From horses to hp: The history of motorsports in the Philippines

We've been going fast for over a century
by Richard Wilhelm Ragodon | Aug 4, 2018

In December 1956, the Mobilgas Economy Run took place.

Archeological finds of ancient tracks around the world indicate that terrain racing has existed for centuries. Racing existed before the advent of the automobile, with speed contests first carried out on foot, and then using animals, chariots and carriages. It has also existed in the country for centuries.

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Locally, carabao and horse races had been run on dirt tracks in Luzon and Mindanao before bicycle racing began in the 1890s. The Hassam Brothers, the distributor of Rambler bikes, built a cycle track at Dulong Bayan (now Rizal Avenue) to promote lap races among bicycle owners. League races were held at Wallace Field (Luneta area) and municipal plazas.

By around 1905, cars were being raced illegally along Taft Avenue and Malecon Drive, so in 1908, the Manila City Board promulgated an ordinance limiting road speed in the area. As one of the main attractions at the Manila Carnival, an automobile obstacle race was also held. In 1910, a racing promoter eventually used the San Lazaro oval track as the venue of the first car race.

Chrysler and Plymouth dealer Luneta Motor Company presented the first automobile stunt show in 1937 at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. It aimed to demonstrate the safety aspects of the latest “all-steel” enclosed vehicle models. Similar shows were held in 1964 and 1973. More recently, Viking Cars sponsored a stunt show at the Luneta Grandstand in the late ’90s using Volvos, .

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Car racing was revived in the ’50s. Nichols Air Base (now Villamor) became the venue of the first quarter-mile race in 1954. One year later, the first circuit race was held at the Santa Ana track in Makati. A major racing accident put a stop to the sport in 1956, but with more people becoming interested in motorsports, other means of competition, including one for boys, were introduced.

Held in the US since 1934, the Soap Box Derby race was introduced in the country at Clark Air Base in 1955. Another followed in Quezon City in 1956. Boys from age 11 to 15 were encouraged to compete using homemade engineless cars down a hill. Sponsored by Better Boys Association and others, derbies were held until the early ’70s. In 1962, the Cebu Jaycees sponsored a race in Pardo, Cebu. The local winner represented the country in the International Soap Box Derby competition in Akron, Ohio.

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Mobilgas and Caltex sponsored Manila-Baguio economy runs from 1956 to the early ’60s. Shell backed the first car rally in 1962, while Esso supported the first 'Jeepney King' driving-skill competition in 1968. Other motorsport forms such as circuit (Cebu Grand Prix, Manila Grand Prix), drag, karting, off-road safari, dirt biking, and soapbox derby also began that decade.

Still, there were no permanent tracks available; events were held on public thoroughfares, reclamation areas, and private subdivision roads. Batangas to Nueva Ecija, including the Sierra Madre dirt roads, became the venues of off-road and rally races until the ’90s. A plan between the government and private entities to build a permanent track that met international standards came about in the early ’80s, but the February 1986 events put a closure to the endeavor.

It was in 1992 when the dreams of racing enthusiasts became a reality with the opening of the Carmona Racing Circuit. This was followed by the opening of Subic International Raceway in 1994, Batangas Racing Circuit in 1996, and Clark International Speedway in 2009. As you read this, racetracks in Cebu and other southern provinces are being planned.

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We're still behind our Asian neighbors, some of whom have F1 tracks already. But in our own way, we're kept the spirit of racing alive through the decades. 

Earliest official race in PH held at the San Lazaro Hippodrome, 1910. 

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A vehicle has just turned over at a car stunt show at the Rizal Coliseum, 1937.

NOTE: This article first appeared in Top Gear Philippines'  April 2015 issue.

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PHOTO: In December 1956, the Mobilgas Economy Run took place. From the archives of Richard Ragodon
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