It’s more than just driving

In Photo: Karting days in Manila

AFTER all those years telling the stories of different people, I finally decided that it was time to write about the man who has served as my mentor, an inspiration and who also happens to be my husband in my career as a motoring journalist.

Sampaguita Rally 2010

His name is Arsenio Andolong. Popong, as he is fondly called by his family and friends, is one of a kind—a skilled and well-disciplined driver with an extensive experience in the automotive world.

Popong recalled that when he was 10 years old, he watched a German documentary wherein he saw a young boy who was about his age driving go-kart.

“I wish I had something like that,” he said with envy. As fate would have it, his father surprised him with a locally manufactured go-kart on his 11th birthday. In 1973, when he turned 13, Terry Fullerton came to the Philippines to participate in the first Philippine International Karting Prix (PIKP). It was the first time for a karting world champion to race in the country and Popong told his father that he wanted to join the PIKP but he was told that he wasn’t ready. After watching Fullerton win the event, Popong’s desire to go racing became even stronger.

Race of Champions

In 1974, Popong was introduced to 1973 Aspac karting champion Ric Catajan, who eventually became his coach. He didn’t do so well during his first season of racing in 1974, having only done two races. In 1975, however, he won second overall in the national Novice Series. The achievement gave him the motivation to continue. In 1976, he joined the Philippine Karting Association (PKA) Series and won second overall in the PKA Grand National Championship and took the PKA Formula B title. He also organized his own team and they won the National Team Championship.

Later that year, he traveled to Hong Kong to represent the Philippines and it was there that he met Toni Zoserl, Austria’s national karting champion and one of the best drivers in the world. Zoserl taught him kart setup and advanced driving techniques anchored on smoothness and consistency. Over the next two years, he spent his summers shuttling between Salzburg in Austria, Munich in Germany and Jesolo in Italy to race and train with Zoserl, further honing his technological and driving skills.

First win in karting

In 1979, he was in Thessaloniki in Greece where he finished 10th in an invitational race. In the same year, he attended the Jim Russel International Racing Driver’s School in Salzburg, Austria, where he learned how to drive formula cars. Zoserl introduced him to the Jim Beam Formula Ford Team, which needed a temporary replacement for one of their drivers who was injured in a crash. Popong became the team’s test driver, an opportunity that gave him valuable seat time and experience in analyzing the factors that affect a car’s dynamics.

In 1995, Popong became a motoring writer for Today newspaper, where he was offered the editorship of the Motoring section in 1998. He got to drive almost every new vehicle on the market not just in this country but all over the globe. His experience in motorsports gave him the advantage in describing to readers, in layman’s terms, what a particular car’s handling and performance are like. While Popong was a motoring editor, he also participated in dirt trials and rallying until he became a race official, which gave him the opportunity to undergo several training programs with the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

Test driving the Hyundai Genesis

Popong remained humble and never bragged about his accomplishments. With his vast experience, Popong was able to share with people (this writer included) not just his insights into racing but more importantly about road safety and discipline. He showed me how to drive defensively, which is why I became a road safety advocate like him. “When you hold the steering wheel, you hold the lives of others in your hands,” he said.

In 2005, he became the first motoring editor of the BusinessMirror newspaper—a post he held until 2013. After spending close to 20 years in the world of motoring, he was recruited by the Department of National Defense as its chief of Public Affairs and spokesman.

Then on one fateful day, Popong had a stroke, which damaged one third of his brain stem. The right side of his body was paralyzed. After viewing his MRI results, his attending physicians informed us that we were facing a potentially disastrous scenario because the lesion was expanding and could affect the rest of his brain stem. Remarkably, despite the gravity of his condition, through sheer will power and determination, he was able to stand and walk after one month, but he could no longer drive.

Driving the Toyota AE 86 and Shell Isuzu Rally 1999

“I want to try but I still have numbness in my right leg and right foot, as well as my right hand and arm. I still don’t have enough feeling through my right foot and that would be dangerous,” he said. “Every now and then, I still have vivid dreams about racing and driving but I’ve accepted that those days are probably gone. No regrets, though. I appreciate what racing and driving have taught me—discipline, determination, responsibility, split-second decision-making, analysis, management, attention to detail and patience.”

It pains me to see that he is unable to pursue something which was once his passion. Maybe, it’s now my turn to give something back to him. After all, I really owe it to him—passing onto me the hat of the motoring editorship and teaching me that there’s something more to cars and driving them. It’s about taking control of one’s self, one’s life. Having said that, I still have high hopes that someday Popong will be able to drive again.