Alex Yoong is not the typical jock, it turns out. We do not have a typical interview. Therefore, this will not be the typical write-up.
At least, not in style, syntax or form.
(The fancy term for it is editorial prerogative.)
If you were to only listen — to the exclusion of all other stimuli — to a 90-minute tape of Alex Yoong being interviewed, you might be tempted to think he is closed off, truculent, dogmatic.
However, if you quietly observe his face and note his demeanour during such an interview, and really hear the inflections in his speech, you might be pleasantly surprised by a few observations.
For example, that face is the figurative fine line that stops earnest self-assuredness from spilling over into arrogance. The look in his eyes and the unexpected cheekiness (which a tape recorder doesn’t pick up – sadly) are the things that mitigate (what sounds like) an uncompromising, unilateral diktat into hard-earned insight, with self-awareness and self-deprecation waiting to break through the opaque surface.
And little gems of truly funny quips, in text and in person.
He takes himself seriously, but he also doesn’t.
This is why I said it was not the typical interview, and he is so much more than what static pictures and pages of digital text could possibly convey. Beyond the medals and the adoring fans, I wondered about the person, not the national champ/jock.
It is impossible to know a person in 90 minutes out of 40 years. But it is possible to pay attention and learn a thing or two.
Alex Yoong is disarmingly candid.
The type of candour that can make you pause for more than two seconds while you process what he’s just proclaimed and search his face for traces of irony or micro-expressions. Each time an unfiltered utterance comes flying out, I imagine its intended target ducking under cover.
Not that he’s disarmingly candid all the time. A search of his digital presence threw up little in the way of sensational or scandalous news. Whether at a press conference at the launch of his biographical book where he – ironically — proclaims he’s very shy or when he diplomatically puts an interviewer in her place as she asks a loaded question about his father, Alex Yoong is usually polite when faced with inquiring minds of the journalistic stripe.
Which is why our Tuesday afternoon meet on an unusually blazingly-hot day becomes all the more searing in temperature with his outspoken candour.
Within minutes of us meeting and seated, he tells me he doesn’t want to talk about motorsports.
Great. For about a second I think, ‘Shit.’
But a second later, I think: no, really, this is great, because I tell him my interest in it wasn’t that much to begin with.
Of course he isn’t fazed by my blasé admission one bit.
When you’ve handled great big hulking pieces of metal welded together that move at speeds in excess of 200km/h around hairpin bends or crashed into side walls at those speeds, one woman’s non-interest in the very sport in which you earn your livelihood isn’t the kind of thing you’d agonise over.
But he diplomatically ventures the notion that when a spectator develops an interest in a personality, that’s when the interest in a sport becomes more intense for the spectator. I believe him. I mention the origins of my interest in football (so unlikely, three decades ago) which, after we trade some tangential nuggets, proves his point.
With Alex, though, the commentary surrounding him as a sports personality is a complicated creature. In his twenties, he admits, he used to be affected by negative commentary, but eventually he rationalised that not everyone will understand the full picture of what he experiences; ergo, after some time, these negative reports ceased to hold much weight for him. By the same token, however, because he no longer becomes affected by negative commentary, he also “does not take too much pleasure in positive comments, either.”
And more pointedly, he tells me he rarely reads what’s written about him (and that I shouldn’t take it personally.)
Alex Yoong may hold the singular distinction of being the first Malaysian to have ever been selected for and raced in an F1 race, (even tbough his roster of racing is much more extensive and applies to the present day,) but he is anything but a one-dimensional or stereotypically gruff, puffed-up jock.
Still waters run deep etc etc, comes to mind.
I was told by a mutual friend who later introduced us via e-mail that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Alex. She wasn’t wrong.
He is idolised and adored by many including hormonally-charged females who gush constantly on his social media account about how handsome he is.
So I appreciate the fact that not only does he attend our first-time meet in a t-shirt, shorts and slippers as opposed to being fashion-shoot ready, I also appreciate the fact that he slowly reveals himself, as the minutes tick by, to be a complex soul that hasn’t rehearsed his public persona to a T.
(I should know. I can smell overenthusiastic, media-savvy practised congeniality at ten paces. Not always pretty. Comical sometimes.)
Alright, so he’s comfortable going about town – this one and the many others in Europe and Asia – incognito, sans entourage or celebrity swagger. That’s a relief. So, not a limelight-chaser, spotlight-hogger. Check.
But here’s the other thing about Alex Yoong:
He doesn’t shy away from imperfection.
Whether he’s revealing the fact that he went through a protracted period of melancholy (his exact word) or his true feelings about his father (which I refuse to repeat, because some things are too private), Alex is different; he embraces imperfection, difficulty and, as he succinctly puts it, does not “shy away from intensity.”
In an age where 90% of public figures are obsessed with burying the slightest bit of imperfection lest it sully their precious image, Alex rides with it. With part-offbeat part-dry humour and a growing maturity based on his realisation that he needs to open up more and be less intractable.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a driven (sorry, couldn’t help the pun) man. Far from it.
Despite his blistering proclamations that his fellow professional racers are “boring, generally”
(“If I’m going to hang out with anyone in my leisure time, it won’t be drivers,”)
and that he remarks on the “stupidity and futility” of racing, he still climbs back into racing cars, apparently unafraid of death. Because?
“Because I’m good at it.”
He’s not afraid of death on the tracks, just of going slow.
He calls motorsports “fast, furious, noisy, dangerous.”
I interject and mention that though I rarely watch motorsports, I enjoy the human aspect of sports generally, specifically, seeing pure emotion on an athlete’s face.
To which he says, “This is the thing. How do you know how you’re doing in your day-to-day life? Or job? Quite often it’s very intangible. The great thing about sports, especially motorsports, it’s like ok, today, I’m not getting a result, let’s try a slightly different way of doing it. And the next day you show up and you get a different result. It’s very gratifying because the results are there and you can see it. It’s immediate.”
“But I think,” he continues, slightly more subdued, “most athletes bring that intensity to every other part of their life. I know that’s the case with me. But the part about being able to quantify achievement in sports – that’s the best part.”
He describes himself as resilient, despite his extreme shyness in his early days of becoming known to mainstream press. We’re talking 15 years ago, when he found it “difficult to do interviews.”
It is, however, still his “least favourite part of the job.”
So when I ask him the question that he has probably been asked a million times – what made him decide to go into racing – he simply says,
“Every kid wants to do racing. I was just lucky I had the opportunity to do it. It’s nothing special. My parents were involved in motor racing so they just figured out a way.”
His father, a man Alex describes as “very dynamic”, ran the Shah Alam Batu Tiga track from 1988 to 1998, and “he’s the one who made it [his racing career] all happen.”
The motorsport scene in Malaysia was very small at the time Alex was 11 (29 years ago). He learned to drive at the age of 11 then; this in itself is a remarkable fact. Though he shrugs this off as if it were the most unremarkable fact.
And then the paradoxical streak resurfaces. While he answers perfunctorily my questions on the minutiae of the what and how of his muddled foray into a fledgling motorsport industry in Malaysia, he will not, after some consideration, share some of the teeth-gritting moments of his journey.
“I can tell you about failures and successes because there’s nothing to hide,” he begins, looking at a text message on his phone before putting it down and looking me square in the eye with a hardness that was previously absent, “but I won’t tell you about the teeth-gritting moments that you couldn’t possibly understand.”
“And I won’t cheapen the hardest moments, the ones that you couldn’t possibly understand.”
(Silence of the lambs.)
Moments later, he softens a little and qualifies this by saying that there are things he would share with people who would understand but there was no way he could gauge, from one meet, that I would possibly understand some of the hardest moments.
To which I reply that I do, in fact, know all about hard times, and magically, as if the air has shifted imperceptibly between us, he thaws another degree and says, without coming off as disingenuously condescending, “Yeah, you look like you have.”
And then it is no longer an interview.
It becomes, from that point on, a formless wholly-textured conversation that turns and spins and speeds off in multiple directions that weaves multiple tangents among the few moments that we actually talk about racing, sports or his SEA Games gold medal and other major wins in water skiing. In fact, he doesn’t even bring up the fact of his sisters being winning athletes at all. (It is all up and out there in the great cyber universe for all to see and Google. It’s an impressive roster of achievements for the three siblings.)
So this is the moment where I get a tiny window of privilege to see beyond the racer, beyond the public figure, because we talk about family, relationships, books, my irrational love of Cristiano Ronaldo and even how rewarding it is to simply make that emotional connection with a person.
Let’s just say he surprised me in many ways, quite an achievement given my usual armour of scepticism and garden-variety cynicism.
At various points it almost becomes as if he’s interviewing me, which, while mildly unusual, wouldn’t be too dissimilar from his work at Fox Sports Asia as a commentator. Except that I’m definitely far less athletic than the sporting figures he interviews.
Clearly he isn’t just being a crowd-pleaser when he says he is curious and likes listening to people. If you’re lucky or interesting enough to intrigue him, he really would much rather talk about things outside of himself.
But he is, whichever way you slice it, inexorably intertwined with motorsports, and so, his frank views are worth considering.
The last thing he wants to talk about in his leisure time is motorsports.
He thinks he’s “too over the hill” to do F1 ever again, but he feels he’s at a good level for Asian motorsports and will probably do it for another 10-20 years.
But does he want to do the F1 again at all?
It is emphatic.
“The life of an F1 driver is very spartan. I do enjoy my life the way it is right now.”
And then, “I’m not about to start training twice a day six days a week.”
This is where the conflict lays. Though he says he loves competitive motor racing, he also adds, with some ferocity, “Every time I get in the car I think, f*** I’m good at this, I do this well,
but I also recognise the futility and stupidity of placing so much importance on a sport that involves going around in circles.”
But – his monologue shifts gears again – “people always think you’re competing against other people,” he mutters. “That’s chicken feed.
You’re always competing against yourself.
And that,” he says, turning to me with a pointed laser-beam stare, “is the only thing that makes it interesting.”
By this juncture, it would take a strong person to bear the full heat of Alex Yoong the utterly self-possessed man.
It would be far too easy to say Alex Yoong is fearless as he’s not even disturbed by “the big one,” (this is what he calls the time he crashed in a race in 1999 and was unconscious for more than ten minutes). It would be lazy and simplistic to say that that fearlessness carries over into his soliloquies. No. He’s not that easy to ascribe definition to.
Never mistake him for a tame pussycat, either. “Competition is what I thrive on.” That and pressure. He embraces pressure, he has said in another interview. I suspect many women and girls wish they were pressure.
But I digress and jest.
He won’t tolerate being told what to do and he doesn’t like explaining himself to anyone. This declaration, like all the others, comes accompanied by a direct unwavering stare each and every time.
I do not flinch. He is never the one to blink first.
That’s probably why he’s the race car driver and I’m not, but I am, by this point, enjoying the display of steely fire in those eyes. It’s much more preferable to distant, barricaded aloofness.
I also realise, silently, that he rarely hesitates with his answers. Only once in the entire two hours do I catch him chewing reflectively on his bottom lip for just a few seconds as he ponders his answer.
So I venture into personal territory. I ask about his divorce, but not before telling him that to an outsider such as myself, his marriage to a beauty queen seemed like he was set for a gilded life, what with their combined gene pools and their talents. You know, the usual trifecta of rich, beautiful and famous.
He says something about the divorce which I will not repeat simply because there are other sensitivities at play, and another person’s marriage is not something one can be so cavalier about publicly. I mean, it’s not my marriage to talk about. But I will say this. He’s not exactly glum about the ordeal.
He feels, truthfully, like he’s “been on spring break” since he got divorced seven years ago, and “it’s been awesome”, so his previous incarnation as a confirmed homebody has now evolved into a creature who is becoming more comfortable with socialising.
“I live for myself, and my only responsibility is to my son, not to anyone else. I choose, I decide.”
Again, that edge in his voice.
He loves spending time with his son, now 13 (Alex even manages a joke about how tall his son is and how he should double-check his paternity) whose resilience post-divorce has been a blessing to him.
Just don’t ask him about what goes through his mind at three in the morning, because the answer will never be simple and in all likelihood it won’t even be shared.
Some may never even understand the hint of a shadow of darkness over some of those thoughts.
He does admit to having been inscrutable in the past and having been outwardly acquiescent while inwardly refusing to follow instructions. It is just now, at this age, he is more comfortable with vocalising that stand of independent – or should I say unilateral – thought and decision-making.
And maybe rightly so.
I would imagine it’s difficult to win if you’re following behind everyone else like a faithful lap dog, no?
And that’s not a racing metaphor.
Alex Yoong, racer, sportsman, father; a breathing, walking collection of paradoxes. More than just the sum of chiselled cheekbones and photogenic good looks.
I might not be a diehard fan of either sport, but I am a fan of the man.
In between, we banter about inspecting each other’s bookshelves at some point, him telling me about misplacing his signed copy of a Julian Barnes and me sharing a memorable line from a book about fathers being cruel.
But that’s another story for another time in another space.