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August 19, 2009

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Start your engines and get into gear for a weekend of thrills

THE smell of burning rubber, the roar of the engine - for a group of car-racing enthusiasts, living in the metropolis of Shanghai hasn't stopped them from getting their adrenaline fix.

These weekend racers test themselves and their machines to the limit by racing at Tianma Circuit in Sheshan of suburban Songjiang District.

Drivers are both local Chinese and foreigners and the weekend racing usually attracts cars and motorbikes.

"We had about 30 people there last weekend and I race an old Honda and another driver races a Nissan, and we race them against brand-new fancy Japanese cars that have been tuned in Japan and bought over," says American Norwell Coquillard.

"So we have great fun because they are what we call 'cheap and dirty cars' relative to the Chinese competition that usually spends a fortune on their cars," he says.

Most weekends the motor-racing enthusiasts drive for practice, but four times a year they hold races, he says.

The most recent race two weeks ago attracted more than 5,000 spectators and 30 drivers who competed in four races.

Drivers come from a range of backgrounds and include an investment banker, food technician, diplomat and an entrepreneur in fashion and textiles.

"Racing is a real adrenaline rush, you end up dueling with people which is really exciting," says Coquillard. "You are going as fast as you can and trying to block or get ahead of the other drivers."

During the week, Coquillard is a captain of industry, heading both his country's chamber of commerce and the Chinese arm of Cargill, a multinational agriculture and food giant.

But on weekends he is a motorhead, racing both his own car and helping manage a local professional racing team that competes in the China Touring Car Championship (CTCC).

At its last Shanghai meet at the end of July, the CTCC was televised nationally.

Coquillard is president of the Art of Speed Racing (ASR) team, and along with chief engineer and team founder Pascal Ferencak he launched the team into its first race in the championship in May.

ASR races a BMW 320i, the only BMW in the championship, in the 2000cc class and also a Honda Fit in the 1600cc class.

They are one of the few teams in the championship to compete in both CTCC races.

While a podium finish hasn't been achieved yet, the team is fine tuning its cars, withthe Honda Fit looking particularly promising.

"The Honda Fit has the best power-to-weight ratio of any of the cars registered for the 1600cc race," Coquillard says. "ASR has also enlisted the services of Chen Huping, an experienced racer, to pilot the car."

Ferencak is at the heart of car racing in Shanghai. A former chief-of-car for the Mitsubishi Rally team when it won world championships in 1999 and 2000, he has more than 20 years of experience in motor sport.

The hub of Shanghai's racing scene is at Tianma Circuit where Ferencak has his workshop and a number of motoring enthusiasts store their cars.

He not only works on ASR's cars but also on a range of private clients' cars doing various modifications and even building purpose-built race cars from scratch.

Ferencak says he can build an entry-level race car from 35,000 yuan (US$5,120) with more sophisticated cars costing up to 500,000 yuan.

He gets a range of clients and has outfitted a Ferrari to make it race ready and has also souped up a turbo-charged 600-horsepower Nissan Skyline which achieved a top speed of 302 kilometers per hour at Tianma.

"I get a lot of expats and some Chinese come to me and I have built in Shanghai about at least 40 cars," says the veteran. "I build cars for the road and for the race, as different clients have different requests."

A race car is around 30 to 40 percent cheaper to build in Shanghai than it is in Europe or the United States, Ferencak says.

He is currently building a car for a German client that will cost 1 million yuan.

"Basically we are building everything, like the gear box and using a lot of different, expensive technology that is purely for racing," he says.

He consulted with a range of championship teams before re-launching the ASR team which he originally founded in 1988.

The sport isn't for penny-pinchers, says Coquillard adding that it costs about 200,000 yuan to set yourself up for the first year of racing.

But it is still considerably cheaper to race a car here than in Europe or America, making it an attractive hobby for those seeking the need for speed on a Shanghai weekend.

"I used to live in Japan and I never before considered this because it would be too expensive," Coquillard says.

The ASR team relies on sponsorship to race at each of the different CTCC events, and Ferencak says it costs a minimum of 1 million yuan a year to run a team.

The top teams, with established workshops and a number of cars, could spend up to 8 million yuan a year.

ASR has attracted sponsors such as Cuvee Wine Bar, Liquid Impact and Sticar, who Coquillard says have been instrumental in putting the cars on the grid this year.

Anyone who wants more information about ASR can visit their Website at


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