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
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
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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