"RACING'S ASIAN TIGER - MALAYSIAN GET'S NOTICED IN AUTO CIRCUIT"
NURBURGRING, Germany -- The jagged roar of race-car engines circled the paddock, while Alex Yoong, Malaysia's greatest driver, sat dejected in his team's motor home.
For the second race in a row, the Formula 3000 race before the European Grand Prix on Sept. 26, Yoong was pushed off the track by the same rival driver.
But he was lucky this time. In Spa, Belgium, in August, Yoong's car went off the track at 160 miles per hour and he was knocked unconscious for nearly 20 minutes.
"They thought I had a broken elbow, broken knee, broken ribs," Yoong said.
"My body was contorted and, apparently, I was screaming like a stuck pig."
He got away with only an injured ligament in his knee, but while medical opinion differs on the severity, Yoong said it doesn't affect his driving.
At the time, the worst was feared. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the Malaysian Prime Minister, wished him a quick recovery. As one of only three Southeast Asian drivers with Formula One potential racing in Europe, to lose him would be a blow to a region that is both struggling to produce drivers and about to play host to its first Grand Prix, in Malaysia, on Oct. 17.
The next generation of Malaysian drivers must still rise from go-karts through a shaky racing hierarchy, but Yoong, 23, was privileged. His father, Hanifah Yoong, raced sedans in the 1970's. He was a director of the Shah Alam circuit near Kuala Lumpur, then the country's leading track, where he introduced international motorcycle racing.
"My earliest memory," Yoong said, "is being at one of my father's races. I remember the excitement of the start and the cars going off. I couldn't be more than 2, but I understood what it was about."
His father was born in Malaysia of Chinese parents, and his mother is a British expatriate. His sister is a top water skier, and Yoong, too, skied in competitions, rising as high as the top five in Asia.
At 15, he began racing Proton sedans, and won two of five races his first year. The next step was Formula Asia, a single-seat open-wheel series that raced in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Thailand and China. Several podium finishes were followed by victory in the last race, in Zuhai, China. The next year, he won 6 of the 14 races and the Malaysian championship, but he missed the international title by two points to a British driver.
He was noticed by Paul Stewart, the son of Jackie Stewart, a three-time Formula One world champion. Yoong dropped school and water-skiing, and came to Europe and tested Paul Stewart's Vauxhall series car, but then raced in Formula Renault.
"He has shown that he has talent, and a lot of determination to come back after that accident in Spa," said Paul Stewart, whose Formula One team won at the Nurburgring on Sept. 26. "Now he has to be a front-runner in Formula 3000 before he is seriously considered to be invited for tests in Formula One."
Last year, Yoong finished frequently in the top six in British Formula Three, and drove in the legendary Macau race -- previously won by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher -- along with only 30 of the world's 130 to 150 Formula Three drivers.
"Macau is the most daunting circuit around," Yoong said. "It's challenging, it's long, it's dangerous, and it's a heck of a lot of fun."
Yoong finished ninth -- the best result ever by a Southeast Asian -- but said he could have done better if not for financial problems. The Asian economic downturn cost him his sponsors, and his father started pouring in the family's money until they were deeply in debt.
Finally this year, the Malaysian government and other local sponsors provided bank loans and insurance. By then, however, Yoong only had time for part of both the Formula Three and the Formula 3000 seasons. He now hopes that the Malaysian Grand Prix will help him.
"Once this Grand Prix comes and they see how exciting it can be and the possibilities for sponsorship," he said, "it will open up more doors for me."
For Japanese drivers in Formula One, sponsorship has rarely been as much of a problem as the cultural and language barriers. Yoong feels Malaysians have an advantage, since English is widely used in Malaysia. But cultural barriers still exist.
"When I first came to Europe," he said, "I had a really Asian way of thinking. 'Yes,' means 'yes' in a different way in Asia and in Europe. 'No' means 'maybe yes' in Malaysia. 'No' is 'no' here. But I understood what was going on because of my English side, my mom."
But he sees himself first as a Malaysian, then part Chinese and part English.
"I see myself exactly as the ratios dictate," he said. "There's only half a Chinese who has ever raced in this world competitively, and that's me. In China, they are first-generation car owners, so it's going to be a while before anyone comes racing from China."