Pair quit speeding, switch to car racingLee Maeng-keun, 47, was once considered a “godfather of street racers.” He is now both a track racer and a promoter of amateur car racing championships. Kim Tae-hyeon, 27, was also a street racer but is now a promising track racer. Both are crazy about cars and speed, and racing is the most important part of their lives.
Mr. Lee is the Korean “drag race” record holder ― a form of auto racing in which cars or motorcycles race two at a time on a fairly short, straight, level course, usually 400-meters (437 yards) in length. Mr. Lee’s record time, acknowleged by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile last year, was 9.498 seconds. In March 2004, he finished in 8.889 seconds at Highland Dragway in Sendai, Japan. It was not an official record, but was only a little behind the world record of 8.670 seconds.
Mr. Lee’s father was a high-ranking official when Park Chung Hee was Korean president and thus had an official vehicle. When he was in his fourth year of elementary school, his father bought him a toy car kitset engine, which he succeeded in assembling over a few days. After that, he tried to disassemble the engine of his father’s official car but could not put it back together. Late that night, his parents discovered him in the garage in tears.
In 1978, Mr. Lee entered Yonsei University to major in economics. He was among many university students who protested the military dictatorship of the time. When that administration was dissolved, his family’s fortunes also went downhill and his father suffered an epileptic seizure.
In 1984, after he finished his military service, Mr. Lee started his own business but it failed. Speeding in his car became his only pleasure.
Later, when his father passed away, he opened a gas station with his inheritance. As he earned more money, he bought a better car, and drove faster. In the 1980s, he usually drove alone, but in the 1990s, he found some companions through the Internet.
“There was an online street racing club. When I went to a meeting, I found members 10 years younger than I was. Naturally, I became the ‘big brother.’”
He formed and led a street racing club called the Midnight Knights.
In 1999, he took part in a regular race for the first time. “It was not like I stopped street racing, but more like I wanted to prove my ability,” Mr. Lee said.
As soon as he debuted, he made his name in drag race circles, usually finishing first or second. As he became more known as a racer, he tried to quit speeding on the road, but it was not easy. “I was addicted to it, and it was difficult to get away from it,” he said.
In 2003, a younger friend of his suffered a serious car accident on the Yeongdong freeway. The friend was driving at 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour when a truck suddenly pulled into his lane in front of his car. His car went under the truck. The friend has been paralysed since then.
“I saw him in hospital. His focus-less eyes were tearing up,” Mr. Lee said.
In 1996, Mr. Lee had a similar accident, also going under a truck, in which he lost his left pinkie finger. Every time he saw his friend subsequently, he was reminded of that accident. He quit speeding on the freeway until 2004, while in Japan, he thought a car following him wanted to race so he did so. It was actually an undercover police patrol car that pulled him over. That was the last time he sped on a road, he said.
His new philosophy is simple: to drive for honor. “Speeding has anonymity. Speeding drivers only look ahead and race recklessly. I know the rapture, but it is not comparable to winning an official race and making your name known. I want to help other speeding drivers realize that,” Mr. Lee said.
He spends millions of won (thousands of dollars) each year promoting car races. “I spent 400 million won just this year. There are not many sponsors, but there will be more if people become aware of the beauty of racing. For that, we need stars. Korea has many talented underground drivers. We should bring them to regular races to produce stars. Then the number of speeding drivers [on the roads] will decline,” he said.
Some people recognize Kim Tae-hyun when they see him at the Speedway racing track in Yongin.
As a relative newcomer, Mr. Kim is still new to this recognition. He only began racing in February, but his performance thus far has been outstanding. He won an amateur competition in March on his debut. The next time out, he finished second, and he again won the following competition. Three months after his debut, he was invited to join the professional Kicks Racing team.
“The more I see him, the more amazing it is. He learned in four months what takes four years for others,” Lee Maeng-keun said. “I am busy as a promoter, but I am going to squeeze time in somehow to race him.” Mr. Lee said he had been looking for someone like Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim said he “was just a waster” before he started regular racing. “I was not a good student, so I started playing sports. But I was not good at them either.” He skipped school and ran away from home and also told his parents he wanted to quit school. The only thing he was attached to was his motorcycle.
“I was a troublemaker riding a motorbike,” he said.
When Mr. Kim was a freshman at high school, he crashed his bike and suffered a serious head injury. “I still have iron and silicon in my head,” he said. He later decided to switch to a car to “drive better.” He got his driver’s license four days after his 18th birthday ― only those 18 years old or older are eligible for a driver’s license in Korea.
He begged his father to buy him a car and headed to Ttukseom, a known meeting point for street racers. “You know what scamps’ cars are like. They decorate the lamps, attach stickers and wings and adjust the mufflers to amplify the engine sounds,” Mr. Kim said.
He spent a year like that ― doing such things as suddenly reversing his vehicle to surprise other drivers and provoke police officers.
Mr. Kim said he wanted to change, but did not know how. At the same time, he wanted to drive as fast as he could. He went to a car modification shop where tuning specialist Shin Yun-jae saw him driving and told him that he had talent.
He was moved by the “talent” comment and Mr. Shin’s desire to coach him to drive even better. Mr. Shin pushed Mr. Kim to ask for permission from his parents. Mr. Kim’s father didn’t approve at first but later visited Mr. Shin and told him to teach his son well.
Since his debut, Mr. Kim has earned the nickname “next generation engine.” His family members are also happy.
“I thought he wasn’t capable of doing anything,” Mr. Kim’s mother said. “But these days he seems to be invigorated. I am happy.”
“Regular racing has sponsors, coaches and fans. I also realized that I’d better be safe,” Mr. Kim said.
He now feels more alive than ever and has big plans for his future. He wants to become the best racer in Korea’s professional league, then enter the Super GT, Japan’s most prestigious car race.
He also wants to race in the D1 Grand Prix Series.
“I want to do well and give other people a dream. I want to hear people say that they became racers because of Kim Tae-hyun,” Mr. Kim said.
by Kang In-sik
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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