The Next Turning Point – Exclusive Interview with Wendy Li

Wendy Li (李倩雯) is the former Editor-in-Chief of China Motorsport Magazine (中国赛车杂志). She single-handedly revived this magazine after it had been out of circulation for three years. At the same time of leading the editorial on the newly-revived magazine in 2018, she was also part of the organizer’s team for the inaugural Mini Challenge China Series. During China Motorsport Magazine’s dormant, Wendy was the editor for the Chinese version of Motosport.com.

Wendy (center) during Mini Challenge preparation

Stories behind closed doors

Wendy left the motorsport industry last year because she wanted to limit her hobby to just her free time. It was a turning point in her life. When she first joined the industry for a paid full-time position back in 2013, it was because what was just her hobby could actually be a full-time job. According to her, it was also a turning point in her life at the time.

This hobby started when Wendy was in middle school as a casual thing when her father put Formula 1 on TV. When she went to high school, even though it was a boarding school, she was still able to check out the Grands Prix during the weekends when she went home. In college, the hobby became a side project and gave her the first experience in editorial. “I started watching F1 in middle school. My dad had control of the remote, so I just watched what he was watching. I went to a boarding school for high school, but I could still watch the races on weekends. To be honest, I wasn’t even familiar with the calendar at the time! So I just watched what I happened to be able to catch. I think the most races I watched was 2011 season when I was a sophomore year student in college. I also started contributing articles for Ruike, a website that provided motorsport news and live streaming. I didn’t really consider that work. I would be reading motorsport news in English anyway. There weren’t a lot of Chinese motorsport sites, so I translated the news and edited it for the website. I also participated in some commentating for Free Practice sessions. Ruike brought me to a lot of friends who are now still active journalists and commentators.

Wendy at 2019 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix

“I stumbled upon China Motorsport Magazine’s job ad on Weibo, and Zhang Haining recommended me. He is very well-established in the sports circle, especially in Guangdong Province. His recommendation made me, a student still in college, seemed really impressive. My original plan was to go find a job in one of those high tech firms. But when I saw that ad, I thought I could give my hobby a shot. Now looking back at the past 7 years, it was a turning point and the start of a different and amazing path.

That different and amazing path, led Wendy to see behind-the-scene stories of drivers, teams, and championships, which are “far more interesting than race reports and even silly season discussions”, according to her. “My first stint at China Motorsport Magazine really opened my eyes. I covered a lot of different championships trackside. I saw how the international level competition had very sophisticated operations. Our local/national competitions may not be as mature or ‘highbrow’, but are real, hard core racing anyway, and they have their own normality.

The work covering all those different championships brought her long lasting relationships with PR managers/directors of different brands which would help her later in her career, and gave her a unique perspective of why the brands are involved in motorsport besides boosting sales of their cars. “For example, Porsche has this pyramid they cultivate their own drivers through. Grass-root level would be those Porsche Experiences at their experience center. Then you move up to GT4, then you can turn pro at GT3 level in Porsche Carrera Cup. Champions of Porsche Carrera Cup from different regions can go race in Porsche Supercup. This is very intense competition, and if you are still able to beat everyone else, you get a shot at their WEC or other endurance racing team. Earl Bamber is like their poster boy. I’m fascinated by stories like this in motorsport. I think this is the value of being present in the paddock. I’ve even presented the pyramid structure at a dealership training program.

Wendy at Porsche’s Sportscar Together Day in Thailand in 2018

Of all the stories from the paddock, her most memorable was the one-week Star Racing Academy training camp she experienced with Formula Master drivers. Formula Master as a championship has since folded, but the understanding of a driver’s life stayed an everlasting impression for Wendy. “I was in the UK for a week together with Yuan Bo, Bao Jinlong, and Hua Miao in 2014. They were the three drivers in the Star Racing Academy program. We all know drivers go through a lot of physical training, but I had no idea how exactly they train. I tried some of the things with them, including some neck exercises and hand exercises. I was laughing at Yuan Bo for slamming the battle ropes too slowly. He asked me to try it. Oh my goodness it wasn’t how I thought it would turn out. I also went jogging with them at this horse farm. I could last only half way. Even though I didn’t get to go to Siverstone or Goodwood Festival of Speed that time, I think I had a much deeper understanding of how difficult it is to be a single-seater driver and what it takes to go up that ladder. Their work is so much more than the laps they do in their car. They train a lot. They work and communicate with their engineers to reach better results.”

Wendy with Star Racing Academy

Those behind-the-scenes stories are my jam. Anyone can write race report or spread silly season rumors, it’s just down to who’s faster. I like stories that can stand the test of time and hold up to repeated reading throughout time. We did features like 50 years of McLaren, Comeback of Honda. These brands and their stories are legendary in motorsport.”

Charting new territories

Wendy had a short stint in online media after China Motorsport Magazine folded. But when Great Drive Group (琛通) reached out to her to come back to print media, she came back with no hesitation. “New media is cool. But to me, printed magazine has this weight that cannot be replaced. It’s soothing.”

At Great Drive, she was also given the opportunity to embark on a new journey when they started Mini Challenge China Series. After reporting motorsport news of various championships for four years, Wendy finally had a taste of what it was like working on the organizer’s side. “We had a non-championship race in September 2017, and then started the first season in 2018. There were only five or six people on the team, so I worked on almost everything, from operations, to business development, to marketing. Many things were new to me. We were under a lot of pressure. I pulled many all-nighters. It was an exhausting year, but I also learned a lot. It gave me new perspectives of the sport. Now I understand the cost of a championship and what goes into how to make it work.”

Wendy with Mini Challenge driver Kat Lee

Reviving China Motorsport Magazine was part of the overall plan of Mini Challenge China Series. Great Drive intended to leverage the magazine as a platform to promote their racing series. Wendy is not only the Editor-in-Chief, but also the publisher. “When China Motorsport Magazine was merged into Autonews (汽车导报), I was in the middle of preparing the issue with Vettel as the cover story. It was a sudden death for me when they informed me it wasn’t coming out. Reviving it was also giving me the closure I never had. I was responsible of selling ads for the magazine on top of being the Editor-in-Chief. Many PR managers I knew were very generous with ad spend on our magazine. They saw how much I put in it and were willing to support me.

How much does your passion pay?

Comparing to the century-long history of motorsport in Europe, motorsport culture in China is just getting started. This is mentioned by all the Chinese women in motorsport we interviewed. Motorsport media is a tiny section of the overall media landscape and a lot of times merely a by-product of automotive media. As someone truly passionate about the sport and has worked in the industry for seven years, Wendy understands this deeply. “Many ‘motorsport journalists’ in China are just editors of automotive publications or automotive section of some even bigger publications. They cover races when they are invited, but they don’t really know much about the competition. Sometimes the interpreters at the interviews are also motorsport fans and can help them fill in the blanks if drivers or teams are talking about things with contexts. Sometimes I also help out as the expert in the media room.”

Wendy interviewing F1 podium announcer Bob Constanduros during 2019 Chinese Grand Prix

Traditional media was never the sexy profession everyone dreams to get in. Motorsport being an almost invisible part in it also makes it even less competitive in the market. Wendy was never paid the fair, let alone competitive, wage in Shenzhen, one of the four biggest cities in Mainland China. Money wasn’t the only reason Wendy left motorsport, but it was a big concern. She was at a turning point again, and she was also thinking about the next turning point. “I think everyone working in motorsport is in this for their passion. But as a career, after a few years, you might find yourself doing the same thing over and over again. At the same time, you are not making progress on your job title or salary. You would start thinking about the long term. Last year when I was leaving Great Drive, I had choices of staying in things adjacent to motorsport. But I know I might be at the same point in another three or five years. At that time, would I still have choices to leave the industry and start over?

Comparing to 10 or 20 years ago, now the young generation of motorsport fans are considering joining the industry more and more seriously. Many Chinese engineers already work in factories and suppliers in Europe. Even more high school or college students considering taking a media route into the sport. The enthusiasm is always a good thing to motivate you to aim for your target. But Wendy also advise the young generation to really consider the long term when making the decision. “You need to ask yourself what is your true motivation. If you just want to meet the drivers, buy a paddock VIP pass. If you do want to devote yourself to the sport, learn more about how it works for a journalist, what is required, especially the freelance ones. Be aware of the trade-offs. A career choice is really a life choice. It matters for decades of your life. Choose something that moves upward. Know how much you are willing to give up to pursue your passion. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but people really need to think this through before leaping in.”

Now Wendy’s day job is at an insurance company. Like she envisioned for herself, motorsport involvement is limited to her free time. She still engages with fans and friends from the sport on social media and is building up her reputations. She says she wants to go to Le Mans and Goodwood just as herself. One day, we might see her own content from trackside.

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