PETALING JAYA: In the 1960s and 70s, boys wanted to be Harvey Yap, and so did men.
Boys saw him as the thrill-seeking hero whom many considered as one of the best saloon car racers in the region.
Men were motivated by Yap’s fight against the odds, bringing glory to an emerging nation, and in the way he succeeded with aplomb.
He inspired devotion in followers of the sport, and at the same time, created a desire for many to own a Ford Escort which he drove with swagger, and once sold.
Yap, who died of a heart attack in Johor Bahru on Monday, aged 82, embraced all that came with being a race driver in the 60s and 70s.
Former sportswriter George Das said Yap earned his place in history with hard-edged determination on circuits that placed the highest demands on skill and nerve.
He said Yap shone among some greats, with dash and panache, at a time when Malaysia’s motorsport scene was in its infancy.
“He was a quiet sportsman but he was loud when he got behind the wheel, and shooting down the straights and turns on the circuit.
“As a gritty race driver with nerves of steel, he gave racing fans the thrills, and for me the joy of writing,” he said.
The affection and admiration he stirred extended beyond motor racing.
The scolding a speeding driver got from a magistrate – “Who do you think you are? Harvey Yap?” – made news in 1976, and became an utterance among traffic policemen.
Singaporean racer Eli Solomon recalled Yap began racing in the early 60s with a Morris Minor, Mini Cooper and a BMW 700.
He then progressed to Datsun models for Tan Chong Motors and later to various Ford Escorts and an RSR Porsche.
In 1979, Yap, backed by Rothmans and Ford, obtained a GP5 Zakspeed Ford Escort for his campaigns in the super saloons and unlimited saloons series in Malaysia and Macau.
Solomon said Yap sprung a surprise when Rothmans backed his entry for the single-seater in the Malaysian Grand Prix in 1975 with the 722-tubbed March the company had bought for Percy Chan to race in the previous year.
“It was his debut in top-flight formula Atlantic and he wasn’t far off the pace, qualifying third, behind the more powerful cars of Hong Kong’s John MacDonald (Brabham BT40) and Albert Poon (Chevron B29),” he said.
Yap was Solomon’s first race instructor at the Harvey Yap School of Advanced Driving at Pasir Gudang, Johor.
Apart from producing racers from Malaysia and Singapore and instilling the love of motorsport among the young, the school taught many to be better and safer drivers.
In a blog post, Solomon recollected an anecdote of another icon of Malaysian racing, the late Eric Ooi, about the weight advantage both Yap and him had over the competition.
Ooi told him: “We were both ultra-light and in the series production cars, 10 pounds made a big difference. Harvey was tall but hell of a skinny, so was I.”
Solomon said Yap was a soft-spoken gentleman who never tooted his horn. “There was no need for him to brag about his racing successes.”
After his retirement from professional racing, Yap played a key role in the formation of the Pasir Gudang race circuit in the 80s, and helped run races in the region.
“He was a steely character, much like our common friend, the late Rodney Seow, the 1967 Singapore Grand Prix champion.
“Put him together with Rodney and Eric, and you will have enough content for a good drama, just not printable,” said Solomon.
Yap never underestimated the nature of racing, especially during a period when safety was a long second to speed.
The fear of having a serious accident was always there and on April 24, 1977, the ever-present black shadow lurking beside drivers in the car struck.
Yap’s car ran off the track into a group of spectators during the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Batu Tiga circuit, killing five children and injuring 19 other people.
Police said Yap was driving his Mk2 Ford Escort down a straightaway at an estimated 130 to 150 miles an hour in the unlimited saloons race when it swerved and rammed into the trackside fence.
The children, aged five to 13, were standing behind the fence. Yap, who was taken to a hospital along with the injured spectators, never spoke publicly about the crash, believed the worst in Malaysian car racing history.
Despite the horror, the day’s events continued. Nobuhide Tachi of Japan won the race while Patrick Tambay of France, driving a March, won the 50‐lap grand prix.
A close friend, Norma Ann D’Souza, said Yap persevered after the tragedy and continued to set the standard all competitors should aspire to.
“We have lost a great man and a fearless competitor. He was a true gentleman, who was always fun to be with and enjoyed life,” said D’Souza.
She said Yap’s record will forever attest that it was behind the wheel, where he belonged, that he should be remembered for his humble and helpful personality.
Yap is survived by his daughter Amanda, 46, and the family will announce funeral details soon.