Me And My Car

Uber racer

Uber driver James Ling chose the Proton Satria Neo because it was affordable and parts were easily and cheaply obtainable.
Uber driver James Ling chose the Proton Satria Neo because it was affordable and parts were easily and cheaply obtainable.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JAMES LING
Uber driver James Ling chose the Proton Satria Neo because it was affordable and parts were easily and cheaply obtainable.
Uber driver James Ling chose the Proton Satria Neo because it was affordable and parts were easily and cheaply obtainable.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JAMES LING

Private-hire driver James Ling satisfies his need for speed in a Proton Satria Neo he co-owns

On most days, Mr James Ling plies the streets in a comfortable, fuelefficient Honda Shuttle Hybrid as an Uber driver.

But once in a while, the 51-year-old straps himself into something quite different - a Proton Satria Neo race car, which he and two friends have co-owned since 2014.

His involvement in motorsports stretches way back. This gregarious man, who ran a spray-painting workshop in Eunos for many years before selling the business about five years ago, has been a keen member of the Singapore Motorsports Association (now known as Motor Sports Singapore) for nearly three decades, during which he has filled various roles, from editor and club captain to secretary.

He started racing in local carpark rallies in the early 1990s, cutting his teeth (as well as a few Kallang carpark kerbs) in an old Datsun 120Y. He then graduated to a Renault 5 GT Turbo, in which, on its first time out, he won his class and finished fifth overall - a remarkable performance considering he was up against the much more powerful all-wheel-drive Subaru WRXs and Mitsubishi Evos.

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He has also tried his hand at offroad rallying, with some success. In 1998 and 1999, he contested the Malaysian round of the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship, blasting through oil palm plantations alongside international drivers such as Kenneth Eriksson, Piero Liatti and the late World Rally Champion Richard Burns.

Driving a tiny all-wheel-drive 660cc Subaru Vivio RX-R, he won his class in both events.

He is an old hand at Malaysia's Sepang race track, having competed in 12-hour endurance events there in 2004 and 2007 (in a Subaru WRX and a Honda Integra, respectively).

Throughout, Mr Ling says his wife, Sandy Tan, 51, has been "quietly supportive" of his hobby. They do not have children.

  • What's in the boot?

    •Petrol surge tank

    • Fuel piping

    •Fuel-flow regulator

After 2007, there was a hiatus for a few years but, in 2014, wanting "a last motorsports fling before middle age became old age", Mr Ling and two friends, Mr Tony Chooi and Mr William Chua, decided to buy a race car.

After considering choices such as the Suzuki Swift Sport and Toyota Altis, they settled on the 1.6-litre Proton as it was relatively affordable and parts were easily and cheaply obtainable.

They bought their eight-year-old, road-registered hatchback for RM23,000 (about S$7,500) and spent another modest sum having it race-prepared. That involved, among other things, stripping the cabin, installing a roll-cage, rebuilding and tuning the engine, as well as replacing the suspension with a much stiffer track set-up.

For the past three years, Mr Ling and his friends have run the little Proton in the annual Sepang 1,000km Endurance Race. Although outgunned by bigger-budget and much more powerful competitors, their results have been improving, with a highest- placed class finish to date of eighth in last year's race.

They are tweaking the car further to improve its performance at the Sepang 1,000km in November.

"In motor racing, there are always incidents," he says. "The latest incident was during the last hour of the race in 2016. Our car was running out of brake pads after eight hours of racing and I could see fireworks from the wheels whenever I braked into the corners. It was high anxiety just to finish the race."

Still, the three friends get a buzz from competing and reaching the finish line, even if the podium remains out of reach.

In the meantime, he continues to hone his craft, even on his daily Uber rounds. If you happen to notice that your Uber driver is especially swift, smooth and skilled, take a second look - he may just be Mr Ling.

•The writer contributes to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Uber racer'. Print Edition | Subscribe