Column: Motorsport's great divide
Drag racing and indeed motorsport is not for black people. Or coloured, or Indian folk, for that matter.
Well, that is if you believe the tired and stereotypical mantras meted out by the likes of certain race officials who patrol the pitlanes and grids of South African motorsport, wishing for the days of the old democracy when us darkies knew our place in the world.
It is this kind of backward-thinking mentality that works against the good of sponsors, team owners, racing drivers, support staff, fans and would-be followers of all manner of motorsport events in this country.
If all this sounds petty or ridiculous, allow me to introduce you to a rather special individual – let’s call him Tony. A petrolhead and dedicated race official who marshals the pit lanes and start grids of drag racing and high speed events at Tarlton, ODI and other Motorsport SA -sanctioned events.
Whilst the likes of Bridgestone, BP, BMW, Subaru, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Wesbank and countless others pump in millions of marketing rands into local motorsport, our man in the pits Tony conducts his own little campaign: to rid motorsport of the darker-hued spectators and even media representatives or at the very least to keep them sidelined.
Rules made to order
It is a campaign that compels him to have a set of rules for those whose company and colour he prefers and a totally different set for any other individual or group.
It is a campaign that prompts him to eject accredited (black) media from their vantage spots at a race event for reasons of “safety” only to allow the same rules to be broken if the perpetrators are pale-skinned.
In plain-speak: the man is a bad advertisement for local motorsport and unless you are white, forget about being treated by him with any modicum of decency, civility or basic respect.
While accredited members of black media organisations are targeted at the race meets, marshalls turn a blind eye to incidents where members of the public wander into pits or on to the starting grid with no media credentials, no indemnity forms signed and in full and blatant disregard for the event rules as stipulated by Motorsport South Africa.
At Tarlton raceway alone there have been numerous reports of young children left unattended to wander across the start line in the vicinity of jet cars.
In another recorded incident, a father of a little girl carried his daughter on his hip, all while applying highly inflammable “track bite” to the wheel of a 500-horsepower car.
The combination of selective rules and downright dangerous trackside behaviour has prompted a number of leading race car owners and media to opt out of such public spectacles.
Not limited to SA
Regrettably, our Tony is not the only of his ilk loitering around motor racing. More like him are to be found not just in South Africa, but around the world.
Reigning Formula One world champ Lewis Hamilton certainly knows all about it. The champ was the subject of racial vitriol during testing in Spain last year – one of the incidents that prompted an anti-racism campaign by the sport’s governing body.
Despite the campaign, German Timo Glock would also face the wrath of racist motorsport followers at the end of last season when he was described as resembling an “Iraqi” or “Paki”.
Back home at Tarlton raceway, the jibes are not exclusive to a few officials wandering the pitlane. Even the commentators get in on the act, using derogatory language and pathetic attempts at racial humour that only further insult.
Often, it is borne of ignorance, like the one motor industry rep who assumed that all South Africans of Indian descent are “halaal” or Muslim.
It is the equivalent of saying that all white racing drivers are Afrikaaners or NGK members.
But never mind culture. Never mind the strict rules around safety or the process of media accreditation. These are foreign concepts to the bigoted motoring Gestapo that pass themselves off as officials and marshals.
To whom does motorsport belong?
The point of all this is that motorsport is not the domain of a few interest groups, performance media or sponsors. In fact, despite the best efforts of some, motorsport is thriving and we are blessed with a diverse range of disciplines from track racing to off-road,
from junior karting to superbikes and from V8s to classics and an exciting national rally championship.
Recently, spectators crammed to see a spectacle of local motorsport right in the heart of Soweto township for the Wesbank Street Race. It attracted locals as well as competitors, sponsors, media, PR and marketing people who would normally shy away from township events.
Motorsport not for black people? I think more than 20 000 who turned up for the street race would beg to differ.
But, let's not put our heads in the sand and pretend that we are a nation wholly united by some mythical rainbow. And no, there was no magical switch activated on April 27, 1994 that immediately killed off racism, be it white against black, Indian against African, Xhosas against Shangaan, Afrikaaner against Englishman.
It is there and it remains to fester like an open wound, begging to be refreshed by every individual who declares that drag racing is not for black people or that people of colour only buy used cars or that motorsport is a white sport.
I communicate on media platforms that collectively reach some three million people a week across newspaper, radio and web and can categorically say that motorsport and indeed the car industry needs all the help and support it can get from motorists of every colour, gender and income earning group.
The sheer economics of motoring and motorsport should have advanced us beyond the race discussion long ago, but some will insist on taking us back to the old school.
Thankfully, the incidents at Tarlton and at ODI are mere incidents and not a mirror of the sport as a whole. But, left unchecked, these incidents will grow to become a habit and worse, a return to the old days.
These incidents are not new. They have been reported on and debated on many an Internet forum over recent years, with some individuals and even certain media defending it.
But, as much as soccer, rugby, cricket and motorsport are all important pillars of South African sporting life, it takes the small-mindedness of just a few individuals to sour a great sporting occasion.
To rise up above it, we must first deal with it and let's never forget the colours that sit united on every single race chequered flag.