When film star Jackie Chan and race car driver David Cheng teamed up to form Jackie Chan DC Racing in 2015, they had no idea their efforts to bring attention to auto racing in China would take such a dramatic turn.

As the multi-million dollar factory hybrids of Toyota and Porsche fell by the wayside, one by one, over the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most grueling auto race, Chan’s LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype) team — featuring two JOTA Oreca cars with stock Gibson V-8 engines — stunned the world by taking the overall lead.

It was to be a historical first on two counts. It was a Chinese racing team, and no LMP2 car had ever led Le Mans, ever. The big LMP1 factory teams always dominated the World Endurance Championship event. Chan’s “off-the-rack,” petrol-only Orecas cost a mere £500,000 (US$665,000) apiece, a fraction of what major competitors spend.

Co-owner and team co-driver Cheng, on a rest break, recalls waking up in the paddock to loud yells on the intercom.

“I just remember waking up to a lot of shouting over the intercom,” said Cheng. “Whenever there’s shouting, usually that’s not a good thing. Then I heard the paddock announcer go hysterical.

“Then I got a bunch of texts, saying, ‘Oh my god, you guys are leading the race!’ It was very surreal.”

Alas, one factory Porsche Hybrid managed to survive the carnage of the day. Using its considerable horsepower and fuel efficiency advantage, it clawed its way back and took the lead with just over an hour to go in the race and claimed victory.

The Toyota Hybrid sits in the winner's circle at the 2017 24-Hours of Le Mans. Photo courtesy WEC.
The Toyota Hybrid sits in the winner’s circle at the 2017 24-Hours of Le Mans. Photo credit: WEC/Adrenal Media.

Chan’s DC Racing team took second, and, after a disqualification, third as well — a shocking result in WEC racing circles. Co-driver Ho-Pin Tung also became the first Chinese driver to step on the Le Mans podium, along with Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent. Cheng, Tristan Gommendy and Alex Brundle landed third.

Fast-forward to today, where I catch Cheng in Beijing, as he readies the team for another historic run at Le Mans on June 16-17.

Known as one of the grandest events in auto racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans sees an average of 25,000 gear changes, covers more kilometres than Formula One does in a season — about 5,000 km — and boasts a higher average speed — about 220 km/h including pit stops —  over the Circuit de la Sarthe, a twisty 13.6-km track featuring the infamous Mulsanne straight. Add that all up, and you have the greatest test for man, machine and even for race fans who tough it out no matter the weather.

As co-owner and team driver, Cheng is the first to admit it’s not an easy job wearing two hats. While corporate sponsors haven’t been clamoring to get their foot in the door, Cheng says the miraculous finish in France has paid dividends. More Chinese companies are seeing corporate sponsorship as a viable route, and the team has been approached by several major brands.

“Racing is quite a new sport in China,” says Cheng, a three-time champion of the Asian Le Mans series. “Fifteen years ago it virtually didn’t exist. I mean … there was some club racing floating around on one or two circuits. Aside from that the only pedigree was the Macao Grand Prix, which is quite old. Then, all of a sudden, in the last 15 years, it progressed very quickly.”

The Oreca-Gibson of the Jackie Chan DC Racing team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 2017. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.
The Oreca-Gibson of the Jackie Chan DC Racing team at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.

The next big step, while daunting, could put China on the map when it comes to auto racing. Cheng envisions a home-grown, LMP1 factory team with a Chinese manufacturer to compete in the WEC’s elite prototype category. Many an auto firm has made its name at Le Mans, including Porsche, Audi and Mazda, and perhaps it’s time China steps into the ring.

To quote Soichiro Honda, founder of the Japanese carmaker: “Racing improves the breed.”

It certainly does, and, as China’s car culture grows, it’s only natural for closer ties to develop in tandem with auto racing. But with millions being spent annually on television rights for football and other sports, auto racing lags far behind and also nets lower viewership, despite the debut of Formula One.

Astronomical development costs are also a given for any LMP1 effort. It’s been reported that Audi’s LMP1-Hybrid program was nearly US$250 million a year. Porsche, about US$200 million, and Toyota, around US$100 million.

“I would say, this is the biggest challenge. Now, the factories are interested, but getting that program off the ground is more difficult than anticipated,” said Cheng. “Jackie’s been supporting us a lot, especially helping us find resources … but in racing, you’re handcuffed to the larger economy. When the markets take a tumble, racing budgets are generally the first to get cut.”

It doesn’t help that there is no home-grown talent to cheer for.

“That typically takes much longer to develop,” Cheng adds. “These things take time, and as time goes on, there will be more and more, but we really need to set up a structure, taking drivers out of karts and onto a professional career path.

“Kids in China these days, have a lot more opportunities than we did coming up,” said Cheng. “Now there’s the Rotax series, high-level karting and this year there’s going to be Formula 3 in Asia, and that’s what you need to develop the bottom level of the pyramid, For us, as a Chinese team, it’s really important that we try to develop some Chinese talent as well.”

From L-to-R. David Cheng, Jackie Chan and Ho Pin-Tung, of the Jackie Chan DC Racing team. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.
From L-to-R. David Cheng, Jackie Chan and Ho-Pin Tung, of the Jackie Chan DC Racing team. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.

Business issues aside, with the Le Mans race only weeks away, Cheng’s focus will be looking far ahead, down the track … as a co-driver. And while he would not tip his hand, he did say JOTA, the Kent-based race car maker and Jackie Chan DC Racing were working on finding the right balance on the Oreca-Gibson.

“We always had a very good race car,” said Cheng, “especially on tire management. That’s why we were so strong at Le Mans. Our engineering philosophy, how we platform it and the general set-up, the car was very forgiving on the tires. It’s something we’re really trying to address (this year) too.

“But, you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he laughed. “It’s a double edged-sword, finding the right balance is a tricky thing.”

Cheng also had some advice for young, would-be Chinese race car drivers, who dream of climbing the ladder to stardom.

“Have your target set very clearly, and know how to get there. In racing, you can waste a lot of time, chasing things. Look at how to make racing a profession first.

“Formula One is hungry for a Chinese driver, and, there are a few out there that have the talent. (But) to get into F1, you have to be doing karting in Europe, and, you really have to be on their ladder, their program. At 15 or 16, you have to be signed to their program to have a real chance to be considered.

“So while you’re developing talent — and I encourage everyone to go out there and do that — there’s a lot of very good racing series out there, where you can make a good profession out of it. So make it clear where you want to end up.”

And will Jackie Chan attend this year’s Le Mans?

Cheng laughed: We’ll see. I was talking to him a few days ago … and he was kind of on and off. We’ll just have to hold our breath a bit.”

David Cheng, co-owner and driver with the Jackie Chan DC Racing team. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.
David Cheng, co-owner and driver with the Jackie Chan DC Racing team. Photo courtesy Jackie Chan DC Racing.