To Alex Yoong, family and racing are not a competition. They’re separate aspects of his life that he tends to in different, clearly segmented circles.
For an idea of the kind of father Alex Yoong is to his 15-year-old son Alister, he simply shrugged when Alister came home from school one day and announced that he is now Christian.
“I told him that’s fine. Choose whatever religion you want, why don’t you check out other religions too?” Alex tells candidly.
He prefers to let the boy call his own shots, design his own path and learn his own lessons, which was exactly why it shocked Alex so when Alister came around and asked to get into racing, something Alex has never pushed him to despite racing being his first and biggest defining love.
As the first Malaysian and second Southeast Asian to drive in Formula 1, you can say racing is a pretty big part of Alex’s life. So big is it, in fact, that not even becoming a father in 2003 deterred him from the racetracks nor dulled his passion for the most dangerous sport in the world.
“Racing is a large part of my life and it still is,” Alex opens up to us while Alister cracks the hair and wardrobe team up in the makeup room. “I’ve done a lot of things for racing that I’m proud of as well as things I’m not proud of. It’s all-consuming. I’m a different person when I’m behind the wheel. I love it and loathe it.”
The love stems from his father, who himself raced and ran the Shah Alam circuit from 1988-1998. Being three years old and feeling the power and adrenaline on those tracks as the cars made their turns around the bend are among Alex’s earliest memories.
The loathing of it, almost as if making things full circle for him, is from becoming a father himself.
“Sometimes, you fear being slow a lot worse than you fear death so you take unnecessary risks on the track,” he explains. “Sometimes it results in some pretty big crashes. That’s how important driving is to some drivers, to me.”
Torment laces his words as he tries to articulate his dilemma.
“I recognise the silliness of racing just being a sport – it’s stupid, shallow, frivolous. It’s entertainment,” he says. “Obviously, if I got hurt it would be not so good for the boy, but when I get into the car, it’s still more important to be fast than not get hurt.”
Here is a man who had fallen in love with two things equally fiercely, when he can only afford one.
On Alister: shirt by Fendi, pants by Ermenegildo Zegna; watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duo | On Alex: shirt and pants by Salvatore Ferragamo; watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Large Duoface Small Second (Atelier Edition)
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Classic Large Duoface Small Second AC Recto C Studio Cruchon
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duoface in Pink Gold
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“To do any sport well, you have to be obsessed by it”
Sacrifice is a word most athletes know well in their bid to be the best in their field. Alex connects more with the other – obsession.
“To do any sport well, you have to be obsessed by it,” is his opinion.
It’s something he’s seen many drivers go through, and it’s something he has fallen victim to, a failure that had cost him his marriage, among other things. It’s also the reason why when Alister, on his own accord, expressed interest in racing, Alex was more conflicted than elated.
“I don’t feel that obsessions are a good thing. It’s a good thing for results but I don’t think it’s a good thing for life,” he tells. “I didn’t want Alister to get into the same loop that I did.”
On the other hand, he knew it wouldn’t be fair to rob the boy of a passion he can call his own.
“Not everyone gets to say they have their thing that they’re passionate about. Mine was something that I am very thankful for, it keeps you straight as an arrow when things get tough. I knew too many talented friends who couldn’t find their thing and aimlessly drift through life,” he reasons.
“Alister is equally a big part of my life. I set my rhythms around him.”
He finally relented to Alister’s requests to take to the racetracks, on one condition.
“When he said he wanted to do it, I was concerned that it’s because of who I was. The pressure’s there. But I wanted to allow him to try it out. I helped him get into it, he’s been racing for two years now. He puts in a lot of work, so as long as he keeps putting in the work, I’ll support it.”
The irony isn’t lost on him how his racing years had kept him away from Alister growing up, yet it is now bringing them closer.
As Alex eases more into the role of a father, so has his career evolved to reflect that. While he still drives, currently in the Audi R8 LMS Cup with Audi TEDA, he is also working closely with Sepang International Circuit to bring up young talents in the industry with his own motorsport training company Axle Motorsport.
With it, he pools his resources and experiences to craft training programmes for youths as well their family looking to start a career in racing. This covers teaching them the techniques and giving them the training to finding them the right sponsors and opening up doors to international race events.
“I’m focusing on the really young kids at the moment,” he tells. “We have some older ones who are doing the Le Mans this year – Weiron Tan, Jazeman Jaafar and Nabil Jeffri. I’m quite hopeful that they’ll do very well.”
For himself, for his son
Nurturing this new generation as a father figure has also given him extra insight to becoming a better father to Alister.
“A lot of what drives sportsmen is negative. It can be shame, it can be a need for gratification,” he reflects. “These desires can be very self-destructive, especially if left unchecked. When the sport is done with you, you have to find your next fix. It’s a great driver (excuse the pun) but I don’t think it’s healthy. I’m trying to find a balance – I don’t know if I’m getting there – in a healthy way to pursue the sport without any of the negativity of an obsessive behaviour.”
From the start, Alex is a firm believer that you can’t have it all. What you can have, is balance.
“You can’t do both well,” he says without hesitation. “If you want to go racing and you want results, then you have to sacrifice something. If family is more important, then you don’t go racing. It’s as simple as that.”
That doesn’t mean he’s sidelining one over the other. To him, the two – family and racing – are not a competition, a choice. They’re separate aspects of his life that he tends to in different, clearly segmented circles. He gives them separate, but consistent, attention.
“Alister is equally a big part of my life. I set my rhythms around him,” he tells. “As far as racing goes, it doesn’t change a thing.”
On Alister: jacket, shirt and pants by Bottega Veneta, shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti | On Alex: Jacket by Fendi, pants by Ermenegildo Zegna, shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti
Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Automatic
Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Chronograph
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“There’s nothing I can hope for him to be more of”
While most fathers hope to impart their knowledge in hopes it would help shape their children and in that course, keep their legacies alive within them, Alex reaps the greatest rewards of fatherhood the other way round.
“A lot of these things about being a parent, I’m learning along the way,” he tells honestly. “It’s a very unorthodox way of parenting but I hope he’ll be able to teach me stuff.”
He’s already learning from the boy.
“He’s taught me that a lot of hangups that I thought were my fault were learned habits. He has a very healthy reaction to a lot of stuff. He’s not as sexist as I am, he’s more naturally caring whereas I will sometimes have to fake it,” he elaborates. “I’ve changed a lot because of him, not because I have to force myself. It’s been natural, easy change, because of him.”
Don’t ask him what he hopes to instill in the boy because there’s nothing in him that he has an issue with, except for little things like his occasional forgetfulness.
“I was quite lucky I suppose,” Alex admits. “He’s naturally a good kid, naturally quite resilient, I’m fortunate for that because he grew up in a broken home and that’s tough for any kid.”
He prefers leaving things a blank canvas for Alister; Alex will be by there for him, but never in the way.
“There’s nothing I can hope for him to be more of , but life is always going to throw you curveballs; I just hope I’ll have equipped him to deal with those curveballs without damaging himself or the people around him.”
He’s not bothered about the straight As so long as he sees Alister put in the effort. He’s not afraid of him making the wrong decisions every once in a while so long as he learns from them.
“Like I said, I let him call his own shots and form his own personality, except for that one time when he came home and said he was a Chelsea supporter.”
That bothered Alex as a Liverpool fan a lot more.
Photography: Xerxes Lee from Awesome Image
Art direction and styling: Gan Yew Chin, assisted by Natalie Khoo
Grooming: Ling Chong
Video: Zac Lam
Special mention: Alex and Alister wear sweaters by Ermenegildo Zegna and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris watches in the featured image