Motorsport safety wasn't always at this level, especially in the early days.
"In racing, for you to learn," Pocholo Ramirez says, "you have to lose." Such is the same with life, and when tragic circumstances are placed in your path, it is either you get back up and make things better and learn, or you walk away. Thankfully, Pocholo chose the former.
The year was 1977. Two years prior to this, ‘circuit racing' (if you could call it that) had been moved from the quickly developing Ortigas area to BF Homes in Parañaque. There wasn't a dedicated racetrack to speak of back then; an empty subdivision would have to do. It was the first race of the year, and little did anyone know the sport would take a tragic turn.
"It was a very tight race with the late Arthur Tuason," Pocholo recounts in detail. "I was trying to pass him for eleven laps and he would just go from side to side. You can imagine the crowd watching all of this action going on for almost the entire race. So when we were coming to the finish line, it was like a drag strip. People were practically on the track. That was how it was. On the last corner of the last lap, I was side by side with Arthur. Unfortunately, he went wide and I was squeezed to the side. My left rear tire dropped into the mud [it had rained, by the way] so that made me spin."
Pocholo pauses for a moment but resumes to tell the tale: "We were going 180kph on the straight. When I spun, my car only left the track by half a car length, but I hit 14 people. That only goes to show where the people were standing. I ended up back on the track and crossed the finish line while I was still spinning."
One person died that day. Four others had to be hospitalized, and the rest walked away with bruises. This was a major blow, especially to Pocholo. His black Toyota Celica was trans-formed into a deadly projectile that mowed down helpless spectators.
To deal with the tragedy is one thing, but to move forward despite the grief is another.
What happened was a wake-up call for everyone involved. "Foreign race car drivers would exclaim that we had human barriers," shares Pocholo. "They couldn't believe that we were actually racing that way."
Pocholo has no qualms about recounting the tragedy, but it is indeed clear that the event did leave a mark. "Never again did I want something like that to happen. After the accident, I told myself that I wouldn't organize another event until there was a safe track - for the spectators and for the racers."
It was because of this vow that circuit racing in the Philippines was dead for 17 years. Its resurgence only began in 1994 with the opening of the Subic International Raceway. And who was the man who shouldered the responsibility for creating the Philippines' first bona fide circuit? None other than Ramirez himself.
It was a very long wait, and many wondered why this was so. A lack of funds is always a problem, but given determination anything is indeed possible. "Dick Gordon helped us out," narrates Pocholo. "One day he said, ‘Why can't we have a Macau here in Subic?' ‘It is difficult because the FIA is getting stricter and stricter about giving permits for international races on city streets,' I said. ‘But right here, we could build a track, one that we can make safe.'"
Despite the circuit racing hiatus in the country, Pocholo continued to race and make a name for himself abroad during the Eighties. "To really improve," he says sagely, "you have to compete on higher levels. You have to go abroad, which is what I did. Every chance that I got, I went to Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. I'd go out there because that was the chance for me to compete with better racers. If you win all of the time, you aren't learning much because that means you are racing against people that are not as good as you. You have to get beaten for you to say, ‘I have to get better.' And that is how you get better."
Pocholo's achievements for the span of his career (which is still going strong, by the way) can fill a book, but his first vision for the sport in this country has already been achieved. There are now two major racetracks, and because of this the Philippines has developed a crop of very good drivers.
In the future, Pocholo is hoping that a proper ‘rule system' is maintained so that everybody can take part in this exciting sport.
This piece is a celebration of the accomplishments of the man whom everyone in the motoring beat warmly calls ‘Tito Poch' - the person whom you can always count on to give you a big smile and a pat on the back whenever you meet him. We can't help but feel kinship toward him and for good reason: If there is one person who should be given credit for fighting to keep the sport alive - a safe one for drivers and spectators at that - it is the legendary Pocholo Ramirez.