Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Riches to rags to revs

Born into privilege, an entrepreneurial enfant terrible on a self-destructive path, Thailand's pioneer of 'drifting' didn't find himself until his parents sent him into exile

Sak Nana makes money the old-fashioned way. He earns it.

As an enterprising seven-year-old, he used a crappy camera to take pictures at kindergarten gatherings, charging 20 baht per photo; sold paper bags at a market and toiled under the hot sun as a motorcycle-taxi driver on the sub-sois of Ekkamai.

But something just doesn't add up. For that kindergarten was located within the grounds of his own family's vast residence in the Sukhumvit area. And that motorbike was a 100-baht-a-day rental from Pattaya.

Well, Sak's great-great grandfather was Phra Pichet (born Ali Nana), a Siamese court official of Indian ancestry who became Chaokhun Kromatha Fai Kwa (literally: minister, right-hand side), the mandarin in charge of taxation on trade with Persia and Arabia during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-68).

Phra Pichet's grandson, A.E. Nana, owned vast plots of land along Sukhumvit Road and is said to have politely declined the invitation to give his name to that thoroughfare. We did get Soi Nana, though!

So why did Sak need to do all those odd jobs?

"I was driven; I wanted to stand on my own feet! People used to assume, incorrectly, that I could always cadge money from my parents. But if classmates [at Assumption, Bang Rak] in grade one got an allowance of 10 baht, I'd get three baht! In grade six, I was getting 15 baht while my friends were getting 50 baht. I wanted toys but my parents were so strict I didn't dare ask."

Regarding that motorcycle-taxi stint: The family's driver would pick Sak up from school at 3.45pm. Sak would then sneak out, take a bus to Pattaya, rent a Honda Dream, return to Bangkok and join the taxi queue on a soi near his home (which wasn't frequented by relatives). His colleagues were under the impression that Sak was the son of a maid from "the big house".

Earning 300 to 500 baht per day, it wasn't long before he had enough to buy several new sets of wheels. But his real mother soon cottoned on and redistributed the motorbikes among her household staff.

Sak eventually branched out into illegal street racing at night. "Friends of mine were dying right in front of me almost every week," he recalled. "Nobody should ever do this."

One day Sak was summoned by his parents and instead of the expected scolding was given a passport and a one-way ticket to the UK. He couldn't speak a word of English at the time [although now he's fluent] and said that being banished to a foreign country felt like the worst possible punishment.

"I hated studying. But when you're alone, you have lots of time to think. I wrote many letters [to his parents and cousins]. Each one had my tears on it."

The 19-year-old came to realise that all his "suffering" in the UK - where he had to subsist on a meagre monthly allowance of 140 (about 6,000 baht at that time) - was for a good reason. "They [his parents] gave me life. I never gave them anything in return and all they wanted was to see me graduate. My life turned around that day. Study? I studied from that day onwards."

To cut a long story short, Sak went on to earn a bachelor's degree and an MBA from Oxford Brookes University Business School; graduated from cleaning toilets and washing dishes to building up a successful motorsports company and event-organising firm; and is one of those credited with popularising the sport of "drifting" (sideways racing) in Europe.

It was a rally-driving Colombian classmate called Sebastien who introduced him to motorsports, lending him the equivalent of 60,000 baht to register for a Formula Ford motorsports scholarship back in 1992.

"I'd never raced in my life; I was so scared! Sebastien qualified first and I was, like, 'you're my hero!' Then I came in third; I was over the moon!"

At the end of the two-year scholarship Sak had a shot to race at a higher level but after spinning out in the final race he quit motorsports for a while.

A car-repair and -modification business he'd started was growing rapidly. "I was studying, buying up dilapidated cars and reselling them. Customers' cars were parked all over my place, so I moved to Silverstone [home of the British Grand Prix] at the invitation of Alex White.

"We [Option Motorsport] moved into two units and it didn't take long before I expanded to 11 units in 1999 which meant more mechanics, workers and the opportunity to work on cleaner cars [Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini]."

So was Sak really responsible for popularising the sport of "drifting" in the UK?

"It was the Scandinavians! After Formula Ford, I bought an old Nissan 200SX for 1,500 quid [pounds], built it up to 300hp, reworked the suspension and drove it at Bruntingthorpe Airport [in Leicestershire, England]. I entered the corner at 100kph, 150kph and 200kph. The car was out of control, but I wanted to control it at that speed. With the handbrake and some adjustments I was successful. I called it 'sideways racing'. At that time, the word 'drift' didn't exist."

Sak started buying old tyres with 50% of their tread left and took a camcorder along to film what was to become a stress-alleviation activity for him every Sunday.

"Customers saw my videos and asked what I was doing. They absolutely loved it and from two people it grew to a crowd of 100; from a few cars to 30 or 40."

In 1997, drifting developed into an annual, five-round competition. Two years later Sak decided to expand further: Silverstone was to be the venue for a major drifting event. Rent came to the equivalent of 1.7 million baht per day. With extras (ambulance, marshals, electricity, VIP rooms, car-park and track attendants), the total cost ballooned to about 3 million baht.

"I remortgaged my house, just in case! But for once in my life I wanted to put the Thai flag on this place." His thinking was: "I came from zero; if I go back to zero, so be it!"

Some 5,000 spectators packed the grandstand. Drivers turned up from as far away as France and Germany, as did the print and broadcast media eager to cover an event he recalls as being "the best day of my life".

He began taking drifting to venues outside the UK while continuing with his profitable motorsports business. Then came the news that his mother had been admitted to hospital back in Thailand.

"My father called. There was an unusual tone in his voice. So I drove straight from work to Heathrow."

"Thank God, my mother recovered. She said she needed me [here in Thailand] so that was that."

So Sak sold up his UK interests and is now doing very well for himself here a motorsports consultant; his clients include HKS, Toyota and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand.

He looks at my MP3 recorder and asks whether I would mind including in this article the fact that he's very grateful to his parents. Consider it done.



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