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 in the center of South Africa, right on the black dot in the ma
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 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."
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.
The Free State 500 was dedicated to Harry Davis who passed away just days before his son's
Bodine's gas issues handed the lead to second place Toni McCray. McCray, daughter of longtime racer Rick McCray, is no stranger to racing but was experiencing a track bigger than a mile for the first time. She looked to be in perfect position to win but the lone Brit in the field, John Mickel, had other plans. He drove the wheels of his car and reeled in McCray. As the pair entered Turn 3 on the final lap, Mickel slid under McCray to grab the lead, ultimately beating her to the line by less than a second.
"I thought Geoff (Bodine) had the best chance to win and then, when he pitted on lap 205, I thought it would be Toni's race," said Mickel. "But I pushed hard on the final lap and managed to get underneath her in Turn 3 and beat her to the checkered flag." The magnitude of the win was not lost on Mikel. "To be the first Englishman to take a checkered flag in American-style stock car racing gives me chills!"
Local South Africans proved to be dedicated race fans.
Despite not winning, McCray was all smiles, "I tried to hold John off but he was just too strong. Still, it was really exciting there at the end and I'm happy with our performance, it was a good, clean race."
The sentimental favorite in the field, Marc Davis, came home Third, 2.6 seconds behind Mickel. Davis had been one of the few cars during the race that seemed to be able to hang with Bodine, leading 24 laps, but had a problem midway through the race that would figure in the outcome.
"We had a flat tire during that long green flag run and dropped two laps down," explained Davis. In order to make up that deficit, Davis ran the car hard and stayed out when others pitted leaving the 19-year-old on worn tires in the waning laps of the race.
"We came up short at the end of the day, but we put on a great show and I had a blast here in South Africa," said Davis. "I definitely want to come back and win in the next South African race. When they announce the next race, I'll be the first in line to sign up!"
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips gives the command to fire engines as Ace Magas
Behind Davis, Rick McCray came home Fourth with Cape Town's own Johan Spies finishing Fifth. Spies' colorful personality and trademark "Aaa-oooo-gaaa" yell could easily make him a crowd favorite, but even more impressive is his driving ability. Spies' Free State 500 adventure started with a catastrophic motor failure during qualifying. With no backup he was in danger of not making the race, but American racer Dustin Dudley stepped up to the plate and an arrangement was made for Spies to buy Dudley's car and race in the event.
"I've dreamt since I was a little boy of competing in one of these cars. I'm over the moon. It was my first time on a super oval and my first race in a real ASA stock car," exclaimed Spies. And with his impressive Top 5 in hand, the likeable South African has a new goal. "Now my dream is to go and race one in the United States."
Spies may have led the South African drivers with his Fifth Place finish but also worth mentioning was Welkom's Danie Correia Jr. finishing 10th followed closely by Gugu Zulu of Johannesburg in 11th. Johan Cronje also of Welkom finished 15th while fellow Welkommer Johan Coetzer finished 18th after suffering engine failure. Of all the South Africans, Jaco Correia, had the worst luck sustaining heavy damage in a single-car incident on lap 29.
Geoff Bodine (No. 8) races side-by-side with Marc Davis. The "Bafana Bafana" on Davis' bum
In the end, the race featured 26 lead changes. That's impressive and competitive, especially for a first-year race on what amounts to a brand-new track that few of the competitors had ever seen before. And if you think the lead changes were impressive, well over 10,000 spectators jammed the grandstands to watch all the action unfold.
"The track got faster and faster today, all weekend long for that matter," said Marc Davis. "When we started the race it was really just a one-groove racetrack, but at the end of the race this place was amazing. We opened up to two- and three-wide racing in the end. I was trying to run the high side at the end and it was working. The more laps they run on this place it will be great. I look forward to coming back."
Gary Lewis, ASA Northwest Tour Champion, leads Tiff Daniels and Johan Spies.
His words were echoed by numerous drivers. "The track is great, really racey, with multiple grooves and lots of room," said Arizona's Mark Shaffer. "We were getting three-wide all day long, especially toward the end of the race."
"It definitely has two grooves. There were a few times we ran three-wide and I raced side-by-side with John (Mickel)," Toni McCray said. "All in all, the track is really smooth."
Wisconsin's Chris Wimmer who previously raced at the old Las Vegas Speedway configuration said that Phakisa was similar but had characteristics of another, newer racetrack. "The transitions from the straightaway to the turns remind me of Iowa Speedway."
All racetracks have their nuances and Phakisa is no different. There are several bumps on the backstretch with the most notable one likely a result of the track surface settling over the tunnel just at the entrance to Turn 3. Hit it correctly and you'll be fine. Hit it wrong and you end up spinning into the wall. It's one of those little idiosyncrasies that will separate good drivers from great drivers.
Chris Wimmer's day ended early when he broke a shock mount. He qualified third and was one
Of course the track was just one part of the overall experience.
"We've fallen in love with this country," said Bodine. "We love the people, the climate, the wild animals. This race will go down in the history books."
John Luedtke Jr., crewman for Wisconsin racer Russ Blakeley, echoed Bodine's sentiments. "I'd come back next week," he said. "The attitude of the people was great. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. On and off the track, I had a great time."
"When I look back at our experiences in South Africa, I feel honored to have been part of bringing an ASA asphalt experience to a different part of the world," said Tim Olson, President of the ASA Midwest Tour. "I also will never forget our new bonds built between the racers from around the world and the end result being a win for everyone involved."
Arizona racer Mark Shaffer used his quarter-panels to honor a friend who recently passed a
"If I had known the effect that one race, in a country where no NASCAR-style racing had ever taken place, I might have actually been nervous," said race winner Mickel, whose life since the victory has been a whirlwind of international interviews, broadcasts, and interest from a variety of professional racing teams in the States and abroad.
Local South African Jaco Correia, put it simply, "We've waited a long time for this kind of racing to come to South Africa, and I really enjoyed being a part of it."
While those are some pretty glowing endorsements, Huth has gotten the most telling response from all his competitors. "Each one of the teams we took over has already asked, and in some cases, pleaded to be invited back next year," said Huth. Begging the question, what is the plan?
These children are part of a local program that gives disadvantaged youth opportunities fo
"Obviously, if you commit to do something like this, you want to be able to build on it for the future. We are currently in discussions to do just that," says Huth. Adding an exclamation to that statement, during the post race press conference, Free State Premier Magashule announced that his government would support the return of the Free State 500 for 2011.
"Next year we will have you come back to Phakisa," said Premier Magashule. "Bring your families and bring your friends, please come and experience everything our country has to offer."
The Free State 500 had everything a fan or competitor could ask for, tight racing, fender-to-fender excitement, a ground-breaking format that allowed cars with different engine types to compete against one another, and much more. But the success of the race signals the start of what could be a whole new area of growth for short-track motorsports, an international oval track series, the ASA Transcontinental Series. A solid foundation proven by a strong car count and 10,000-plus fans in the stands has been established. Now the sky's the limit for the Free State 500K and the ASA Transcontinental Series.
After the racing was done, the competitors and their families were treated to a couple of
We at Circle Track have stayed in a lot of interesting hotels in our racing lives, but thi
A post-race safari afforded everybody a chance to get a firsthand look at native South Afr
|The Official Finishing Order
||Name and Hometown
||John Mickel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
||Toni McCray, Highland, CA
||Marc Davis, Mitchelville, MD
||Rick McCray, Bloomington, CA
||Johan Spies, Cape Town, South Africa
||Gary Lewis, Bothell, WA
||Tiffany Daniels, Smithfield, VA
||Greg Barnhart, Oklahoma City, OK
||Geoff Bodine, Chemung, NY
||Danie Correia, Welkom, South Africa
||Gugu Zulu, Johannesburg, South Africa
||Mark Ebert, Tucson, AZ
||Ron Norman, Tucson, AZ
||Shaun Richardson, Noosa,Queensland,Australia
||Johan Cronje, Welkom, South Africa
||Russ Blakeley, Whitewater, WI
||Tim Olson, Hamel, MN
||Johan Coetzer, Welkom, South Africa
||Steve Carlson, West Salem, WI
||Chris Wimmer, Wausau, WI
||Jaco Correia, Welkom, South Africa
||Mark Shaffer, Peoria, AZ
||Lance Fenton, Tyler, TX
||Don Uhlir, Tucson, AZ