking over a lot of the economic infrastructure. The Chinese think the Malays are spoiled by government preferences. It’s not a comfortable situation, and traveling through the country, it’s rare to see much interaction between the two groups.
Which makes what’s happening at Sepang even more special. MegaLAP is a place where you can find Malays, Chinese, and the occasional Indian immigrant oohing and aahing over an S15 Nissan Silvia or laughing about an on-track mishap. There is a conscious, considered decision to put ethnic and political differences aside for the sake of motorsport. To an American raised on a steady diet of ironic cable commentary and hipper-than-thou detachment, it’s frankly bewildering to hear grown men speak plainly about how important it is to keep a time-trial free of external politics.
They’re serious. Sepang is seen as holy ground. You leave politics and religion at the door; this is the church of speed, and everyone prays the same way.
At least three languages are spoken at MegaLAPMalay, Standard Chinese, and Englishbut the hopes and desires of the racers are universal. As far as the competitors of MegaLAP are concerned, once you’re in pit lane, there’s no such thing as race.
Until, of course, the long-haired, bearded, six-foot-two white guy shows up.
When they make the inevitable movie about my journey to Malaysia, the critics will complain about the “stereotypically multicultural” team of three men who orchestrated the whole thing on my behalf. I won’t blame these critics, because I was there and it seemed a tad improbable. It started with E Way Ang (Bobby), who hired me to write for his Wheels Weekly tabloid years ago and who told me I should come to Malaysia the minute I had the chance. Through Wheels Weekly, I met Mohamed Azman, a MegaLAP champion who is both ethnically Malay and a practicing Muslim, and Nicholas Gomez, a descendant of Indian and Portuguese settlers who runs Malaysian PR and marketing for Peugeot.
The script called for me to fly to Singapore, where Bobby and I would spend a few days driving a variety of French cars and meeting the local franchisees. From there, we would drive to Kuala Lumpur, where I would be handed over to Azman for a whirlwind tour of local tuner shops and the MegaLAP event itself. With that handled, I’d then meet up with Gomez to drive some forbidden fruit, check out the bar scene, and meet a few representatives of the local talent.
I warmed up for the trip by spending two days coaching drivers at Sebring in central Florida. From there, I flew 12,000 miles over the course of 25 hours to meet Bobby at the arrivals gate of Singapore Changi Airport. It was then that I realized something that hadn’t occurred to me prior to squeezing into a center seat of a United triple-seven: As a former British colony, Malaysia has right-hand-drive cars. This meant that, five days after my arrival, I’d be competing on an unknown track on the wrong side of the cockpit.
It would be best to approach this carefully. I’d need to prepare, observe traffic as a passenger for a while, and eventually transition into driving a right-hand-drive car in light traffic. Anything else would be ridiculous. Singapore, remember, is a place where you can be arrested for chewing gum and where the airport has multiple signs, even in the bathroom, reminding you that certain nonviolent offenses are punishable by death.
“Give me that card-key-wallet thing,” I told Bobby, “so I can spank this thing around the city a little.”
“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” he asked. There was a small amount of terror in his eyes. It’s one thing to invite some caveman-looking fellow from the other hemisphere to your country; it’s another to have him show up demanding immediate access to a 240,000-ringgit press car and, due to extended periods of coach-class seating, looking twice as crazy as you expected.
“I’m fine. Let’s go,” I replied. “Okay, it’s not impossible to shift with my left hand. After all, my feet still do the same things. This seems to be going well HOLY S*** THAT IDIOT IS DRIVING STRAIGHT AT US.”
“You are in the right lane,” Bobby replied.
“Of course I’m in the right lane.”
“You should be in the left lane.”
After that, it was easy. Only twice did I accidentally drive the wrong way down a six-lane arterial road. Bobby’s patience was tremendous.
“Hey, look, this is one of the roads from the Singapore F1 night-race track,” I said. “Go stand in the middle of the road and I’ll drive by you real fast like I’m Alonso in the Renault.”
“This is not done in Singapore,” Bobby protested. “The police may become involved.”
“They can only cane one of us,” I told him, “and I’ll be in the car.”
This was meant to convey that the fault would be mine, but I was secretly envisioning leading the police on a chase to the Singapore border, where they would have to stop like Buford T. Justice while I blasted into Malaysia. Later, when Bobby and I were enduring a two-hour customs wait on the way out of the city-state, I realized how wrong I was.
By then, however, we were in Malaysia, land of a million scooters. I cannot adequately explain how traffic works in Kuala Lumpur, but here’s an attempt: It is to Manhattan as Manhattan is to my current hometown of Powell, Ohio. All available space is filled at all times. If the road is three lanes wide, there will be four cars abreast and 10 scooters filtering through the mess. The scooters have absolute power in Malaysia. If you block them, your mirrors will be bashed off. If you don’t move over far enough, they’ll scrape you going by.
“It would be best to approach this carefully. Singapore is a place where you can be arrested for chewing gum.”
They’re bullies. But after a thousand injuries to your pride and the occasional insult to your paint job, you look into their faces, past the cheap helmets and the bandannas worn to keep the worst of the air out of their mouths, and you see that they are the working poor, the young parents, the people just hanging on in a society that has levels of poverty unknown to Americans. Thousands die on the roads every year, often in horrifying fashion. By the end of my first week in the country, I’m looking out for them in traffic, making a hole for the man with his groceries or the woman in hijab with a child. Although I have a data connection on my borrowed smartphone, I’m never tempted to check my email. Driving in Kuala Lumpur is a full-time job. No distractions, lest you wander six inches to the left and kill a father of six trying to earn a day’s worth of food making T-shirts for Wal-Mart.
My hotel in the city was carefully chosen by Bobby to represent “the real Kuala Lumpur.” It was in the bustling and slightly terrifying Bukit Bintang section of downtown. The sheets were thin and there was lipstick and blood on the headboard. For a single nightmare moment during my first night, I thought I saw a monstrous jungle centipede crawl from behind the dresser, but it was just two roaches traveling in a straight line. I made a resolution to spend as little time in the room as possible.
Azman and I took a gorgeous Peugeot 508 GT wagon, courtesy of Mr. Gomez, to a sort of tuner village on the outskirts of town. I was expecting a few shops here and there, like what you’d get in Los Angeles, but I was flabbergasted. Street after street was lined with various businesses, from the gleaming, multistory GT-R tuner with more than 10 Godzillas on the showroom floor, to an undeniable chop shop with disreputable-looking fellows lining up Honda K20 red-top engines for packing and shipment. We picked up a new driver’s seat from an upholsterer; Azman, whose eye for detail would shame Adrian Newey, wanted his racing seat to match the color scheme of his sponsor stickers. We then visited other shops, where I saw everything from a World Challenge-spec Mazda 3 to a brown Rolls-Royce Silver Spur undergoing restoration.
Everywhere I looked, there were guys with grease up to their elbows. I pitched in and helped Azman’s guy balance a wheel that was giving him trouble. He spoke Chinese, Azman spoke Malay, I was speaking English, and the machine was so old that I remember seeing one like it being replaced when I worked for David Hobbs BMW in 1989. Somehow we got the wheel to balance correctly, then rolled it out in the sun to engage in some mutual admiration.
The anticipation was rising with each passing day. I’d come a long way to run in that time trial. Finally, race day arrived.
Bobby, Azman, and I attend the drivers’ meeting. I’ve driven the Satria all of a mile and a quarter on the street. In that distance, the little Proton ably demonstrated why Malaysia needs massive tariffs to protect its homegrown auto industry. Still, I like our chances: The other cars in the class are also 1.3-liter Satrias, and few of their owners know the car’s 4A-GE four-cylinder the way Azman does.
My week in Kuala Lumpur, walking the streets with everyone from Russian gangsters on holiday to Australian teenagers holding hands in front of the Petronas Towers, gave me the idea that I wouldn’t stand out at Sepang. I was wrong. Not only am I the only white guy in the place, I am the only one anyone could remember even attending such an event. I am gawked at constantly. It’s distracting, to put it mildly. Ever had a dream that you’re naked and everyone’s staring at you? Try being a supersize Caucasian walking around Sepang with your fly unzipped because you were preoccupied with packing your HANS device while dressing that morning. Living the dream.
Azman has hot-rodded our red Proton to within an inch of its life; it might be making 90 hp. The shift point is at 7500 rpm, and the racket it makes at that speed is extremely upsetting. Still, I want to win, and so does Azman. We register as a team and are given two sessions in which to run, one each. I’ll get 20 minutes to set a time on this unfamiliar track in this unfamiliar car. At three minutes a lap, with out- and in-laps included, that means five laps at speed, tops.
Under the concrete canopies, on the wide-open spaces of a modern F1 course, the Proton feels tiny, lost, powerless. MegaLAP is a street-tire series, and there’s almost no grip. I’m also used to racing much faster cars. Even the Neon ACR I run in NASA club racing at home has nearly twice the Proton’s power and R-compound tires.
Out on the track, every mistake I make costs me time. Twice my idiot left hand misses a shift, letting me zing the engine past 7500 rpm before I clutch it back in. A turbo Volvo wagon spins in front of me and I lose a lap. I miss three shifts the next time around before a chrome-vinyl-wrapped GT-R rockets past at twice my speed, forcing me to yield the line. Then I have to get around some slower traffic, which sounds ridiculous, but Azman’s Satria is actually one of the faster cars in our class, and I lose another lap.
Finally, I charge perfectly out of that famous final hairpin, ready to put it all together …
And the checkered flag waves, and I’m done.
“No big deal. I’ve only seen everyone from Schumacher to Vettel stand on Sepang’s podium. No reason to be anything other than perfectly calm.”
I’m convinced that I managed to finish dead last in our 13-car combined class. I made far too many mistakes. There are seconds, entire seconds, left on the table. Give me another session here. Another day. Another weekend, I could clean up. I know what I did wrong and I’m ready to try again. When they begin announcing the podium finishers, I’m packing my helmet and preparing to take photos of the trophy ceremony.
A guy with a name like “Ba-roo-eth” has earned second place in one of the classes. Must be a Malaysian. I wonder how that name is spelled. Better look at the printouts that are being handed around. Oh, that’s me.
Azman and I, as a team, managed to take second place. Unsurprisingly, his time was better than mine, but they were both between the winner and the car behind us, so the organizers decided to give us a collective second place.
Which meant it was time to go stand on the podium at Sepang International Circuit. No big deal. I mean, I’ve only seen everyone from Schumacher to Vettel stand there. No reason to be anything other than perfectly calm.
Naturally, when they hand us the trophy, I scream like the craziest white man anyone has ever seen. Having put aside differences written in blood for the purpose of racing, it doesn’t seem like a stretch for the crowds to cheer for me, too.
Azman can’t stop smiling. Not just because he’s taken a podium spot. He’s smiling because he knows that the winning car is actually a 1.5-liter. Everyone knows it, apparently. In an American series, the guy would have built the engine in secret and dreaded the day someone protested. In MegaLAP, the fellow with the 1.5 asked the other competitors for help building it. They were curious to see what it could do. And since they’re all friends, they were perfectly happy to let him run it at Sepang.
The 1.5 guy is ecstatic, because he won. Azman is thrilled, because he was the fastest 1.3-liter guy. The third-place finisher is amazed to be standing on the podium near the only American to ever appear at a MegaLAP. The crowd is riotous. There’s no champagne to spray or drink, because Malaysia is an Islamic nation. Everyone respects that.
There’s a sustained roar of applause from the couple hundred people below us in pit lane, like a concert crowd demanding an encore. I hoist the trophy over my head. Everything that could be strange and different, is. The heat is tangible, the sun in my face bright enough to burn. The track is a world away from the dreary midwestern road courses where I learned my craft. The people, the clothing, even the way they laugh and scream their encouragement. For a moment, I have trouble seeing. None of this seems real.
Too soon, the moment ends, and Azman gently pushes me off the podium before I can begin delivering a heartfelt speech.
The rest is a blur, honestly. I remember singing with a beautiful Chinese woman on stage at a local club, then a day spent packing and shaking hands and promising to return. When I land in Florida later that week and meet my son at Disney World, I am so happy I don’t know whether to squeeze him to death or jump with him into the hotel pool.
I continue to dream about Malaysia. Something there has gotten into my blood, something about the pace and the bustle and the noise and the people. Especially the people. And I dream about that day at Sepang, on the podium, a lone American among the Chinese and Malays and Indians, fellow believers in the religion of going fast and kicking ass. In those moments, I didn’t feel very far from home at all.
Big In Malaysia