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Oval Racing: Local is 'lekker' but why the lack of interest?

2019-02-14 08:00

Charlen Raymond

Oval racing

Image: Charlen Raymond

It wasn't too long ago that motorsport in South Africa was the absolute talk of the town. 

Guys like Sarel van der Merwe and Deon Joubert racing around racetracks, winning race after race, championship after championship.

The heydays

Those were the days when you’d switch on the telly on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and see these drivers and others going around corners at ridiculous speeds and the crowds cheering in the stands.

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It's almost unfathomable to imagine that this was little over two decades ago, but the lack of interest in local motorsport has seen the sport dwindle down from what it once was and is it a mountainous task for race organisers to attract spectators. 

Let alone a task of a different nature to secure sponsorships; both for events and participants.

Oval racing

                                                                         Image: Charlen Raymond

The decline in attendance is, in reality, down to the fact that interest around local motorsport events just simply hardly exists. 

Somehow as a nation invested in Formula 1 and other global sports, we tend to push our own people and events onto the backburner and leave them to their own devices. 

Though dedicated fans of local motorsport still flock to the racetrack whenever a race is held, the truth is that those numbers can increase again.

Close and VERY personal

On the weekend of February 2, I attended an Oval Racing event at Tygerberg Raceway, just outside Cape Town.

The line of cars waiting to get into the premises was getting longer by the minute, and inside the commentators were bantering on what should be a spectacle of an evening.

All around people were sitting in the stands, some making their way from the parking lot into the stadium section.

I was attending the event as a guest to Willem van Zyl; a 22-year-old racing in the V8 class. This is only his second season in this class, but already he has made a name for himself.

At the end of 2018, he registered second overall, but only because he had to attend his final agriculture exams and miss the final race of the season. This event was the first for the 2019 season and the first of ten rounds.

Before the race, Van Zyl gave me a tour of his car, explaining the intricacies of the setup, the amount of time invested into building his car, and how he has to contend with 350kW in a vehicle weighing 1000kg.

It's an experience not many fans will be able to encounter, but the feeling of being up close and personal with a beast like that is beyond indescribable.

"Keen on doing the parade lap with me?" Van Zyl asked and gestured that I should hop on: one leg in the car and the other outside. "Hold tight!" is the last two words he said to me as the overtly loud V8 engine rumbled to life mere inches away from me.

We headed onto the track, surrounded by hordes of racing cars all doing a slow-ish lap or two for the fans. A few mechanics from other drivers were doing the same thing, all waving to the crowd.

At each of the bends, Van Zyl would slam on the accelerator, sending the rear of the car into a slide. And all I had to do is hold tight and not let go.

Oval racing

                                                                       Image: Charlen Raymond

Let’s go racing!

On the night, an array of cars from different classes were seen battling it out for top honours. Amongst these were midgets, the aforementioned V8s, VW Citi Golfs, and what they call the 'late models'.

In each of the classes, racers would do at least two slow laps and wait for the signal to go racing. Once the go-ahead has been given, a noise erupts from the track as accelerators are pressed for all their worth.

Cars sliding about, hitting the sweet spot around bends as drivers jock for positions. Very often someone would get knocked out of the race, seeing him forego the lead.

Backmarkers, knowing the race win is not theirs, would opt to entertain the crowd with overzealous slides and flames spitting from their cars' exhausts.

In the dark of night, the cars all glimmer and shine under the floodlights, and the smell of fuel is the only thing stuck in your senses. After an hour of racing, you’re already so deaf, you don’t mind miming your frustration and excitement to the spectator next to you. Gold!

Oval racing

                                                                        Image: Charlen Raymond

Trading paint

How Oval Racing works is that competitors take part in two heats, but in each of these your starting position is switched around. Meaning if you started your first race somewhere in the bottom half of the field, you’ll begin the second one in the top half.

Following the two heats is the third and final race, where your position is worked out on where you finished the two aforementioned heats. In Van Zyl’s case, he started the final race, which counts for points, in last place because in both heats he was knocked out after taking the lead in each one.

Almost immediately after the race got underway, Van Zyl picked fellow racers off en route to the front of the field. Both his rear tyres were damaged in each of the two preceding heats and could his team replace them, but the young man with the broad smile continued to put in the laps; making up for what had transpired early in the evening.

“I’m having a sh*t night,” he told me following the second heat, but this was all turned around as he showed spectator and foe what he was made off.

Van Zyl raced the field into a frenzy, trading paint with drivers coming too close for comfort. But he fought valiantly, claiming victory in the opening round of the season. From last to first, in empathic fashion!

Oval racing

                                                                              Image: Charlen Raymond

Worth the watch?

Here in Cape Town, motorsport events are held at Tygerberg Raceway and Killarney International Raceway where fans can experience high octane racing in cars made to entertain.

If we are under the impression that ticket prices are too high, it’s best to enquire into that instead of assuming. Local motorsport is an outlet for racers and fans to let go of their daily routine for just an evening and to come together with like-minded people.

The atmosphere is bar none and is the air filled with the smell of tyres, fuel, and braai fires. These are proudly South African moments and teams are doing their utmost best to keep motor racing alive in SA. Maybe it’s time that we as spectators do the same.

Charlen Raymond is the editor of Manskap.

Oval racing

                                                                         Image: Charlen Raymond

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