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Motor racing: Ringo Chong aims to ring in more success after wins in Singapore

A proud Ringo Chong on the podium at last month's Ferrari Challenge Asia-Pacific with Malaysia's Zen Low (second) and Italy's Angelo Negro.
A proud Ringo Chong on the podium at last month's Ferrari Challenge Asia-Pacific with Malaysia's Zen Low (second) and Italy's Angelo Negro.PHOTO COURTESY OF RINGO CHONG

For the record, he was not named after the drummer of The Beatles. He was named because his mother went into labour in 1966 while watching a Western film - either A Pistol For Ringo or The Return Of Ringo.

And just like the protagonist in those cowboy flicks, racing car driver Ringo Chong went all guns a-blazing last month to win the Saturday and Sunday races of the Ferrari Challenge Asia-Pacific, one of the support races at this year's Formula One Singapore Grand Prix.

Facing 28 other competitors, the 51-year-old led from start to finish in both races. In his Ferrari 488 Challenge, the Singaporean outpaced world-class drivers at the 23-turn Marina Bay Street Circuit.

But even in his finest hour, there was to be no financial windfall.

As Chong said with a hearty laugh to The Straits Times: "There was no prize money. What do you think it was, Formula One?

"It might look like nothing, (but) I did it for my own pride and the nation's pride. What I gained is something not measurable. Who knows, maybe the wins will open up new doors for me?"

NOT FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY

It might look like nothing, (but) I did it for my own pride and the nation's pride. What I gained is something not measurable. Who knows, maybe the wins will open up new doors for me?

RINGO CHONG, local race-car driver, on his lights-to-flag victories at the Marina Bay Street Circuit last month.

Unlike the F1 teams who have mega millions on tap and can afford to shred through dozens of slick tyres or write off a front wing that costs a tidy six-figure sum, he got to the top of the podium by stretching his limited resources.

While he struggles to raise funds, the slog has never applied brakes on his competitive spirit.

Inspired by his racing driver father, Chong Boon Seng, he gave up his job as a sales and marketing manager in a hotel to turn professional in 1990, aged 23.

He had won two carpark rallies that year. They earned him $7,000 but if he was to be competitive, he had to bring in the moolah himself. Hence, he learnt about car repair and started a workshop at a petrol station in Bukit Timah.

He ventured into rallying but returned to the asphalt after he crashed head on into a tree at 150kmh at a Malaysian rally in Ipoh - an accident that left him with a slipped disc in 1992.

And he proved himself in 1996 when his second-hand BMW M3, which he restored and modified himself, finished first at the Supercar Challenge in Shah Alam, beating more powerful beasts from Ferrari and Porsche.

"There were 10 of us in my crew and we crammed into two hotel rooms. We had no money but we were so happy and we went on to conquer," Chong recalled.

"We were always fighting to get support. Sometimes, it feels impossible but if you have a dream, you shouldn't give up."

The end of that decade saw Chong join BMW as a professional trainer, and he was subsequently promoted to become its chief instructor in Asia. When Singapore decided to host the F1 grand prix in 2008, he spent his savings and was helped by generous sponsors from China to participate in the Aston Martin Asia Cup support race, in which he finished first in 2009.

Switching over to the Ferrari Challenge in 2012, the father of two was determined to stand on the podium to celebrate this year's landmark 10th Singapore Grand Prix.

But the cost of running a successful team is prohibitive. A set of racing slicks, good enough for 10 laps or 30 minutes of racing, costs €2,300 (S$3,680) while brake pads are €1,800 a pop. Entry fees, for example, are €35,000 (S$55,300) per race week. The cost of competing in all four legs of the Asia-Pacific races was €165,000.

The earlier legs in Sepang, Shanghai and Japan saw him drive at a slower pace to conserve money and tyres. His bill for the Ferrari Challenge Asia-Pacific in Singapore alone, without factoring in car parts, was €45,000. Insurance was €5,000. And he went through three sets of tyres and two sets of brake pads over the race weekend.

He had also clipped his right wing mirror while thundering down Anderson Bridge. The repairs are estimated to cost an eye-watering four-figure sum.

But Chong never relented in his fund-raising efforts, getting local dealer Ital Auto to loan him a Ferrari 488 GT3 and as he was ready to leave the pit, a well-wisher even ran up to his car to give him a hongbao.

Chong said: "I had only one objective and that was to win in Singapore. And when the race came to Singapore, I went all out.

"Standing on the podium, after a clean sweep of fastest in practice, fastest in qualifying and fastest in the race over two days was the best thing that had happened to me."

At the Singapore race, Chong held nothing back, putting three decades of experience to maximum use to be fastest in practice, claim pole position and win the race on both Saturday and Sunday.

"Sometimes, just when you think the road had come to an end, things will come good if you pray hard and ask for it hard enough," he said.

"Since I was young, I had a silly dream of becoming a racing driver. I took out my retirement fund to race in a Ferrari in Singapore. But I am lucky that my wife has been supportive.

"I didn't win any money but I feel that I had brought pride to the country. Such things are not measurable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Chong aims to ring in more success after wins in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe