It was a perfect day for racing. Big puffy clouds dotted a picturesque blue sky. A slight breeze kept the 80-plus degree temperatures at bay. The grandstands were full. Pop-up tents filled the grassy areas of Turn 4 and the track was in good shape. A field of 24 full-bodied stock cars sat quietly on the grid waiting for the most famous words in motorsports. You would have hardly guessed that we were more than 8,000 miles from home on the other side of the world, but that's exactly where we were, smack dab in the heartland of the Republic of South Africa.
You likely first read about this race in the very pages of this magazine (Feb. '10 issue). The announcement that the American Speed Association (ASA) was taking stock car racing halfway around the world to a 1.5-mile track in the middle of a country most Americans know only from news reports was met with surprise, in some cases disbelief and a high degree of interest.
In the U.S., the Republic of South Africa is well-known from the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela that effectively ended Apartheid, or what we in the States would call racial segregation. But South Africa is much, much more than the images portrayed on the nightly news of that era. It's an amazing country of culture, incredible landscapes, and as this writer was about to find out, racers and race fans-lots of 'em.
Phakisa Freeway is located...
Phakisa Freeway is located in the center of South Africa, right on the black dot in the map above.
Located at the very bottom of the African continent, the country is home to more than 49 million people with just over 60 percent living in urban population centers like Cape Town and Johannesburg. The two primary industries are mining and agriculture. In fact, while South Africa is known for its diamond mines, the country is also the world's largest producer of platinum, gold, and chromium. Comprised of nine provinces (or states), South Africa has 11 different languages listed as "official" by the government, which is a constitutional multi-party three-tier democracy, just like the U.S.
Tourism is also a major industry for South Africa and will likely increase thanks to two major sporting events taking place there in 2010. The FIFA World Cup (soccer) tournament will be underway by the time you read this, while the UCI BMX (bicycle) World Championships takes place at the end of July. Those two events are thrusting the country onto a world stage.
They also had an influence on bringing the ASA race to the Free State province. The race would be the third international sporting event in the country, but was committed to and organized well after the first two. Interestingly, it would be the first major event to take place in 2010 and begin that world publicity push.
Phakisa's big sweeping turns...
Phakisa's big sweeping turns lend themselves to two- and even three-wide racing.
The idea was to host an international stock car race that featured some of the best short-track racers in the U.S. against racers from not only South Africa but other countries as well. The invitation-only event would be designed to showcase American-style stock car racing to a whole new market, complete with green flag pits stops, three-wide competition, televised coverage for more than 100 million viewers worldwide, and live web updates.
ASA President Dennis Huth said that the motivation for taking ASA worldwide started with a simple need. "The Free State had a need; it had a world-class facility that had never seen an oval track race. There is also a tremendous market down there for stock car racing. We at ASA are ideally suited and well staffed to satisfy that need."
Ace Magashule is the Honourable Free State Premier of South Africa, akin to a governor here in the States. He explained the importance of the race, "We (the Free State province) recently concluded a very successful 2009 Soccer Confederation Cup Championship as a prelude to hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup Tournament. This stock car race will be another opportunity for the Free State Province to showcase our beautiful country on a worldwide stage."