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2020-05-02 01:49:12  + video 

Ma Qiang still remembers the thrill he felt the first time he got in a race car and flew down the straight at his local dirt track. It was nothing like the sensation of driving his SUV around the streets of Fuxin, his hometown in Northeast China’s Liaoning province. From that moment in 2019, motor racing became his passion.

The 32-year-old applied for his racing driver certificate and bought his own off-roader in June that year. Then, he started entering races in his cheap, battered vehicle.

But Ma only drives at tracks in and around Fuxin. That’s because of his other identity.

32-year-old Ma Qiang’s day job is selling pork in Northeast China. But his passion is motor racing. Watch his unlikely journey to the finals of the China Off-Road Championship in December of last year. By Sun Zhichao and Lü Xiao for Sixth Tone

For the past four years, Ma has made his living selling fine pork. He buys pigs from farmers in Fuxin — where prices are cheap — and sells the meat in more prosperous cities across China.

“The economy is quite down here,” says Ma. “You can easily sell half a kilogram of fine pork for 50 yuan ($7) in Shenyang (the provincial capital), but it’s hard to sell the same amount for even 20 yuan in Fuxin.”

Ma’s hometown, like many cities in China’s industrial Northeast, has fallen on hard times in recent years. Fuxin used to be known as China’s “city of coal and agate,” as it’s home to one of Asia’s largest open-pit mines: Haizhou Coal Mine. But the mine’s resources are now almost exhausted, leading to an economic slowdown and exodus of young people from the region.

“When I drive past Haizhou Coal Mine at night, I can barely see any lights on,” says Ma. “Due to concerns about possible landslides near the pits, the miners and their families were moved to other places to live.”

A GIF shows Ma Qiang during a race in Fuxin, Liaoning province, December 2020. Sun Zhichao and Lü Xiao for Sixth Tone

A GIF shows Ma Qiang during a race in Fuxin, Liaoning province, December 2020. Sun Zhichao and Lü Xiao for Sixth Tone

Fuxin is trying to transform its economy, promoting alternative industries such as agriculture, tourism, and renewable energy. In 2018, as part of this transformation, the city converted an old coal pit into a dirt track, holding its first off-roading event that November.

Ma has no idea why the city decided to build a racetrack, saying only that he heard it’s environmentally friendly. But the track has been a huge hit in Fuxin. Many of Ma’s friends now join him on race days, he says.

For now, Ma is satisfied with just taking part in the races, as he’s still improving and his 10-year-old car is slow, he says. But he hopes to start competing for podium positions one day. After being outpaced in the China Off-Road Championship final in December, he’s decided to invest in a better off-roader.

“My car was the worst one in the race,” says Ma. “When people you know and your friends are all watching you in the stands, you always want to go faster. But my car broke down in almost every event. I want to have my perfect racecar next year.”

Editors: Dominic Morgan and Lu Yunwen.

(Header image: Ma Qiang drives during a race (left); the pigs Ma trades (right), in Fuxin, Liaoning province, December 2020. Sun Zhichao and Lü Xiao for Sixth Tone)