On the Grapevine – Beijing
After an enjoyable break from the skies, last week I returned to my travels with a journey that from the time I left my house in Ireland till the time I arrived at my other 2nd home (Hotel!!) ended up taking 27-hours. The reason for the long trip was because I was off to China where Red RC would cover its first FEMCA Championships. The event essentially crowns the champions of the Far East much like EFRA’s championships decide who is Europe’s No.1 driver and the ROAR Nationals determine who is top dog in the US/Canada. While FEMCA, which stands for Far East Model Car Association, has hosted the championships for many years across most of its 15 member countries, the 2013 1:8 Offroad event marked a very significant development for our sport in that it was the first sanctioned international r/c car event to take place in China. While pretty much every r/c car to hit a track around the world contains parts made in China, as a hobby r/c racing is almost non existent in a country that has a population of 1.4 billion people. Over the course of the week long event I got a very interesting insight into how that could all be about to change as the powers that be see potential in using r/c racing for the purpose of making education more interesting and interactive – something that can only be a win win situation for the growth of racing in potentially the biggest market in the world.
On arrival at the track the first thing to hit me was how new everything was, and that was because two weeks earlier where the impressive new facility of the Beijing Model Sports Association (BMSA) now stood there was nothing. Apparently when drivers began to arrive for the event, the 2-story building that houses an indoor pit area, drivers stand, race control and various meeting rooms was little more than a shell. Over the course of the next two days though it grew around the drivers into Beijing’s only offroad racing facility. While some of the finer details of the building still require finishing, the completion of the racing venue which is part of the Fengtai Technology Sports Stadium complex that includes a stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games is an important development. Having had the opportunity to visit China before when I visited two rc tracks in Shanghai in 2011, the clear message I got then from the many manufacturer representatives I met was that the biggest obstacle to the development of rc racing in the country was the lack of infrastructure, knowledge and experience of running big events. The BMSA’s remit is the administration of all model sports throughout the city which is home to more than 20-million people but a lack of facilities for cars has seen airplanes and boats get most of the attention. Local races at the onroad track currently only attract in the region of a dozen drivers per event despite the fact that the BMSA has 10 full time staff! A recent lowering of the age profile of those staff with a new team of people in their 20s, this will hopefully see that ratio improve. The young crew I met were enthusiastic, very keen to learn and appeared determined to give r/c cars the attention and effort that it seems to have been void of up until now.
The Car Modelling Association of China are the overall governing body of the sport in China and I had a very interesting conversation with its Secretary General Leo Wong. Having just returned from bringing a team of pilots to South Africa for the RC Aerobatic World Championships which were taking place at the same time as the FEMCA Championships, Leo was very positive and upbeat about the future for rc cars in China. While they have a long history of aero & marine modelling he said the car side of things did not get as much attention mainly due to the infrastructure required but added cultural differences also had a part to play. With a ‘weak sense of community’ due to the high density population he said unlike Europe those who do have an interest in racing don’t have a local club to join as they just don’t exist in China. He said he hopes that by the government building tracks like the new Fengtai Raceway this will attract such people but he said the real key is using the technical element of the sport to make it appealing to kids through school. With the Chinese education system very much about reading books he said this can be very boring for kids and this is where the seed for rc racing is being planted. Working closely with the Department of Education and getting rc racing recognised as a scientific sport they have over the past 2-years got it added to the curriculum of a number of schools. With the quick development of the economy, education is a big focus for the government and tying learning & rc racing together gets kids hands & minds working together from an early age while also giving the opportunity to discover something that unlike books they can grow a passion for. Having received a warm welcome from Beijing schools, the building of Fengtai Raceway is a part of pilot program which they hope will lead to a roll out across other major cities. For the future, Leo’s Association is looking at ideas for a formal educational competition within the schools were kids are graded on building r/c cars. Using officially sanctioned car kits he said the levels of difficulty could be varied for different age groups with younger kids maybe challenged with a kits that contains 10 parts while older students might have to construct, set-up and race a kit similar to the latest full race spec Kyosho or Tamiya kits.
Hosting their first sanctioned international rc car event was a big thing and the Fengtai District wanted to let everyone know with by far the biggest r/c posters I have ever come across soaring high on billboards located along the motorways. From the moment you drove into the Fengtai Technology Sports Stadium you could not miss the fact that their was a major event taking place as an impressive sea of banners lead you to the track. The flow of dignitaries over the duration of the event also highlighted the significance of the event as did the media interest – I have never seen as many photographers at an r/c race. For sure the FEMCA Championships was a precursor to a bigger plan for China with Leo very keen to raise the conversation of World Championships with FEMCA president Trevor Reid every time he got the opportunity. At the invitation of the BMSA, it was good to see IFMAR President Dallas Mathiesen in attendance. I say this because I think as China looks to establish r/c racing in this potentially huge market some of the methods they will use could very well be adapted to help boost things in r/c racing’s more established markets around the world that maybe have become a little stale in attracting newcomers.
While the significance of China hosting its first international championship event might not have registered with followers of our coverage, the fact that the race would be the first outing for legend of our sport Atsushi Hara since his shock departure from HB sure did. Opting to race a Mugen, which he went out and bought from a local hobby shop back in Thailand for the event, the biggest change for Hara was not the car but in fact getting used to not having his long time mechanic Masayuki Miura with him, a partnership which enjoyed great success. With so much attention on Hara’s every move right now, winning the FEMCA title in Beijing was a particularly special victory for him. Relaxing over a beer or two back in our hotel away from the huge attention he got at the track throughout the event, it was very interesting to hear of some of the potential opportunities that have been presented to Hara in just a week of his HB departure. As I was enjoying Hara’s company socially and my white notebook was safely tucked up for the night I’m afraid I won’t be providing any exclusives or scoops here but I can tell you that in terms of being the quickest off the mark in making Hara an offer, that honour went to none other than Mr. JQ Products, Joseph Quagraine.
On the eve of the final day of the 1:8 Offroad championships, the event running for over a week as it also decided this year’s FEMCA touring car champion which Hara would also go on to take, I had what will undoubtedly be one of my greatest experiences as Red RC’s Event Editor. Race Director Tony, who credit where it is due did a superb job of running his first international event and of dealing with the many officials, invited us to be part of recording a TV show at Beijing Television. As if getting the chance to visit a Chinese TV station wasn’t exciting enough, the fact that I would be a guest on the country’s most watched children’s TV show along with three World Champions, Hara, Masami Hirosaka & Yuichi Kanai, was something I never expected to find myself doing. For anyone who has never been to China before all I can say is you haven’t experienced true traffic congestion!!! Anyway after a rather lengthy mini bus journey we arrived at the station where on getting passed security we were lined up by the make-up department to see who needed touching up. Much to everyone’s entertainment the only one to be summoned into the make-up room was none other than r/c’s TV show expert Masami. While we all photographed Masami being worked on, a second inspection of our skin complexions saw Hara placed in front of one of the make-up artist who took her job rather seriously sending the room into convulsions of laughter as she decided his eyebrows needed enhancing with a eyebrow pencil!! With Hara and Masami now looking like movie stars it was into the lift and up to the studio where we would record the show that when aired in September will reach a mere 10 million viewers!! Also a guest on the show was Scotty Ernst who got to commentate on a head to head Mini Z race between Masami & Hara which Hara would win. Unbelievable Hara told me afterwards that he had never done a TV show before adding that he really enjoyed the experience. Although he has been invited to appear on tv shows before he said his travel schedule never made it possible to take up the offers. While I have no idea what was said over the hour or so we were in studio, the show should make entertaining tv that hopefully sparks interest in the sport among even just a tiny percentage of the viewers.
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Oisin O’Briain is Red RC’s Event Editor. Traveling the world reporting on some of the biggest races in the sport he regularly chats with top drivers and key industry figures and in his new column ‘On the Grapevine’ he will try to bring readers an insight into the latest talk that is doing the rounds in the paddock along with the odd bit of trivia information that comes to light.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.