The need for speedThe streets are where racing was born.
Concrete or asphalt, smooth or bumpy, it didn't matter. As long as there were at least two cars, or two motorcycles, and two drivers. When the flag went down, the wheels spun.
Racing was, and is, a celebration of speed -- and a show of attitude.
It is loved by some and loathed by many. Slumbering journeymen and young families recoil at the audacity of racers taking over the streets in the early hours of the morning.
The roadways may have fewer cars between 2 and 4 a.m. But racing on public streets is dangerous, and there always is the possibility of accidents with innocent drivers or pedestrians.
Most race-car drivers will say that racing on public streets is thrilling, but very dangerous. And, while drag racing is fun, it hardly utilizes the racers' driving skills.
For drivers looking for a challenge, a race course is the best place to go. That's how Korea's amateur racetracks were born.
The Human Motors Cup is Korea's first amateur circuit race. There are seven time-trial circuits and one championship race, each at Everland Speedway in Gyeonggi province, south of Seoul.
The cup is divided into three categories: Super A, Group A and Group B. The cars in Group B, certain Hyundai Accents and Hyundai Avantes, have 1.5-liter or smaller engines. The autos in Group A, including the Kia Verna and Hyundai Scoupe Turbo, have 1.5- to 2-liter engines. The Super A class is unlimited and includes such mid-sized cars as the Hyundai Tuscany and Mitsubishi Lance Evolution. These are vehicles that you see daily, except these have been souped up with new stabilizers, suspensions and special off-street tires.
The cars in each group race in packs of seven to 10. Each vehicle must round the circuit eight times. The drivers are ranked by time.
"So many people have told me about their dreams of racing in an amateur car race," said Chang-jae, who organize the year-long Human Motors Cup. Mr. Gwak publishes "Housebug," an Internet motor magazine that was launched in 1997. There had been amateur races in the past, but they were usually isolated events.
This year's time trials, sponsored by BMW, began in April with 70 drivers. The fifth race is taking place on Sept. 29 at the Everland Speedway. With each circuit, the number of racers has been increasing. About 100 drivers are expected this time. One or two women participate in each race.
Despite the founding of the Human Motors Cup and construction of Everland Speedway, not all racers have forsaken the streets. On those nights when the sound of engines rouses you, remember how racing began.
Veteran says rivals will eat his dust
Shin Youn-jae revs up in a black 1992 Toyota MR-Turbo. Stickers are plastered over the hood, the sides and the top. He parks. Fifteen minutes later, he's shaking his head with exasperation. The car battery is dead. Again.
Mr. Shin, 27, doesn't take the Toyota out often, maybe five times a month, and not just because the battery dies easily. The Toyota is his racing car. He purchased it this spring, just in time for the second circuit of the Human Motors Cup Time Trials Championship Series. He traded battery longevity for less weight.
The Toyota was an upgrade from his Mazda Eunos Roadster. In June, he was able to move to the race's Super A bracket from Group A. But the other contenders and spectators didn't have high expectations for him. After all, there was a Mazda RX-7 in the Super A.
Mr. Shin took first place. "No one expected me to win," he says. "It was very satisfying."
All the winners parked their cars near each other. They sat on the hoods of their cars, their trophies beside them. And watched the losers drive home.
In circuit three, Mr. Shin came in second. In circuit four, he came in third.
"The line-up switches all the time in racing," he says. Sometimes, a previously unknown driver will show up for a race and take first place.
Another reason that no one knows who will win is because the drivers' racing experience varies wildly and the cars they enter are constantly being switched around. Right now, in Korea, racing is just in its infancy. Many drivers are inexperienced. But with each circuit of the Human Motors Cup, the drivers are getting better.
In most countries, the car really matters. But in Korea, with Mr. Shin's competitors' skills improving, their ability to handle their cars may be the determining factor in future races.
What Mr. Shin has going for him is experience -- he has been racing for four years -- and a solid car.
He's already working on the Sept. 29 race. To improve his Toyota's stability, he has switched his rear tires to 210 mm from 190 mm. Now he plans to change the suspension. "My car should be able to hug the curves," Mr. Shin says. "My heart ached the last race, when I watched that RX-7 slowly pull ahead of me on the curves. That's where I lost."
Mr. Shin, who designs electronic circuits for a living, is also into remote control car racing. It costs less.
Racing cars is a billionaire's sport and Mr. Shin is an amateur racer without a billionaire's bank account -- or any sponsors. Mr. Shin spends 5 million won ($410,000) of his own money each year just on keeping his car in shape. "Last year," he says, "I found myself without enough money to race cars. So I raced remote control cars instead. And, came in first."
If all goes to plan, he'll be on the hood of his car on the evening of Sept. 29, watching the losers of circuit five go home. "I've also been practicing like crazy," he says. "But if I were driving that RX-7, all you'd see is my dust."
Speedway strives to school drivers on and off racetrack
Korea's first racetrack was born because of the nation's notorious driving culture. Notoriously bad.
Samsung built Everland's Speedway in 1992 to "create a new courteous driving culture and introduce motor sports to Korea," says Kim Byung-won, a manager at the Gyeonggi province track. It also built a driving school nearby.
The school holds six to seven motor safety seminars each month. Drivers hired by express bus companies are schooled there, as well with people wanting to race or take their driving tests.
Whether the speedway has had any impact on Korea's driving culture is debatable. There were over 250,000 auto accidents in 1992, according to the Road Traffic Safety Authority. That number rose to 290,000 in 2000. But the figure dropped last year to 261,000, indicating that the country's drivers are getting better.
Regardless of safety, the speedway has built a following. Amateurs come to race on its two circuits, one for go-carts and the other for auto racing. The car track is 2.125 kilometers long.
Everland Speedway is home to the most famous race on the peninsula, the Korean Motor Racing Championships. The race has been held annually since 1995. This year's KMRC began in March and is composed of seven races that are held over a weekend each month. The championship will be Nov. 9 and 10.
Admission to all Speedway races is free.
On Mondays to Wednesdays, the track is generally used to showcase new cars, test new tires and as a backdrop for television commercials. On other days, when there are no competitions, drivers can run the track in 30-minute sessions, each costing 20,000 or 28,000 won depending on their model of car.
For now, racing is still in its infancy. "Not enough Koreans are aware of motor sports," laments Kil Sung-min, an office worker at the Speedway.
For more information, call 031-320-8981 or visit the Web site at eng.everland.com/park030.php3.
by Joe Yong-hee, Min Byung-hee