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Racing in the US to movie stunts: Deon Joubert is an SA motorsport and petrolhead legend

2019-06-22 07:00

Hotrods SA / Clare Vale

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Image: Rob Till

Deon Joubert is a local petrolhead hero and motorsport legend - super talented, always friendly, approachable and with a great sense of humour. 

Although I’ve never raced against Deon, I attended a Subaru WRX launch with him at Killarney a few years back, and while he is ultra-professional, working with him was enormous fun.

Of course, Deon’s dad, Denis, is a motorsport legend in his own right, so Deon practically grew up at Killarney and no one was surprised when he followed in Dennis’ proverbial tyre tracks and started karting at the age of 10.

READ: Mike Briggs, Deon Joubert and Shaun Watson-Smith set to electrify race fans at Jaguar Simola Hillclimb

Before his teenage years were over, Deon was already a multiple karting champion and he remains a great believer in the value of starting out in karts.

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                                                                                                   Image: Rob Till

"Karting really is the place to start," says Deon. "If you look at drivers like Lewis Hamilton, so many opportunities came from karting. The downside nowadays is that it can become extremely expensive and time consuming – many a bankrupt father can blame karting for their woes…"

Deon soon moved on to Formula Fords, which was considered the best series for competitive young drivers with an eye on a motorsport career. He won the National Championship in 1989.

He recalls: "I had some of my best racing in Fords. They had no wings and were very quick and difficult to drive. My time in Fords was definitely formative in my style of driving and paved the way for my BMW drive. These days, however, a class like Polo Cup is probably a better place for a young driver to get noticed."

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Deon did not really plan to become a professional racing driver. During the early days of SA racing, very few local drivers made a living out of motorsport, with the exception of Sarel van der Merwe and one or two rally drivers. After high school, he headed off to complete his military training and then spent a year at university, completing a marketing course.

One day there was a clash of dates between lectures and racing, and his lecturer suggested it was time Deon decided which was more important – marketing or motorsport. Of course, the rest is history! 

Around this time, an opportunity emerged to become a junior driver in the BMW works team. Deon was spotted, along with Hilton Cowie who later moved to the UK.

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Even now, Deon gets excited when talking about his time with BMW: "It was mind-blowing!" he says. "The works team had a massive budget, and racing with people like the late Tony Viana was unbelievable."

Deon was hugely successful during his time with BMW, winning the National Touring Car Championship in 1992 and taking numerous podiums. 

During this time, Deon also competed in the FIA World Cup at Monza, with co-drivers Dave Brabham and Manfred Winkelhock.

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The team went over with high hopes, but struggled with an uncompetitive car and a limited budget. "It was a real eye-opener," Deon recalls.

"The other teams ran on a completely different level. For example, we had a stack of 34 Dunlop tyres to use in the race. The winning team had 160 new Michelins! We just didn’t have the resources to compete on equal terms.”

I asked Deon about some of the BMWs he raced, and which one would be his favourite if he could choose one.

He said: "Definitely the German Touring Car M3. Our touring cars were based on the 2.0-litre BTCC cars – they had less power and were over-tyred and heavy in comparison with the German cars. Of course, the 325iS had fantastic balance, and the 535i was amazing to drive…"

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By the end of 1996, Deon had a fallout with the then head of BMW motorsport and left the team. He raced a Honda in Group N for a while, before joining his future wife who was working in the US.

"Racing in the US is different – it’s the biggest in the world," says Deon.

"Stock-car racing is massive, and people who think it’s easy have no idea – the American drivers are just so good! I tried oval track racing when I was there and couldn’t compete with the pros. They measure their lap times in 10ths and 100ths of a second: there can be 40 cars on the grids and all of them will be covered by a 10th of a second.

"In hindsight, I would have been much more competitive if I had raced there in a TransAm type car."

When Deon returned to South Africa, the new Petronas Syntium Opel team snapped him up. Deon raced for Opel in Touring Cars for two years, and had the opportunity to compete at the Malaysian circuit of Pasir Gudang. He raced an Australian-built RX-7 for a brilliant win and the lap record! Deon also raced the new Opel Astra in our WesBank V8 series.

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He said: "Mike Carroll was an awesome team manager, and the Astra was mind-blowing to drive. The WesBanks were the perfect racing cars – if money were no object I would race one again tomorrow."

At the time he moved back to Cape Town, Deon decided he needed to find another way to make a living. Along with his good friend and fellow racing driver, Danie Sandenbergh, Deon started a company called The Good Guys. Danie and Deon took advantage of Cape Town’s booming movie industry and were available to perform stunts, build specialised vehicles for shoots, and meet any filmmaker’s automotive needs.

Deon says the process of movie-making is very different to the end result we see on our screens. On the one hand, a commercial or movie is actually a work of art, and the director will go to great lengths to ensure that the final cut is beautiful to watch. On the other, the budget for stunts and cars can be minuscule in relation to the rest of the film. This can call for a great deal of hard work and creativity from the stunt crew.

That Lambo you see on screen performing a hand brake turn is in all likelihood not a real Lamborghini, but is more likely a very ordinary car turned into a prop by the stunt co-ordinators at a fraction of the cost of a real exotic car.

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Deon and his team have even built a Formula 1 look-alike car, which looked perfect on screen but was actually horrible to drive.

A big budget movie can be equally challenging: for example, a director would think nothing of deciding that a blue car might actually look better in red, even if it means an overnight respray!

"The movie industry is a freak out," laughs Deon. "There is a great deal of precision involved in stunt work, and you sometimes have to psych yourself up to prepare for complex or dangerous stunts. There’s nothing worse than the cameraman calling “Action!” for your stunt shoot, followed a few seconds later by “Cut!!” because he forgot to charge the camera battery.'

Deon is less involved in the stunt business these days, having developed a business where he takes care of many of the car manufacturers’ press fleets. He has also done many test drive assessments for Car magazine. Deon has a keen interest in permaculture and holistic farming, which he practices on his smallholding on the outskirts of Cape Town.

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                                                                                                  Image: Rob Till

Although only his Dad is deeply involved in motorsport (Denis Joubert is still the Chairman of WPMC and takes a keen interest in Killarney and motorsport in general), his family have always been supportive of Deon’s racing career.

Deon’s son, Denis junior, is very good in a kart but is equally enthusiastic about surfing, so we’ll have to wait and see if there is another Joubert legend in the making. If he has the talent and charisma of his Dad, he is sure to be an asset to our sport!

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