Professor looks for students driven to succeedTest driver, auto racer and college professor, Park Jeong-ryong, 46, has ridden shotgun to the turbo-charged development of the Korean motorsports scene. He won Korea’s first ever car race back in 1987, and after years of subsequent laps around the track, in September last year, he became a motor sports professor at Ajou Motor College.
From that first race until 2003, Mr. Park has driven Kia Motors’ Pride and Concorde cars to victories in more than 40 competitions here and abroad. His first step into this unconventional career began when he joined Kia Motors in 1982 immediately after graduating from high school. When he received notification of the type of work he would be doing, Mr. Park was surprised to find himself assigned to the central technology research team ― an unfamiliar sounding section ― and not to a factory.
At that time, Korean automakers were not technologically advanced and they relied on assembling foreign-made parts ― they didn’t even have test-driving circuits.
“Kia Motors management wanted to develop its own cars and train in-house test drivers,” said Mr. Park. “In the beginning, it was no more than driving on unpaved roads near the company’s factories.”
Mr. Park began to learn advanced driving skills in Japan in 1985. Kia planned to produce the Pride compact car for sale there and sent him to a test-driving circuit in Hiroshima. The two years he spent there changed his life ― on the dedicated test circuit, he learned skills such as race cornering and braking.
After he returned to Korea, he won nearly all the top prizes in auto racing competitions here, but was not so lucky in foreign competitions. Mr. Park said he would never forget the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1988 ― he was the first Korean to take part in the rally.
“I didn’t even know what the rally was initially, but later realized that it was crossing a desert. I drove a customized military vehicle, but the car broke down within a week and I had to give up,” said Mr. Park.
In 1990, he quit his job at Kia and became a full-time race car driver. In 1995, he took part in the World Rally Championship in Australia, which proved to be a dramatic experience for him. He was driving a 16,000 cc Kia Sephia in the production car class, but couldn’t find a navigator.
“It was the first time for me in the race, and nobody wanted to be in the passenger seat. So I showed my driving skills on the streets, and an Australian volunteered to be the navigator. It was almost a miracle that I won that championship,” Mr. Park said.
In 2000, Mr. Park became the first Korean to receive an A-grade International Driver License and joined the Kumho Ecsta racing team with which he competed in the Super Taikyu Series in Japan for two years as their main driver. He took home many prizes as well.
“Motorsports in Korea are developing fast with the country becoming the sixth-largest auto manufacturer,” Mr. Park said. “I hope younger Korean car racers will be able to participate in prestigious Formula One racing in the future.”
by Kim Tae-jin
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