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Meet Kiem Tjong: The Sensationalist Un-Racer

Meet Kiem Tjong: The Sensationalist Un-Racer
Story & Images By: Tom Stahler

She is on track and completely backwards…
The yellow open wheel, winged, 2.0 liter, Formula Continental is pointed in the right direction, and going at a quick clip. However, the driver may be the single most uncanny occupant to strap into such a car — ever!  

She is not a racing fan, but craves the sensations of precisely driving a car at speed. She is a Guianan-born Chinese who speaks with a Dutch accent.  And wow, she will change your opinion of Asian-woman drivers...

Kiem (pronounced Kim) Tjong came by racing in a most unorthodox way.  She did not have racing heroes growing up — and as a matter of fact, does not go to events, aside from the ones she participates, or watch motorsports on TV. 

That does not stop her from being quite quick in the formula car. She ran with the leaders, dicing it up for the entire race at Willow Springs International during the Vintage Auto Racing Association (VARA) Big Bore Bash event. Most of the women you find at any racing circuit are “humoring their men” or coming along for the weekend away, while some are, in fact, fans of the sport and spectate. Not Tjong. She is suited up and carving up the tarmac.

"I have no role models around me and didn’t get help and guidance from a father or older brother, boyfriend, or husband who were already into racing, and who encouraged me to track or race with them.” Tjong, an electrical engineer, who does IT consulting by day lives for the weekends of feeling the momentum and g-forces of a race car — and that’s about it…

Her husband, David Huo, however, joined her at Willow Springs, and played a supporting role as the formula continental requires help starting — and even strapping the driver in. But most of the time Tjong is alone at her races.  “My husband joins me maybe ten percent of the time.”

Tjong has had a great deal of wheel time for the last six years. Beginning on track, four years ago, with a SuperMiata, and worked her way up to the Formula Continental she purchased last year.

“At Willow Springs, I drove pretty much the same line I drive with my (spec) Miata.  But what is different is the vibration — there is no rubber components in this car. I was strapped in so tight — rather than sloshing around in a seat.  I could step on it through turn 9 and not worry, because of the downforce created by the wings.”

She tells an uncanny story about how she came to like speed. “Early on I was a designated driver for the man who would become her husband and his friends, when they went out to party. Her husband actually preferred to be driven — as opposed to being the driver.  He bought a Miata. I always liked speed, but with the Miata, you could slide the car when making U-turns and take turns faster.”

“I always liked speed, I like the sensation of g-forces in a turn — it’s pleasant.  Your senses become more keen.” She prefers the physical manifestations of driving — over watching the sport.

“When we got married, my husband and I were struggling financially. I never even had a honeymoon.  So I always told him he owed me a honeymoon with interest (laughs).  As we advanced in our careers, I told him, ‘rather than a honeymoon, why don’t we make our Miata faster: buy me a supercharger!’ I stated thinking about going faster and finding ways to go faster.  One day we  were out and I saw people racing cars around orange cones so I said to my husband, ‘lets go check that out.” 

“We met the organizers and one of the guys took me around the course in his mini cooper — and it felt great! They suggested that she try it herself in the Miata.  As it turns out, the organizers were Speed Ventures.”  She began doing auto crosses every couple of months. It was after a period of time that the guys at Speed Ventures had a combined track day and Autocross — they suggested she try some laps of the big track.  She was apprehensive, but they convinced her to try.  “It felt good. I really liked it.”

“There’s people who like tennis, but don’t like to watch tennis on TV…This is what made me realize that racing wasn’t purely for royalty”

On women in the world of grassroots motorsports, Tjong observes,“When I got started, you would show up and park your car, go to the building for registration, and stand in line with thirty or forty other people, and you don’t have any buddies. As a woman, it seemed like the guys standing in line all around me would ‘not know where to look.’ it was like riding an elevator.”

One can certainly make the correlation of the auto-crosser. “I went to engineering school and did not have much fun, as my classmates were very similar. Racing is a culture of ego and intimidation, but there are many newbie guys who auto-cross, so maybe they felt intimidated.”

“I didn’t auto-cross to become a good auto-cross driver…  I just wanted to get it out of my system. I wanted to see how far I could take the car without spinning out. I wasn’t going for time or anything like that.” She then decided it was time to take a step forward.

Kiem started on track in a “Super Miata” with is similar to Spec Miata race cars, but a little more modified. Within the two classes, Kiem’s car made about 145 Horsepower, have tuning chips, and run E85 fuel.  The cars must fit within a specific weight and horsepower. It’s a young league, but was started as a competition class by Speed Ventures.

When Kiem drives the winged car, she is elated with the level of grip and feels she hasn’t taken the car to its full potential. “It’s very satisfying, and I am still wondering… Am I going to lose grip? I mean it should lose grip at some point and I am still wondering when that’s gonna happen. I guess you have to be going hugely fast for that to happen.  I have spun my Miata, but in this car it might not feel good.”

Beyond the sensations, Tjong has grown in racing strategy and understanding. In a different discipline than the shorter “sprints” that most club racing offers, her first big win came during a 2-hour Enduro, which is more a thinking man’s race. “I won an enduro last year (2017), which I am very proud. I am not easily proud. This was different, it is easy to floor it in the Miata, but this took a lot of smart racing. Things like fuel management — I was driving with a smaller tank than my competitors with a fuel gauge that didn’t work.  I had to do a lot of calculations, drafting and short shifting. It was an intelligent race that I won and I am proud of it because I am not usually an intelligent driver. In sprints, I generally go on impulse and feel because I enjoy it so much. I drove the whole race myself, I am kind of selfish that way, but I really do love the long stints.”

Tjong, the daughter of a surgeon, grew up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as her first language. She learned Mandarin at a much later age in Taiwan. “I was on the same learning curve as the other white kids.”  Currently Kiem splits her time between Monterey Park, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. She joined Spring Mountain, a private country club racing facility in Parump, Nevada recently and takes advantage of the membership by driving on track frequently. She does admit to catching a Formula One race on TV here and there, but only because of a fellow Dutchman, Max Verstappen who drives the series. “I didn’t’t watch F-1 growing up, but I have learned some strategies by tuning in occasionally.  I probably should have started watching it much earlier (laughs).”

Tjong is an American citizen and feels that the racing here is a very American thing to do. “I never would have though that I would be racing. I feel very privileged to do this. This is a very American thing to me. I don’t see myself doing this in any other country. In Europe, racing is an elitist thing. Here you meet so many men who grew up working in the garage with their dads, where in Europe, they don’t work on their own cars — you bring your car to the mechanic — you don’t experiment on it yourself Here there is a tradition of messing with stuff yourself. I like the ‘can-do’ attitude.”

“I am really not the typical Asian-woman driver. After all, I grew up in the Netherlands and learned to drive on stick shift.” She certainly changed our mind.

TAGS: VARA, Big Bore Bash, Formula Continental, Super Miata, Woman, Asian, Dutch, Monterey Park, Las Vegas, Speed Ventures, Willow Springs, Spring Mountain


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