Jody Viana waits for his turn to slot in with the rest of the hot rods. He’s in number 100, the car with the loudest engine and the ‘Porra’ flag on the side. He grips his steering wheel a bit too tight. He’s gone through three motors this year already, R45k a pop. Plus there’s oil on the oval.
“Just go with the flow,” Jody says to himself.
“All you have to think about right now is heating up the tyres and brake pads.”
He lowers his head and gets in the zone, his hands still gripping the steering wheel. He likes how technical racing is, how it forces him to think – a moment’s loss of focus could mean death. But right now, waiting for the race to start, Jody tries to think as little as possible.
It’s a running start, and when he sees a gap, Jody pushes the accelerator down just a little with his right foot. He merges with the flow of engines on the tar, like joining a formation of deafening, fibreglass birds. Three laps in and the oil and water gauges show it’s almost time to flick their switches, and crank the fuel pump.
The Rock Raceway is built between a mine dump and a landfill, and is deep in the east rand. Brakpan-deep.
I park next to a Polo with a black bumper sticker that has white crosses on it and reads: STOP PLAASMOORDE [stop farm murders]. Next to it is a white VW bakkie that says VOLKSWAGEN on the back, with the S-W-A-G deliberately bolded in blue. The white car guards gawk at Heather and I; their yellow-neon vests dirty and frayed; their skin prematurely aged by the sun and methylated spirits. We pay R80 each (‘Plus R20 for the car, hey’), and THE ROCK is stamped in cheap black ink on our wrists. A sign at the entrance has numbered points, and the first one reads:
- Motor racing is dangerous.
This year’s National Hot Rod Championship features the 2018 Hot Rod World Champion, Billy Wood. Never heard of him, but an online article about him exclaims: Hot Rod Racer Billy Cheats Death! The dry air is filled with a mix of mine dump dust and petrol fumes. Kenny Rogers echoes through a tinny PA system. The spectator stands are filling up: teenage girls with winged eyeliner and tracksuit pants; mullet men with beerboeps protruding from grease-stained T-shirts; Brakpan boyjties in sunglasses and tight shorts. Next to the stands, families with skottles sit in camping chairs in what appears to be the prime viewing spot: right up against a fence that’s just one level above the racetrack, thanks to a low, concrete wall. Tiny children with fluffy earmuffs scamper next to the fence and skottle flames.
Heather and I keep getting stared at; it’s obvious that we’re outsiders. Despite having the same colour skin, there’s an unspoken class divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I can sense that Heather feels uncomfortable, too; she’s a photographer and takes loads of portraits, yet her camera lens is uncharacteristically pointed at the ground.
I tell Heather that I really need a beer, and we head to the bar. There are signs stuck up on the wall; they shout at us in all-caps: NO COOLERBOXES AT THE BAR. NO TAB. NO CREDIT. DUE TO INFLATION ALL OF OUR PRICES HAVE INCREASED. I spot a big man in a bomber jacket that says ‘ninja midget’ on the back. His name is Ronald. I tell him I know nothing about cars, and it’s my first time at a hot rod race. Well, any car race.
“You must speak to my father-in-law!” he commands. I’m swiftly introduced to Jan, a grey-haired man in khaki who lives in Nelspruit.
“I started racing in 1969,” Jan tells me. “I always wanted to race, since I was in primary school.”
He tells me about his “first, proper race”; it was many years ago in Pretoria, in a 1952 Ford Consul. He was so excited at the starting line that he couldn’t keep the clutch in.
“My foot kept slipping off!” He laughs. “I can’t even remember where I came…”
I ask Jan what it’s like, to race. Speed has always scared me – it feels patently reckless.
“Jirre,” replies Jan. He pauses, trying to find the words.
“It’s difficult to explain, the adrenaline rush is very intense in the beginning.”
He pauses again.
“Ag, I don’t know, hey,” he shrugs.
“You have to have petrol in your veins.”
Jody flips the switches, gets into second gear, and puts his foot flat down on the accelerator. The rev-counter needle jumps. He has 10 600 thoughts revving per minute in his head: where is his car/where is his car getting worse/where is his car getting better/where should he line up to pass the guy in front/how many laps are left?
To hit that solid wall is a moerse thing.
Pass the other guy, pass him now!
Jody bends his arms into the corner. The shift light is off; he slows down out of the corner, then hits the accelerator again down the straight.
Go, go, go!
A violent bump; the raceway rotates. Someone’s bumper flies off. There’s dust and smoke and screeching tyres. Cars are speeding by but the drivers are facing the wrong way.
Quick! Shift down to first; turn around. Don’t panic.
Just get to the track’s middle embankment, and get back in the race!
Heather and I manage to squeeze into two free spots on the stands. I chat to a woman on the bench above me, Adri. She’s from Bronkhorstspruit and she usually goes to a racetrack called Mahem in Pretoria (“They even race caravans there, jissie, you must see it!”). Her husband is a big racing fan, she says. (“I come here for him, I don’t really enjoy it. You come out of here and your ears are finished”). I ask her what she thinks the appeal of an event like this is, for people like her husband. Because I don’t get what the attraction of noise and dirt and fast cars is.
“People are bored in South Africa. It’s better than sitting at home. You can bring the whole family here, it’s an outing.”
There’s an old guy in a camo cap sitting on the bench below me. His jacket reads ‘Chevrolet Racing’. I think he’s speaking German, but then I realise it must be some kind of Brakpan Afrikaans dialect that I’ve never heard before. He drinks something strong and dark out of a plastic cup.
The announcer says the final heats are about to start, but first, there’s a parade of sorts, accompanied by a techno remix of You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) involving all the drivers and their respective rods. The drivers are chauffeured onto the track, with most of them sitting on their bonnets. Two skimpily-clad women hold a Union Jack between them, with a gangly, pasty guy in front.
“Billy Wood, ladies and gents! It’s not every day you get to see a hot rod world champ!”
“And now, the national anthems.”
God Save Our Gracious Queen filters through the PA system. No one knows whether they should stand up or not, but the crowd consensus seems to be, yes, we must all stand up. Billy’s the only one mouthing the words; he looks a little teary-eyed, or maybe it’s just from the dust.
The first few bars of Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika begin.
“Ag nee man!” says Chevrolet guy, and immediately sits down. The raceway is silent, except for the music; now I’m the only one mouthing words to an anthem.
A few bars before Die Stem starts, everyone who was sitting bolts up out of their seats. 3-2-1: the whole raceway belts out uit die blou van onse hemel.
The final English verse is sung by about half the crowd; Adri gives her all.
The hot rods fly past at full, decibel-breaking speed. I feel the intense rumble from the engines in my body; it’s an unfamiliar surge that quickly rises from my feet, up through my head. It feels like a drug has just peaked in my bloodstream: there’s a whoosh in my veins and my body jolts from the rush. A guy behind me raises his arms in the air and spills some of his beer in my hair; I barely notice – my index fingers are lodged in my ears and his cheering is muffled. I’m completely mesmerised.
I’ve never understood motorsport but now I get it; this is what the appeal is. It’s not simply boredom or escapism or testosterone. I can tangibly feel what Jody was talking about in the pits:
“It’s the thrill. It’s a type of danger that pushes you because something can happen. You’re safe inside the car… except when it burns, or you hit the wall. Anything can happen.”
Nicola is a petite woman with perfect Mediterranean skin. Her heeled feet and manicured nails are incongruous in the exhaust-fumed, grease-smeared pits. Jody and Nicola met at the Portuguese club in Welkom; she was instantly drawn to his warmth and positive energy. But she soon found his love for motor racing completely nerve-wracking.
“It’s pretty hectic what he does,” Nicola tells me, half-shouting over the noise of a revving hot rod engine. “I used to freak out about anything; I just took things to the next level!”
Now, Nicola says, she’s become a bit more relaxed about it.
“I started to learn more about motor racing, like how things work and how the drivers react. I’ve learnt a lot about cars in general, for a chick,” she laughs.
Nicola comes to every single one of Jody’s races, and when there’s a big event – like today – she admits that she does get a little stressed.
“Jody feels that if he gets injured at a big race, like this one, at least he’s doing something he’s passionate about; I’m just there as support and I try to just go with the flow.”
Jody’s gone through a few things in his life, Nicola confides to me. Not only did his love for racing begin when he was nine, but his parents divorced in that same year, and his uncle – a well-known BMW race car driver in the ’80s – died.
“Jody was close to his uncle, Tony; they clicked big time,” says Nicola.
“Jody spent a lot of time with him before the end, watching racing on TV. Racing is embedded in the family’s blood.”
Jody admits that he’s thought about parking his hot rod for good – the car that was rebuilt by him and his dad, Joe, 15 years ago; the car with the loudest engine and the ‘Porra’ flag on the side. In his race-quitting fantasy, he tells himself that he’s going to watch just one race at the track. But he knows he’ll come back, get the car out the garage, and race again.
I ask him the same question I asked Jan: “What’s it like, to race?”
Like Jan, Jody pauses and seems to search for the right words.
“It’s that rush that’s pushing you, it’s something like a drug,” he finally replies.
“I can’t explain it, but once you start it, you can’t leave it.”
The Rock Raceway can be found at 18 Main Reef Road, Brakpan. For more info visit their website
If you enjoyed this piece you may also like an older article from 2014 where I interview Muntu Vilakazi about his photo series on drag racing in Soweto
Thanks to Jody and Nicola Viana for being so amazing and answering all my weird questions. Also thanks to 2Summers (aka Heather Mason) for accompanying me – we had the best time ever and we’ll definitely be back! All photos © 2Summers; see more on her blog
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