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Oval Racing

Broadcast date : 21st January 2007

If you were listening carefully, you’d have heard the chorus of an old Springbok Radio hit known as "Swinging Safari". Since the 1960s this has been the theme tune at the Mahem Raceway near Pretoria, or "Swinging Safari Suit" as some of the manne used to call it.

Not much has changed at Mahem and other oval circuits since the late sixties when this track opened its gates in Pretoria’s wild west.

The formula is the same – close racing, a closer view of the action than you’ll find on any road-race circuit, and a mix of saloon cars and open-wheelers to keep things spicy.

And when it comes to open-wheelers, nothing, but nothing beats the rush of the wild, winged monsters known as sprint cars. Just like the old days, except the machinery in South Africa is now world class.

Nowadays these things look like something that escaped from a laboratory to terrorise safe suburbia. Scary, but lots of fun.

At the age of 68, Hank Lower was, not surprisingly, the oldest driver in an American team that visited Pretoria this summer to take on the South Africans, in a sport invented by Americans.

These guys understand the basics of entertainment, which is keeping the stars in touch with the crowd so everyone feels part of things. 

Sprint car design follows a classic American blueprint that goes back more than fifty years. 

These cars were initially conceived as entry-level racers, where drivers would start out running the fairground tracks, usually on dirt, and then graduate to the high-speed ovals culminating in running at the great Indianapolis Speedway. Great drivers like Mario Andretti and the Unser family started in these cars.

Their design was simple to start with and gradually evolved to a standard format, so that Sprint cars all over the world use an almost identical layout. And at the heart of all of them is the classic Chevy V8, known as the small block.

The American team hails from the Michigan area where the tracks are longer than Mahem’s 400 metre length.

But at least they felt at home with the cars, particularly the fuel-injected Chevy motor, which in base form has been around since the 1960s.

The basic Chevy is simplicity itself, with no overhead camshafts or computer laptops needed to get them running.

And the sprint car chassis too is simple in essence, the refinement having come in the way the car is set up, getting it to brake, turn and put its power down on Mother Earth as efficiently as possible.

An evolutionary aspect is the giant wings that have appeared on these cars over the past few years. Yes, Charles Darwin would have loved to study these monsters.

The chassis of these cars are built from ultra-light, ultra-strong chrome moly-tubing, which is extremely expensive and requires expert welding techniques.

In some areas mild-steel tubing is still used, but for the axles and suspension parts there is a plethora of light-weight aluminium and high-tensile steel used.

Light weight and strength is the key to these cars, where performance improvements are measured in fractions of seconds.

As for the tyres, a smaller rear tyre is used on the left or inside wheel, to give the car some differential action around corners. The rear axles are locked, so both wheels turn at the same speed. As the outside wheel describes a bigger arc in the corners, it needs to be taller.

Since the Mahem track opened its gates in 1967, the pit area has hardly changed. As the Pretoria sun sets, the Saturday evening tempo begins to take hold.

Good old rocker shafts and ram tubes are still the order of business in oval racing, which helps make it reasonably affordable to the average man or woman who wants to live on the wild side.

Tyre pressures on these cars are surprisingly low, at about half a bar, a quarter of what you’d run in your street car.

Out on the track, the view is scary-hairy, the unyielding Mahem walls allowing zero margin for error.

The American team was made up of veterans like Bill Tyler and Hank Lower and rookies in their 20s such as Ike Beasely and Jimmy McCune. As the series went on, it was the American veterans that picked up the pace.

The big surprise for the younger American guys was that South Africans have a tradition of Sprint Car racing that has been handed down through generations, going back to the original Wembley stadium in the 1950s.

Here in South Africa youngsters start off in Minis at the age of eight and graduate to midgets at twelve. This nurturing ground sees our youngster gain the experience of case-hardened old timers before they are out of their teens.

But talking of veterans, lets hear it for Hank Lower. After thirty-six years in the sport he went on to win at Mahem, and the crowd loved it.

And the series ended up as a real ding-dong battle between two great racing countries. Young and old, all over the world, there’s something for everyone on the oval-racing scene.

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