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He spent over $40k setting up a space for Tamiya car enthusiasts during the pandemic - now it's closing down

He spent over $40k setting up a space for Tamiya car enthusiasts during the pandemic - now it's closing down
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Kimberly Anne Lim

Even as Tamiya car shop Circuit Hobby prepares to wind down come March 13, remnants of the close-knit community of racers it has played host to are littered around the tiny store unit.

From the monikers of various racing teams — both local and international — scribbled across its walls, to the encouraging messages like "stay positive", and the faded whiteboard documenting each month's fastest race timings, it's clear that the shop will be missed dearly by many local Tamiya enthusiasts.

For owner Zairudeen Sojah, or Deen to his customers, though, the end can't come soon enough.

"I'm basically broke," the 39-year-old tells us with a wry laugh as we settle in for a chat beside the three-lane track taking up most of the store's floor space. "If I could, I would have closed sooner. But I had to wait for the lease to end."

The store is barely a year old, but has been bleeding money due to the pandemic. Nevertheless this venture, which Deen describes as a "labour of love", has had a good run, he says.

Inspired to grow local Tamiya racing community

Like many other millennials, Deen recalls the 90s as the heyday of the Tamiya car craze in Singapore. But it was only during a vacation to South Korea in Dec 2019 that his passion for the mini four-wheel-drive (4WD) model cars was reignited.

He was hanging out with a DJ friend in a club in Seoul when his friend whipped out his phone and began showing off his cars, he recounts.

He was immediately intrigued.

"It was nothing like what I remembered. It was so much more advanced!"

From meticulously-calibrated motors capable of hitting new speeds to hand-painted bodies and custom designs, the Tamiya cars of today are certainly not child's play.

When he returned to Singapore, he wasted no time, heading straight to a Tamiya store to pick up his own car.

But he soon realised that the racing scene in Singapore was a far cry from the bustling communities in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia, Deen says.

"When I go for races every weekend, it's all the same people. You hardly see any newbies, so I wanted to try to reach out to more people."

He was freshly unemployed after his contract position managing an IT team at a multinational corporation came to an end, and it felt like it was time to start something on his own and grow the Tamiya community here, he explains.

Covid-19 threw a wrench in plans

By early 2020, he'd come up with a vision for Circuit Hobby as a place for the Tamiya community to gather, race, buy their essential supplies and trade building tips, even sinking $40,000 of his savings into the business.

Alas, Covid-19 struck.

A mere six weeks after its grand opening, the shop had to shutter for about three months due to circuit breaker restrictions.

"Nobody knew it would be this bad. Nobody knew it would blow up and last this long," Deen sighs as he recounts how he'd pushed ahead with the store's opening just as the pandemic was taking root in Singapore, expecting it to blow over soon.

Plans of hosting regular tandem races, where at least 30 to 50 Tamiya racers go head-to-head, also evaporated into thin air. Instead, Circuit Hobby does "Track Time", switching up its tracks every month. Throughout the month, customers run their cars on the circuit and earn a spot on the leaderboard if they're fast enough.

The tandem races weren't just intended to be the store's main money maker, they were also one of the ways Deen was hoping to attract newbies to the Tamiya community.

"Part of the fun is playing with other people," he explains, his eyes lighting up momentarily as he recalls his pre-Covid racing escapades.

"You can't have a race with just five people."


Nevertheless, Circuit Hobby "did achieve something", says Deen.

After a few months in business, he tells us proudly that he's seen a number of new hobbyists progress from "boxed-up" (readily-assembled) cars to building up their own competitive race cars – one of his main goals of setting up the store.

Being able to get together and trade tips with other enthusiasts at the store is also one of the things he'll miss the most, he says.

It's not the end

As much as he still has love for the community and his Tamiya hobby, it's back to the corporate world for Deen (for now).

He's already begun looking for a full-time job, despite some generous offers from regular customers to support the store financially.

"They don't want to see the shop close, of course," says Deen. "But we need to be realistic. It's just not the right time.

"Unless you tell me that tomorrow, Covid is gone and we can all go out again. Then sweet, I'm going to open a bigger store tomorrow."

Nevertheless, he does harbour hopes of eventually reviving Circuit Hobby in a bigger location where he'll be able to have a bistro alongside a space for mini 4WD racing.

Until then, he says he will still be renting out a small rack at another local store to hawk some of his wares and may even organise some tandem races once it's safe to do so.

"Of course, I feel sad that we have to close, but I think I've done what I wanted to do."


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