A busy and packed garage area as competitors ready their cars for the first international
More than 10 years ago a group of ambitious South African investors bought the design plans for Las Vegas Motor Speedway from Bruton Smith. The idea was to build a first-class multi-purpose motorsports facility outside the mining town of Welkom in the Free State Province. It was at a time when there was a lot of interest in NASCAR's push beyond U.S. borders. Japan, Mexico, and Canada had all hosted events. So why not South Africa? The track is in a relatively rural, but easily accessible area of South Africa that would remind you of Iowa or Nebraska except for the large number of mining shafts that dot the landscape.
The facility itself, the Phakisa (pronounced Pa-kees-a) Freeway contains a 4.2-mile road course, a 1.5-mile oval, suites, skyboxes, and a garage area that would fit right in at Charlotte, Atlanta, or, not surprisingly, Vegas. While the road course has been routinely used for Moto GP Superbike and Rally Car competitions, the oval sat idle until Huth's ASA showed up for testing in mid-December 2009. With veteran racers Geoff Bodine and Ron Barfield turning laps, it became apparent very quickly that the wide track and smooth transitions would make for a great race.
Veteran Midwest racers Russ Blakeley (Left) and Tim Olson discuss strategy before the race
"Putting on a race of this type is a mammoth undertaking," said Huth. "The people and resources you have to have in place in order to accomplish this is mind boggling. The success of the event really points to what a wonderful group of dedicated people who are in the ASA family."
Huth counts a number of South African dignitaries as members of his ASA family including Premier Magashule, Mr. Dan Kgothule, (a Member of the Executive Council for Sport, Arts, Culture, and Recreation in the Free State Provincial Government), and Dhilosen Pillay, the Chief Executive Officer of the Phakisa Major Sports Events and Development Corporation. In addition, the United States Ambassador to South Africa, the Honourable Donald H. Gips, joined the effort and would give the command to fire the engines on race day. "Through their combined efforts, we were able to be successful in bringing ASA racing to the Republic of South Africa," said Huth.
It's hard to conceptualize the volume of work that was required to move 24 teams, cars, and equipment halfway around the world. But Huth and his team pulled it off with nary a hiccup except for some tires arriving at the track late-just one day prior to the race. Many of the core people on Huth's team were part of his experience running the Japanese exhibition races for NASCAR in the '90s. But those races were somewhat different. In South Africa, Huth wanted to have local drivers competing alongside the American hot shoes. That in and of itself presented its own set of challenges.
Johan Spies, from Cape Town, South Africa, impressed everyone with his Fifth Place finish
Naturally, oval track racing is not common in South Africa, so local drivers are not familiar with things we take for granted, such as the weight and size of the cars, their handling, and those little race interruptions called pit stops. To that end, ASA's Official Racing School, Drivetech put on a series of classes to bring the local drivers up to speed on the big, heavy American stock cars. With classes complete, more than 20 South African drivers were then evaluated by a team of ASA officials as to their proficiency behind the wheel. Six of them made the cut.
The aptly named ASA Transcontinental Free State 500 would be a 207-lap (500-kilometer) race around the 1.5-mile oval. The starting grid featured 24 drivers; 6 of whom were South African, 16 Americans (2 of whom were women), 1 driver from the United Kingdom, and 1 from Australia. The lone African American in the field, Marc Davis, lost his father, Harry, just days before they were to board the plane for Johannesburg. Harry Davis was an integral part of getting the Free State 500 under way. "Harry was instrumental in getting this concept to a reality," said Huth. "We wanted to do something for him and are dedicating the race to his memory."
With every car sporting a decal honoring Harry Davis, the field took the green flag behind pole sitter Geoff Bodine. It wasn't really a surprise to see the 1986 Daytona 500 champion top the qualifying charts, nor was it a surprise to see him lead 86 laps, the most of any driver. But what was a surprise was seeing his car slow just two laps from the checkered flag. A fuel mileage miscue dashed Bodine's chances for victory. What happened next was the stuff fairy tale wins are made of.