KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 10 ― Many international racers burnt rubber at the Batu Tiga and the Penang GP during its heyday, but the nation’s pride was a pint-sized racer from Penang called Oh Kah Beng, known to many as “Foreman Oh”.
He was easy to spot from the stands. Standing at 163cm, he was one of the shorter racers and donned the number 37.
If it was still too hard to identify him, he was usually the fastest during a downpour and the quickest charging into a corner due to his habit for late braking.
“When it rains I’m happy because that’s where I really shine,” said the 63-year-old.
He still loves being on a bike and these days, spends most of his time teaching at Most Fun Gym, a motocross park he owns in Kampung Sungai Penchala.
Oh also does not think twice to repair the motorcycles there.
The park’s tagline “Learn Off-Road, Master All Roads” — is a quote he believes in because that is how his career began some 40-odd years ago in Penang.
He has not only a fanbase among riders and drivers but was inducted into the Malaysian Motorsport Hall of Fame this year with Hanifah Yoong and Moto2 rider Hafizh Syahrin Abdullah.
Growing up, he spent most of his time at Boon Motor — his father’s motorcycle shop — in Jalan Jelutong and that was where his passion for two- and four-strokers began.
“Most of his clients were from the Royal Australian Air Force and the motorcycles they brought there for repair were special.”
And the Australians slowly became friends with his father, Oh Boon Chooi, while waiting for the repair.
Little did he know, they gave him his first peek at competitive racing later on.
“My dad was a specialist at converting bikes — from tires to changing the forks, name it and my dad could fix it.
“They loved and trusted him so much, they made him their head mechanic during their racing events.”
Hardly even three years into secondary school, Oh’s racing took off — his first event a gymkhana before moving on to motocross a year later in 1970, at only 16 years old.
“Motocross taught me how to control a bike better. During my first few races my aim was just to enjoy and not about winning,” he said.
“I eventually won but the knowledge I gained during this period helped me in the circuit.”
His father was his biggest influence growing up as he was a perfectionist.
“He hated doing a half-past six job. He was strict and that is why I am who I am today,” he said.
He also fell in love with bike racing when he witnessed the inaugural Penang GP in 1971.
“Not only had the speed caught my attention but how the bikes throttled, attacked corners and trail brake turned me on.”
After his offroad stint and a growing passion for a legal circuit race, Oh was invited by a friend to compete at the 1972 Penang GP.
“I was so nervous I almost didn’t start the race as I forgot to put the ignition key in the right position.”
He took part in the Penang GP for another four years before taking close to a year off in 1977 for a racing stint in Australia under the guidance of Douglas Munro who owned his own racing team.
He returned to the track in 1978 before his first big break on a 500cc series race in 1979.
His most memorable race was in 1982 when he finished second behind Australia’s Wayne Gardner.
Despite never winning the Penang race, he was still Malaysia’s fastest on two wheels and he proceeded to compete in a one-off race in Brunei before taking part in the Indonesia GP in Jakarta and the Macau GP.
During this period, he raced against some of the era’s greatest — Barry Sheene, Randy Mamola, Ron Haslam, Eddie Lawson and Gardner.
“Racing against the best taught me a lot. I welcome competition.”
When it came to injuries, he takes a positive approach and feels blessed that he is still alive.
“Put aside your fears. If you think everything is risky, you won't go far in life.”
His racing career ended in 1984 when he suffered a crash on his team’s Yamaha RD350 during a Shell endurance race.
He was also working for Shell, where he went from being in charge of the racing team to heading the motorsports marketing division until March 1997.
Oh also worked at Lotus and eventually became head of Lotus Cars Asia Pacific until 2014.
Despite a career filled with speed and thrills, his favourite moment on a bike was during a trip to Chiang Mai last month.
“I was about to rent a 250cc bike until my friend told me to get a 150cc scooter.
“We took a ride along Chiang Mai and it taught me how to appreciate a ride. It was beautiful despite being at a slower pace.”
Just before taking off on his Ducati Monster 795, Oh said: “Remember, power is nothing without control.
“Anyone can go fast on a straight track, but not many can slow down and attack a turn with the necessary skills. It is all about science and art.”