Driving down to Songjiang on the G15 to race some cheap cars at Shanghai's other professional circuit -- Tianmashan -- and have our own damn F1...
Just the basics
: Tianmashan Circuit is the other pro race track in Shanghai (the first being Shanghai Circuit -- home of the F1), located in the southwestern suburb of Songjiang. You can drive your daily car or rent a low-powered race car from one of the clubs. Track time is 500rmb per 25 minutes and weekend times often get booked well in advance. It's mostly a local affair, with some laowai in the mix too. They have tournaments and races regularly, which are free for spectators. There is no insurance
: None of us have drivers licenses or cars in China but with the F1 coming up we wanted to do some racing. Our friend Pat Mai the soundsystem god is always talking about trips “down to the track” somewhere on the southside to drive his Geely Panda, a cheap Chinese compact. We convinced him to take us down to the Tianmashan track and let us drive his car with no insurance in exchange for some CityShop sandwiches with double salami.
Getting to the racetrack by car in Songjiang takes about 50 minutes, including several kilometers on the G15, easily Shanghai’s bumpiest highway. No subway stops near here. Ask your local friends who drive about the G15...fun times.
After passing through some rural areas and villages, we reached Tianmashang, with its parking lot full of dream cars and clubhouses for grown men who hide out here on the weekends. Just beyond that is a track with fourteen turns, a couple of grandstands, and pits. This is a step up from the go-karting we tried last year.
: Most of the cars at the track have the driver's blood types on the back window. That saves the paramedics time. But the first cars we saw on the track were just everyday office parking-lot pieces like Buicks, Honda Accords, and Ford Focuses. It looked like a photoshoot for Consumer Reports. Only difference is these drivers wore helmets. Anyone can race their street car here. Some have come with Ferraris and Lambos only to crash on the second turn, totaling the car.
But most people here keep their cars at the track. Enter ASR Racing club, also known as “the laowai club” at Tianma, which is one of only two racetracks tracks in Shanghai -- the other being the F1. ASR is run by an eccentric, fast-talking Italian dude named Pascal who is basically living the import-tuner mag wet dream of actually living at a racetrack in Asia. Really nice people at ASR. In their shed are several Volkswagon Polos, a couple Honda Fits, and Pascal's self-built red car that looks like a DIY F1 car.
And our friend Pat's Geely Panda -- our car for the day.
Any car can be a racecar. While 120 horsepower would struggle to push a Cadillac, that would turn a go-kart into a rocket. That's the principal behind racing cheap cars like Geely's and Honda fits – it's relatively cheap to get into and fun. To save weight, the cars get completely gutted. Most have just one seat. You could also just buy a fast car, as many people here have. In the parking lot are Skylines, RX7s, several M-Series BMWs and Kompressor Mercedes, Nissan Bluebirds, WRX STIs, EVOs, and more.
: The registration office at Tian Ma looks like a hotel restaurant in a 2nd tier city. Apparently they used to have insurance but “not today”, they tell me. So, the 500rmb fee just covers 25 minutes of track time. Had someone not loaned me their car for the day, I could have rented a similar ride from ASR, for about 1200rmb per day.
The way insurance works here is…it doesn’t. If you take your car out onto the track, you’re entering a dangerous situation. “If you crash, you pick up your car and you take a cab home”, as someone told me. Supposedly someone crashed their luxury car on the track once, then brought all the parts out to the street, dumped them in the road, and called the cops and claimed that a perfectly normal accident had occurred. If you rent a car and crash it, "you must spend money to repair". That's the word.
: So, I was a bit scared about driving now. Luckily the 15 hungry Volkswagon Polos piloted by racing school kids wearing racing suits more expensive than my whole wardrobe got off the track before I started.
After them, a couple of chain-smoking middle-aged Japanese business dudes took their motorcycles out for a few laps.
This dude was working on this gnarly rat bike.
It was time to drive. While waiting for the green light, the friend yelled "Just stay in second and third gear the whole time and you'll be fine. Whatever you do, don't stop on the track!".
Tianma's sharpest turn comes right after the longest straightaway. I only got up to 120kph, but braked fast to take the turn at 60. Luckily only four other cars joined me on the track and quickly passed me.
Being strapped into a five-point racing harness and unable to move forward a few cm sucks, but not as bad as internal bleeding. Driving on a track for 25 minutes is exhausting. Your adrenaline is pumping the entire time. With more cars on the track, it's probably similar to running from wolves.
A low, light car like this is fun to drive on the track, but nothing compared to the M3 I rode in next. We got up to around 180kph, accelerating far faster than that Geely, despite a heavier weight. After eight laps shit got downright uncomfortable, and I made the excuse of going inside to check on something then laid down on a couch for about twenty minutes.
After just about 45 minutes on the track, I was done. We drove back to Shanghai on the G15, still feeling woozy and dodging potholes while the sun set.
: If you're into racing and own a car, this is probably your only legal option in Shanghai. If you're really serious, you can pay a track fee of about 8500rmb a year and then you don't need to pay 500rmb every time, and your club will probably take care of some tuning, oil and tire changes, and seat swaps for you. That's a solid deal, and there's a strong feeling of community at Tianmashan. Everyone is really friendly.
That said, if you were just after some high-speed and didn't know anyone at the track, and needed to rent a car, you're better off going to the go-kart track
near the F1 track and renting their top car. Despite a lower top-speed, the Geely can't match the acceleration or handling on that.