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06 April 2009

Farewell to RP’s Motorsports Hero

Words by Kris C. Lim

tito poch
My heart sank when Car Awards Group Inc. (CAGI) corporate secretary Atty. Robby Consunji told me that Jose “Pocholo” Ramirez, otherwise known as Tito Poch to his friends and family, had succumbed to cancer. It was the end of his four-year battle with the disease. Everybody loved him. He was a good person; a humble and true gentleman. I used to bump into him during motoring events and I would tap him on his shoulder. He would smile at me and tap my arms in return. You could feel his sincerity even in small gestures like that.

Tito Poch grew up in Manila during World War II. He learned how to drive using borrowed jeeps from American soldiers who passed by their house along Taft Avenue. After working as an hotelier at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, he went back to Manila in the '60s. Tito Poch told Arsenio “Dodjie” Laurel (a two-time Macau Grand Prix winner) that he wanted to try go-karts. Dodjie gladly lent him one. His passion for racing began there and the hobby soon turned into a living. He won in races such as slaloms, rallies, and circuit races. The man was a natural.

At 30, an age already considered old in motorsports, he pursued racing. He was the first person in the Philippines to be issued a Racing Driver's License by the Philippine Motor Association. He then became a team captain and won the Shell Car Rally Championship in 1966. He was also named driver-of-the-year by the Philippine Motor Sports Club for two consecutive years. 

Just like Laurel, Tito Poch also figured in a major road accident. A bus rammed into his popular Renault 8 on EDSA that left a scar on his chin. Thus, he grew a beard to cover it that later became his trademark.

By 1969, Tito Poch had become a circuit racing icon. He won the first Philippine Grand Prix held in Cebu and later drove for the Toyota team, managed by his neighbor and friend Dante Silverio. The Toyota stint lasted for more than two decades. His winning streak continued even after the races were moved to BF Resort Village in Pamplona, Las Pinas - until that fateful day in 1977 when he figured in a major crash that killed a spectator and injured dozens. 

But that did not let that tragedy dampen his spirit and in 1978, he returned to Macau and finished ahead of Formula One drivers Patrick Tambay and Alan Jones in the Formula Atlantic division. In 1979, he tried his hands on rallying and became the first Asian to drive across the finish line in the ASEAN IV International Rally held in the Philippines.

In 1994, Tito Poch put up the Subic International Raceway, a 2.9 Kilometer circuit with 12 turns which has become the venue for various local and international competitions. He later formed a racing school together with his sons Kookie, Georges, Louis, and Miguel and trained countless of aspiring racers. 

Tito Poch became known even among non-racing aficionados when he participated in the Petron Xtra Miles Challenge - a fuel economy run that required participants to drive as far as they could on one full tank of gas where he covered an amazing 1,114 Kilometers. He was also Ray “Butch” Gamboa's co-anchor in the longest-running motoring show on television, Motoring Today, where he began his TV stint in 1987. Despite his condition, he still appeared on the show shortly before his demise.

The grand old man of RP racing was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Automobile Association Philippines (AAP), the country's motor sports national authority.

During the CAGI awards last year, I had a feeling Tito Poch was almost at his final pit stop when his son Kookie Ramirez accepted the lifetime achievements on his behalf. It was a sentimental moment for us, watching his acceptance speech on video.

Tito Poch served as an inspiration to both aspiring and veteran racers and even to the entire motor sports world. Thank you sir for all the fond memories and the goodness you showed us. Farewell!