“Just don’t race,” my boss told me at 12:43 a.m. his time, which was the middle of the afternoon for me. “I can think of more reasons not to do it. I just don’t think this is worth it for a story.”
This story he was referring to, me running my first-ever wheel-to-wheel car race with Chinese automaker Geely in Shanghai, seemed worth it a few weeks earlier. It was an opportunity to race in a field with some professional drivers on the Shanghai International Circuit Formula One track in stripped-out race versions of Geely’s 131-horsepower Emgrand GL sedan, and to see up close what was happening with China’s budding motorsports culture. It all sounded like a grand time, and a safe one.
But considering what went on the few days I’d been in Shanghai—or the lack thereof—before Geely released about 20 seemingly novice drivers on a 5km circuit from a standing start like rabid wolves, it didn’t seem fun anymore. My bosses were worried for my safety. They didn’t want me to go through with it.
I wasn’t so sure, either. But I was already there.
(Full disclosure: Geely flew me to Shanghai and put me up in a Jiading District hotel for a few days to participate in one of its Geely Super League races. The automaker also provided meals.)
“Honestly, I think it will be OK,” I messaged my Editor-in-Chief Patrick George after he told me not to do it. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, this whole thing has been sketch as hell, [but] I trust my judgment if it’s a shit show.”
“All right, I’ll trust you here,” he said. “I’m just not gonna sleep at all tonight.”
I regretted my words later, wondering why I had trusted myself as I sat on the grid at the circuit, staring at the black box that would soon light up and tell me to send my car throttling into the first turn along with more than a dozen inexperienced drivers, who, like myself, had only been on this track for 70 minutes total. Aside from that, the only other training we had was a few handfuls of autocross-like runs in a nearby parking lot.
Jalopnik has done wheel-to-wheel racing before. Some of us, like contributor Robb Holland, do it professionally at some of the highest levels of motorsport. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve done track days, driven high-powered cars, regularly do racing sims and more.
But no matter the skill level, the key with racing is prep and practice—as much track time as you can manage before the actual event, and maybe even a driving school. Given that this “race” was at a manufacturer-sponsored press event, we figured some or all of that would happen, and the risk would be inherently low. That wasn’t the case.
In fact, none of those 70 minutes on track included practicing how to start from the F1 grid, and none of them included racing in traffic—especially side by side, in a group heading into a carousel right-hander that causes even the greatest of racing drivers trouble.
I could handle myself. It was the other people I was worried about, especially after seeing how poorly those who participated in the autocross courses did.
And yet, here we were, waiting for the lights to go out so that we could all drive straight into the daunting first corner ahead of us at the exact same time, with only the hope that the people next to and in front of us would hold their line and use their heads about all of this.
That was an impossibly hopeful thought, though. My bosses were right. No story was worth it. But I was on the grid, and that hadn’t hit me until it was too late.
My mouth was dry. I couldn’t tell if my sweat was partially from the engine heat or entirely from the nerves, but I knew that if that engine weren’t murmuring in front of me, the sweat would be ice cold.
Five red lights illuminated on that black box, signalling the start was a few seconds away. I depressed the clutch pedal with a left foot made of lead, a left foot that didn’t want to be depressing a clutch pedal right then, and slid the stripped-down shifter into first gear.
I was in this, whether I wanted to be or not. The lights went out. My right foot dropped on the gas just like my stomach had dropped into the infinite pit of fear that had replaced whatever was below it in my body.
“Just make it through the first three corners,” I thought, “and you should be alright.”
Had this been a regular car race with regular race-car drivers, the 16-turn track lying ahead of me wouldn’t have felt so threatening. Racing cars is dangerous, even when the people around you are used to racing cars.
The people in our racing field, on the other hand, had just a couple of hours in the car and a little over an hour on the actual track before going out there and racing wheel to wheel. That was virtually all of the experience they had racing—at least, that’s what we were told, off and on.
There’s a concept, an attitude, in Chinese culture, called “chabuduo.” An essay in Aeon describes it as cutting corners, getting something only 70 per cent done instead of 100, or as we’d say in America, “good enough for government work.” It stems in part from a DIY ethos, predominant among people who, until fairly recently, didn’t often have much but made it work.
But it also means speed and appearances are prioritised over craftsmanship, and it can lead to dangerous lapses in quality. Close enough is good enough.
Looking back on this trip, understanding chabuduo helped explain a lot.
Zhejiang Geely Holding Group was founded by Chinese billionaire Li Shufu in 1986. As Reuters reported earlier this year, it “focused on refrigerators” at the time of its founding and entered the automotive industry in the late 1990s.
Geely put out its first vehicle model in 1998, the Haoqing wagon. The company’s nameplate is mostly visible in China, but Geely and Li Shufu have taken over all kinds of international brands in recent years.
Geely acquired Volvo Cars, the current jewel in its crown, in 2010. The company then put $US3.3 ($5) billion into the separate Volvo Trucks last year, buying an 8.2-per cent stake. Geely also established an entirely new car brand in 2016, Lynk and Co., which unveiled its third Chinese-market production model in August. In 2017, Geely bought U.S.-based startup Terrafugia, promising to deliver a flying car—something that’s very hard to do, at least in the U.S.—by 2019.
Geely didn’t stop there in 2017. In May of that year, Geely bought a controlling stake in Lotus, the little British sports car company with a wonderful lineup but a perpetually troubled existence, with hopes of reviving it through electric vehicles.
And this year, Li bought a 9.7-per cent stake in Mercedes-Benz’s parent company Daimler at about $US9 ($13) billion. Reports a couple of weeks after were that Geely also tried to buy Fiat Chrysler for $US22 ($31) billion, and last month, we learned that the company purchased the struggling Utah Motorsports Campus in Tooele County, Utah.
Geely eventually wants to start selling its own branded cars in the West, too, with the China Daily newspaper reporting earlier this year that it wants to start that nameplate expansion with Europe in 2020.
Geely has garnered an excellent reputation in the automotive industry for its ownership strategy. When it buys or takes a controlling stake a company, it generally just leaves that company alone, writing checks and letting engineers, designers and suits do what they’re good at. It doesn’t make major changes people see from the outside, instead pushing the subsidiaries in its charge to be the best they can be.
But one of its goals seems to be using all of these resources to develop future car technology, like having Volvo Cars and Volvo Trucks, which officially split in 1999 after Ford bought Volvo Cars, work together on electric vehicles, self-driving technology and Volvo truck sales in China. Buying into companies across the globe also gives Geely footholds in major and growing markets, elevating it to the level of other multinational car companies in its pursuit of becoming a top-10 global automaker by 2020.
Basically, Geely owns a lot of stuff, even if it doesn’t slap its name across all of the things it puts money into. From a Western perspective, Geely’s automaker nameplate might not be everywhere, but its investments certainly are.
In China, Geely is a major name—even with the country’s struggling car market recently, the Financial Times reported that its profits were up 53 per cent across a six-month period earlier this year. That was enough to make Geely China’s third largest automaker as of August, shooting past Nissan, Toyota and Honda to trail only General Motors and Volkswagen in the country.
The production version of the stripped-out race car we drove, the Emgrand GL, is a midsize sedan on the Chinese car market that comes with 131 HP and the choice between a manual and dual-clutch transmission. Geely said in January that it sold 145,000 Emgrand GLs in 2017, and 14,088 in December of that year.
The versions we had were almost entirely stripped, as most race cars are, aside from some production trim on the doors. They also had giant air intakes on the front, wide-body kits, aerodynamic changes, race pedals, suspension adjustments and other changes to make them all suited for a track.
We drivers, on the other hand, weren’t nearly as well prepared.
We were first told about this event and race by a message from a Geely representative to Jalopnik’s Deputy Editor, Michael Ballaban. “If you can drive stick you’re in,” the rep said, adding that the “other racers are pros.”
When we got the email about participating in the race, “pros” turned into “this event is a semi-pro grass roots racing program.”
“Please note that this is a real world race and thus will have real world dangers and implications, we would expect you to sign waivers but we will also buy you appropriate insurance for the event,” the email said. These all came from the same Geely representative, a native English speaker.
Similar to how the racers went from “pro” to “semi pro” to “not pro at all,” I was told numerous versions of most stories and basic information while there. I don’t speak Mandarin, but general environment around the race made it seem like many discrepancies weren’t translation related.
I was told at first that the race itself was eight laps and that we would do an eight-lap qualifying race. Then, I was told qualifying would be like a practice session with fastest times setting the field. The race distance later turned into six laps. I figured I would just go until everyone else stopped.
The introductory session we went to, which, from the translation, sounded like a sales pitch to tell people everything they could do with a racing licence, had a basic rundown of them: A Class B “regional” licence then became a Class A “national” licence, then drivers could get Class C, then B, then A international licenses.
A Geely rep said this race was a Class B regional race, and that the people in it got their Class B licenses during the weekend for participating—not before. The contenders were the “fastest people from the Geely Speed Experience Camp,” I was told when I got there, and “invited guests” like myself.
For this race, a rep said during an interview at the race track, “everything [was] paid for” by Geely for the participants.
“How much does the camp cost?” I asked, curious about the initial investment for drivers and how this sort of thing can easily run into the thousands of dollars in the United States.
“It’s a business secret, sorry,” a Geely representative said.
“Wait, but if you’re going to purchase it, you have to know the price?” I asked.
The only other English-speaking writer on the trip was from England originally and now lives in Shanghai. He, too, was confused.
“What’s the advertised price?” he said. “Even if not everybody pays that, there must be a headline price.”
Another Geely rep later told us this writer, who was referred to as a journalist and also participated in the race, was there to write a story for Geely’s own website.
“Geely Super Cup is open to motorsport fans and is free to motorsport fans,” the same representative from earlier said, correcting himself. “If you like motorsport, if you want to join Geely Super Cup, you can on our website.”
“But how is it decided?” the English writer asked. “There are 1.3 billion people here, so, if everybody wants to do it?”
“First, we have the experience camp,” another representative said. “You can sign your name, free, for the experience camp. Then, in the camp, we will do some racing and the top level ones can be registered in this Cup race.”
“And the camp is free?” the writer asked.
“Yes,” the same representative said. “Absolutely. The camp is for free.”
“So, anybody can do the camp?” I asked. “For free?”
“Yes. You only need a driving licence.”
I asked why the company would put such an investment into this, with no one paying to compete. To build brand loyalty? To get the word out through excited social-media posts by the drivers? What was the end goal?
“To promote motorsport culture,” a representative said. The English writer added to this, saying racing currently isn’t very popular in China, which is true.
Growing the national sports culture in general is also a big focus for the Chinese government, to the point that a report from the Chinese Communist Party-controlled China Daily confidently declared President Xi Jinping’s personal love for the idea:
Xi believes sport has great significance beyond itself and that the dream of building China into a sports power is an integral part of realising the Chinese dream of rejuvenating the nation.
The government works to promote the growth of sports alongside the country’s growth with large investments into facilities and “towns dedicated as centres of sporting excellence,” according to the South China Morning Post. Helping do that in a country where business and the state are so intertwined can’t be a bad thing for Geely, in the eyes of the government.
I was told the free experience camps usually have “a few hundred people in them,” and I got the signup link later after asking for it.
“The camp cost confusion came from an invited driver (a celebrity) who said she didn’t know how much the other drivers paid, and said its [sic] probably a secret,” an off-site Geely representative said when my bosses asked about it. It was later published in the Geely PR story that the camps are free to register and join. “I can find out the exact sum if required!”
Free or not, the fastest drivers from the camps qualify for a Geely Super League race like the one we were in, then the top three finishers at those races get to compete in the championship Geely Super Cup race, according to a diagram I was given.
The writer from England and I interviewed four drivers while there, three of whom spoke almost entirely through translators who were Geely employees. It’s a necessary evil: Translators are required in these cases, but PR representatives want to get the best message out about their companies, and neither side is able to tell if the message changes at all to further that mission.
Two of the men we talked to worked in the car industry, one as a middleman for financing secondhand cars and the other, who used to work for “government media” and then went into “automotive media” before becoming a freelancer. We were told he got his driver’s licence seven years ago and that “the first time he drove a race car was around four years ago.”
“So, when he came to the experience camp, he already had experience driving race cars?” I asked.
“He’s driven a race car, but he’s never raced a race car,” a representative said, translating the interview. “So he’s, like, driven a supercar.”
“But you said he’s been driving race cars for four years?” I asked, citing what another rep said earlier.
“Not like F1 race cars,” a rep said. “Like a Porsche 911.”
During the interview, which was also attended by the writer from England, many of the translations of the three drivers were about how thankful they were to Geely for the opportunity, how great it was of Geely to do this, and how they were so grateful to be able to race on this track thanks to Geely.
We were told that a race participant we spoke to, whose answers were also translated, used to be a professor. She won a chance to go to an ice-driving school once as the prize for a jogging race she’d won, we were told, and quit her job afterward because she found it “boring” and began racing cars as a hobby.
When we asked what she does now, she and all of the translators looked at each other with alarmed “What do we say?” expressions. “It involves cars,” a Geely rep said, before I asked, “And what is it?”
The representatives laughed nervously. There was a long pause. “Um,” one said, before the three reps began speaking in Mandarin. About 35 seconds passed before we got an answer in English, according to a recording I took.
“She is quite like a… motorsport journalist in some OEM company,” a Geely representative said. “Car brand OEM.”
“Which you’re not allowed to name, obviously?” the other writer asked. “It’s a competitor, is it?”
“Ah, no!” one representative said quickly.
“Maybe, maybe,” another said nervously and quietly. They both laughed.
“It sounds like she’s in the marketing or PR department,” another said.
“So, her daily job is still driving the car and writing some report or to tell if the vehicle is good or right,” another representative said.
The other writer changed the subject.
Just three days earlier, all 18 of us got to Shanghai International Circuit, were given a safety and informational briefing completely in Mandarin, then bused to a nearby parking lot to work on straight-line acceleration and braking—a typical first step in racing schools and instructional camps.
All but two of us who drove, myself and the English writer, spoke Mandarin. The translator, a Geely representative unfamiliar with racing, didn’t understand all of the instructions or workings of the car and its manual transmission, even having to ask myself and the other English speaker at one point what order the three pedals were in and how stalling a car works.
That meant some things were, quite literally, lost in translation, but it was hard to tell how much was lost and if it would affect me—after all, I didn’t need a translator to tell me which pedals were which.
It became evident on the track what hadn’t translated over.
We spent the entire first day there, a Thursday, on the couple of short briefings in Mandarin and the braking exercise in a parking lot outside of the track. Geely set up a relatively small—laughably minuscule in comparison to the F1 track hovering over us—U-shaped course with blue and orange cones.
Accelerate off of the line, we were told through translation, shift into second gear, brake at the blue cone, downshift into first to round the U, then accelerate back into second gear to finish out the course.
We did the U-shaped course six times each, took a long break, then did it six more times. That was all for the day. Over the course of two days in the parking lot, I saw at least three people stall, and I wasn’t out there for everyone’s runs. One person stalled around four times in a row off of the line. Lurch, clunk. Restart. Lurch, clunk. Restart. Lurch, clunk. Restart. Lurch, clunk. Restart.
When we arrived at the parking lot for one session, a driver was walking off of the course. Someone said the person stalled and had to walk back because they didn’t know how to restart the car. I can’t verify that last part, but I can say the car was a push-to-start.
The third driver I saw stall was the other English-speaking writer. He stalled in the turns a couple of times, I believe because he was downshifting into first when he probably shouldn’t have. I never did that, despite being instructed to.
Most of these people didn’t seem like pros, despite what we were originally told.
During the weekend, my editors raised our collective safety concerns, as well as our concerns about the different messages we were getting, with a Geely rep who wasn’t at the track or on site that weekend. The representative told them while I was there that drivers there were “a mixture of amateur professional and amateur.” In the email, events of the past couple of days were meticulously—and sometimes inaccurately—described under bolded sections.
The only note under the bolded “Stalling:” section was the following. It only mentioned the English-speaking writer, who I remember telling me while there that he’d driven mostly stick his entire life:
There is one English guy here – [name, redacted] – a freelance journalist who we invited to take part in this stage. [Reacted] is more used to automatic life in Shanghai so he is stalling like crazy. He’s getting the hang of it though.
The same representative assured my bosses everything was fine, and said that while the briefing mentioned FIA requirements like a HANS device, Geely didn’t think we needed one because of speeds. The rep chalked our worries up to this:
I understand Alanis is a small town girl with limited exposure to life outside of the USA so I imagine coming to Shanghai has been a major cultural shock for her at all aspects.
Friday was similar to Thursday, with a watered-down autocross course in the parking lot. The first part of the course was the same as Thursday: straight-line braking that wrapped into a tight S-turn with three corners. Several drivers went into those turns way too hot, mowing over and spitting out cones like they were weeds in a long-neglected park.
We did that autocross course five times each, before taking yet another long break. When we went back to the lot, the course was different: It started with the braking line, curving around and breaking off at the entrance to a circle of cones before that circle wrapped around to another braking line.
The circle was meant for throttle control. Some people controlled it; others ate cones, others lost control and either abruptly stopped with the nose of the car into the circle or pointed away from it. We ran that small course five times, completing all of our driving time before we would get on the track the next day.
Our first time on the actual track was practice at 9:40 a.m. Saturday, the day before the race, and we drivers hadn’t gotten out of second gear before that point. We arrived to see all of our cars lined up outside of the F1 garages.
The first cars I saw said “B+” next to drivers’ names on the back windows. Recalling the informational sessions, I thought maybe that indicated their racing licenses. I was told these people weren’t professionals, but I was also told they were, so I didn’t actually know.
I saw an A+. “Hm, they must be experienced,” I thought.
“That’s an interesting one.”
“I don’t remember hearing about that one.”
Then I walked up to my car. It said “Alanis King Jones A+” on the back window.
“Huh,” I thought. “I don’t have a racing lic—oh God, that’s my blood type.”
(Blood types on windows certainly exist in many forms of racing; they’re just a daunting visual, especially in a situation like this was turning out to be.)
We got to the track late Saturday and had to hurry to our cars, embellished nicely with our blood types on both back windows. As we stood beside them, I looked around, confused. I asked when we’d get our HANS devices.
The HANS, a head and neck restraint that became mandatory in many racing environments after Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal Daytona 500 wreck in 2001, was something I didn’t want to race without.
We were in relatively low-powered cars that would only reach about 169km/h before the last sharp hairpin on the track, but that didn’t mean we should forget the HANS altogether. If drivers need head and neck protection for grassroots racing series like Lemons or the American Endurance Racing series, drivers should need one here.
I had to run a practice without a HANS, feeling like a bobblehead doll, but Geely had one for me the next day. I only knew of two people who used a HANS device the whole weekend: myself, and a driver who brought their own.
But my HANS-less practice session didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. I waited for all of the other cars to get far ahead and then accelerated off of pit lane, treating practice like a single-car run without the HANS upon advice from a friend who races professionally. I wasn’t lonesome for long, though.
It wasn’t evident in first gear, but as soon as I threw the shifter into second, something wasn’t right. The car made a gurgling sound as I put the gas pedal to the floor. It crept forward like it was carrying the weight of a garbage truck.
I couldn’t get the revs past 3,500, so I tried every gear through fourth to see if I could make something work. Second to third. Same sound, same rev max. Third to fourth. Nothing. Fourth to third. Nothing. Third to second. Nothing. There were no warning lights on.
“Maybe the car really is this slow and it just seemed fast in a small parking lot,” I thought, trying to find any justification for this, until I saw a chain of three or four white cars coming up fast. They blew past me on the main straightaway like I was walking.
I looked around for an access road where limping cars could pull off and return to the pit area. Everything that looked like an access road had a dead end, and I’d have to re-enter the track as safely as possible each time I tried one, my car groaning forward. I went the length of the track looking for a safe place to pull off before realising I couldn’t find anything. I settled for a piece of turf near pit lane, which, like my other apparent options, could’ve easily ended up in the path of a wrecking car.
I pulled off, restarted the car three times, and things finally went back to normal. All I could think about was the colossal rear ending I was in for if this happened at the start of the race.
I later told a Geely motorsport representative about it when he asked about my “dramatic improvement” in practice—from six-minute laps to three, in the course of two laps—saying it was similar to the electronics issue I’d experienced in an Alfa Romeo Giulia the year before.
“You were in the wrong gear!” he said.
I told him I wasn’t, that I know how to drive stick and even tested up to fourth, and that I finally had to restart it.
He brushed it off. “Wrong gear.”
The team later went and checked the car to see if they could find out what the actual problem was. I don’t know that they did, but it didn’t happen again.
Saturday only had that one 30-minute practice session before we went back to the hotel. I felt better getting in the race car on Sunday with a HANS device, only to discover that the straps holding the HANS in allowed my head to come all the way forward to the point that the bone at the base of my neck popped out to form an angle. I was told by a Geely motorsport representative that this was how the HANS was supposed to be. It wasn’t.
We had a drivers’ meeting for the race in Mandarin, translated like all of the others. I asked for a copy of the safety notes in English, even though I wouldn’t have the reference slideshow images everyone else saw during the meeting. Something was better than nothing.
At one point in between the practice, qualifying and race sessions on Sunday, the other English-speaking writer said, “I feel like nothing we did those first two days actually prepared us for this.”
Again, I enjoy track driving. But I can’t help feeling that even if I were a veteran racer, I still would have found it questionable, mostly because of everyone else. No one seemed ready to do this.
Even still, I thought I could safely navigate the race, or at least the important part of it—the first three corners where we would all be bunched up together. The loose HANS, for some reason, gave me a sense of security that dissipated as soon as I lined up on the grid for the race, locked into my starting spot between race cars in front, beside and behind me, and pit wall a few feet to my right.
When asked about everything after the race weekend, the Geely representative who wasn’t on site told Jalopnik that Geely always aims “to have safe, well organised fun.”
“All cars are outfitted with roll cages, fire extinguishers and 4 point harnesses, note that driving schools from European brands do not offer the above whilst carrying out their events,” the representative wrote in an email. “I believe the lack of clarification from when Alanis asked attendees for more information is more of a cultural barrier, Chinese tend to rarely want to talk about their personal lives with immediate outsiders.”
The cost of this one event in Geely’s multiple-race Super League season was colossal. The cost to fly me out there alone was huge, and, as was the cost of putting everyone up for several days.
Geely paid to bring around 20 race cars to a Formula One circuit, provided a maintenance team big enough to service all of them, and assumed the risk of mechanical failures and of anyone wrecking a car, which at least one person did during the race. The race was streamed online, and my mother woke up at 3 a.m. from Texas to watch me on her iPad in bed.
It was big, like everything else Geely does—the major takeovers and offers to buy car companies decades older than itself, the large-scale investments reported on once every few months, the sheer monetary power of this young company with a foundation in refrigerators that decided to start buying out and expanding across the automotive world a decade later.
But with each international investment, Geely rushes itself closer to the way other parts of the world do business, and will establish itself as a major global car company—a household name—soon enough. If others could do it, there’s no reason Geely can’t.
That establishment should come with a smooth integration into the market as a major player, not a big, confusing, hard clash like a cartoon character slamming into a concrete wall it didn’t know was there, despite everyone else seeing it ahead of time.
If this race weekend in Shanghai was any indication of how that’ll go, Geely has a lot of work to do.
When the red lights went out on the grid—I was told via a translation that two yellow lights would illuminate to tell us to go, and that never happened, so I just went when everyone else did—I purposely let several cars pass so I could file into the first turn safely.
I got those spots back during the race to finish 11th out of around 20, driving cautiously and not actually racing the other cars. I tried to overtake 10th several times in the last laps, but the driver was nervous that I was there and fishtailed at every apex because of it. (I gave him the apex line because, as I agreed upon with my bosses and acquaintances, trust no one to know what they’re doing.)
It was frightening to see such lack of control, but at least there was no one else around. I decided the spot wasn’t worth it, and hung back until the race ended.
“I’m alive,” I texted my boss as soon as I got out of the car, at 5:15 a.m. Sunday his time, honouring his request from a few hours earlier.
“Oh, good!” he responded, not long after.
“Good.” It was much more simple of a word than I would’ve used to describe the feeling of making it through that race, and that entire week. But, perhaps in the spirit of chabuduo myself, “good” was good enough for me.