Top Gear Philippines

Jay Leno said it best: "Race-car driving is like sex; all men think they're good at it." However, he got it half-wrong with me. Yes, like most men, I think I'm good at sex, but unlike most men, I don't think I'm very good at race-car driving. Well, I do think I'm a very good driver--with emphasis on "very"--but I also think I will never be truly fast on the racetrack. Which begs the question: If I'm theoretically a good driver, why am I not actually fast? Or, put another way, does being good with the steering wheel necessarily mean being fast with it?

In my years of writing about cars, I've participated in all sorts of driving activities that somehow involve speed--karting, circuit racing, slalom, rally and 4x4. You'd think that someone who's had more than a decade of seat time in practically all types of vehicles and on practically all types of terrain, would be freakishly fast. Unfortunately, I'm not. Above average, yes, but certainly not one who brings home the trophies.

And here's what I don't understand. Compared to many of my colleagues, I'm younger, fitter and more athletic. Pit me against any single one of them in any other sport, and I guarantee you I'd kick their butt. Basketball? Let's not even go there. I have commendable footwork as well as superb eye-hand coordination--the same qualifications, I think, necessary for racing cars. And yet, when strapped in a bucket seat, I always fail to rank among the very best. And I'm always left marveling at that extra second or two that my colleagues manage to shave off their respective times.

Case in point: that Kia Soul Urban Challenge that I joined last weekend at the Subic International Raceway--which, by the way, our group is proposing to be renamed "Pocholo Ramirez International Raceway". Let me tell you how I fared, and then you can check out the video of my actual run at the end of this piece.

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The makeshift circuit was designed by brothers Kookie and Georges Ramirez. The course basically involved easing the Soul into a small parking slot, clearing a tight hairpin turn and then backing up a few meters into another slot. It sounds easier than it actually was: The track was narrow and every cone you hit translated to a two-second penalty.

Still, the technical makeup of the Soul guaranteed a whole dose of driving fun. Under the hood was a 2.0-liter, 142hp straight-four gasoline engine with variable valve timing, mated to a four-speed automatic gearbox. What made the Soul so maneuverable were its very compact dimensions: 4,105mm long, 1,785mm wide and 1,610mm tall. On an obstacle-laden track, the trick, Kookie told us, was to drive smoothly rather than fast. My kind of course then.

The first two journalists did their runs, and both of them clocked a time of over one minute and 20 seconds. They also hit a few cones in the process, proving to everyone that the Mickey Mouse track wasn't exactly cartoonish. And then one guy from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aries Espinosa, did a 1:10 after finishing the course in one fluid run and without hitting a cone. I thought that was going to be hard to top. A little later, Ardie Lopez of Auto Extreme duplicated the feat by also reaching the finish point in one minute and ten seconds. When my name was called, this was the time to beat and I wasn't sure if I could top it.

I launched in second gear, which I felt gave me the perfect impetus going to the first corner. I circled the first U-turn without a sweat and slotted in and out of the first parking box. I charged toward the tricky hairpin. I must have carried more speed than was necessary because I missed the ideal turning point. I had to back up slightly to avoid hitting a cone. After entering the second parking slot, I put the gearshift lever in reverse and swiftly backed up all the way to the third and last slot. Still oozing with adrenaline, I saw the marshal raise the checkered flag, indicating I had already touched the finish cone.

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I felt I'd accomplished a neat run, without any cone penalties. When I got down, I immediately walked over to the person in charge of the time sheet. My time? Fifty-five seconds. A full 15 seconds faster than the provisional best time. But most of the notoriously fast drivers in our ranks still hadn't run, so I wasn't really sure if my time would hold up. I'd be happy just to make it to the top five.

And then my fast colleagues took their turns at the wheel. Oh, boy...

Manny de los Reyes of Speed magazine did 51 seconds. Brian Afuang of The Manila Times and also Top Gear did 50 seconds. Jeff Reyes of Philippine Star clocked 48 seconds, including a four-second penalty for hitting two cones. James Deakin, also of Philippine Star, got 44 seconds. Best of all, Anjo Perez of Manila Bulletin toyed with the course in 43 seconds! Once again, I had to settle for humble pie while my friends got a MacBook laptop, a Samsung Omnia phone, a Sony Cyber-shot camera, a Wii video-game console and an iPod MP3 player.

So, to go back to my earlier question: How am I a good driver when I'm not as fast as the others when I need to be? The answer, I guess, is that I'm not as bold or daring as they are. I know I'm a good driver because I'm smooth--I have a cabinet full of trophies from fuel-economy contests--and because I'm law-abiding--I stop at a red light even at four in the morning and even when the road is empty. It's just that I lack the guts to determine the car's limits.

Good but not fast. In more ways than one, I'd rather be that than fast but not good.

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Video by Raynand Olarte<br />
Vernon B. Sarne
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