Come with me, The Contrarian, as I take you into the high-octane, nitrous-pumping, tire-screeching world of street racing, all in memory of one Paul Walker.
My youth in South Africa revolved around cars. I’ve had more cars than I care to recall, and I’ve rubbed shoulders with every kind of stereotype in the racing world, none of which are as conspicuous and worthy of mockery as the street racers.
My story starts with a guy called Buis. Buis is a six-and-a-half-foot tall, 127Kg Daspoort Afrikaner. He is a mechanic and he’s doing the final prep work on his Nissan 1400 bakkie before the coming Sunday’s big race at Voortrekker road. So obsessed is he that he works 80 hours a week for a whole month just to upgrade the turbocharger and intercooler on his prised racer. He is a man obsessed to win in a sport that has few rules and even fewer brains.
It’s Friday night, 11:15PM, and Buis is out on the roads to see if the new turbo he fitted to his bakkie is boosting properly. He doubts he’ll need it, but he had a tank of Nitrous Oxide installed behind his seat, just in case. Buis’s bakkie makes more power at the wheels than some tugboats at the prop. If it rains he has to pull away in third gear to avoid the unintentional donuts and drifting that spontaneously result from using the first two gears and just touching the throttle—that is how powerful that bakkie is!
Under the bonnet of his diminutive Nissan 1400 bakkie, sits a cleverly fitted Mazda 20B rotary engine with the mother of all ball bearing turbo’s bolted to the exhaust manifold. This engine enthusiastically revs up to 8,500RPM when the throttle is pressed, and as it spools down it lets out the occasional backfire that sounds like an old fort cannon on demonstration day.
To the average car owner, the power these heavily modified cars produce is more than enough to put to shame many a multimillion-Rand sports car. But these heavily modified cars are quite fragile and rarely does a week pass where something (usually expensive) does not catastrophically fly apart under the bonnet.
A few final checks on his laptop to make sure the newly fitter MegaSquirt fuel management system (imported at great expense from the UK) is doing its job with the newly uploaded fuel and timing maps, and Buis is off to destroy his worn-out tires doing burnouts / donuts in an attempt to impress onlookers. Sunday can hardly come soon enough for Buis and the other racers who can’t wait to test their mettle against each other.
In this illegal sport, reputation, respect, image, and the legend surrounding oneself and one’s car are the only things that matter. No amount of money is misspent if it gets one closer to the top of the heap.
Saturday night comes, and Buis hooks up with his friend Ram and his sooped up BMW M3. This unlikely friendship between `n rou Afrikaner and a Joburg Indian is the rare result of them frequently running into each other in their early days of street racing. Their mutual rivalry results in the rare sense of respect for each other’s capabilities as tuners, and so started their trip down the quarter mile together.
Ram is keen to show Buis what his new belt-drive supercharger does to the M3’s performance, but soon Buis starts looking nervously around the area Ram is scouting for a dice. “This is Ford territory, Ram. Ons moet vokoff hier!” Buis exclaims as he realized Ram’s unfamiliarity with the streets of Pretoria has led them into a hornet’s nest.
Far worse than those cheesy The Fast and the Furious Hollywood movies, in real street racing, you don’t make it out of Ford territory without some serious dents kicked into your car from the pap-gooier locals who hate anyone that drives a car that’s been handed down from father to sun for three or four generations.
A few short shifts and double clutches later and Ram’s back on the highway. “Shoe, that was blerrie close, man,” Buis exclaimed in relief. ‘Why doern’t we goes to voortrekker and feel the competition out, ne?” Buis suggests. ‘Shot, bro! Let’s go … just let me get my GPS out,” Ram affirmed. “Vok daai donnerse praterige speelding van jou! I know the way, man, just take the next exit and let me tell you the road,” Buis protested.
Voortrekker road was predictably packed with racers who were doing their own final testing. None of them giving it all they got, so as not to give away the results of Sunday’s big race before it even happens. Ram is lucky and gets his first run of the night against a Mazda RX-7, over which his BMW kaks logs.
Rams second run is against a Toyota Camry with a turbo, another lamb for the slaughter. Then, as Buis tries to warn him, it’s too late, and he lines up next to ‘Daai P***’ in his UNO turbo. Ram is confident, but Buis knows whose UNO turbo this is: It’s the guy he aims to dethrone on Sunday with his Bakkie. Buis directs, “Ram, vokkit man, put on your flicker and turn into the roadhouse—this P*** is mine, tomorrow night!” Ram obliges, for he is in no mood to have his ass handed to him by an UNO, and he at least knows Buis knows the territory and competition well enough to heed the warning.
At the roadhouse, they order a couple of burgers, curry and rice, and a few milkshakes. The roadhouse parking lot is crammed with sporty looking cars, most of them with the bonnet open and the owner fiddling with something on the engine that supposedly is slowing them down.
Almost like a well-rehearsed performance, the various racer types sort themselves into groups. You have the broke maar windgat group in their Cortinas, Sierras, and Sapphires, then you have the whelps out for a spin in their mommy’s Golf / Corsa (the air filter box always opened to make the engine sound rof), and then you have the professionals who are the tuners and mechanics (like Buis and Ram) representing their business and trying to win over new customers. Forming a much-needed border in between these various groups are the fans and spectators of this illegal passtime.
The conversation from each group (and you can take my word for it) is stimulating. If one can overcome the need to talk about one’s own ego-affirming moments, one can hear a cacophony of thrilling tales fill the general area of the Roadhouse parking lot: “Nee vokkit, toe se ek vir daai P***, TREK AF, DAN WYS EK JOU VOKKIN ROEKELOOS…” … “Hahaha!” … “Die ding is, jy’t te min Toluene in die donnerse mix, dis hoekom die ding so vokkin ping…’ … “So I drove it out of second and waited for boost and still won, hahaha!” … “Man, bring jou chommie en sy vokkin Subaru! Bel hom nou, se vir hom ek wag—hy praat lekker kak agter my r…” On and on the discussions, confrontations, boastings, and insults go.
That is what happens when cavemen get hold of technology beyond their mental grasp.
Ram and Buis stick to their type, but just as they get going in conversation with other racers, there is angry shouting coming from the Datsun camp in the back of the parking lot, and a viscous crowd shortly forms around two cars and two very angry chaps. As Buis and Ram work their way through the mass of people, they catch a glimpse of one guy’s bloody face shouting from the inside of his car to another bruised face trying to force open the door of his antagonist’s car. Word around the campfire is that one guy slept with the other’s girlfriend and that they are actually brothers. Apparently, this is a common sight where high-octane booze gets pumped into the bloodstream of everyone attending the latest family gathering.
The chaos settles down to a mild panic as three cops wade through the crowd to uphold some primitive form of law and order. The dense (and thick) crowd slowly disperses as Buis laments “Ag nee man, nou spoil die cops die hele ding man. Let’s go to my place and get somefing to drink.” Ram agrees. A night of hard drinking and injector swapping on Buis’s bakkie drag on to a fatigue-induced close as the sun rises on the big day.
As he cocks it into third, a loud splattering sound emanates from the engine bay. “Ek gaan daai vokkin koelie dood bliksem,” Buis yells at the top of his lungs as he pulls out of the race and off the main road. It seems that the one shop in town that had the apex seals for his rotary engine sold him pirated parts that could not take the strain. Opening the hood merely confirms his suspicion, the engine labouring away in mechanical agony. R27, 000 and three months labour down the drain. Oh well, there’s always next year’s bonus to get the beast up and running and try again!
These street racers drive around with no insurance, no helmet, and usually no shoes. These are hard people, living life a paycheck and a dice at a time. I have fond memories of these days, and a part of it will always be a part of me.
And that is my trip down memory lane … something I’ve aptly come to call ‘broken dreams broken con-rods.’
Before coming to Singapore, I briefly paid my respects to this lost world of my youth when I took my BMW 328i Sport out for a final bit of fun. But like bumping into one’s high school sweetheart, something just was off with the whole experience. I did some wheelspins for the crowds and minor drags against sooped up Civics (that’s a car, by the way), convincingly handing each one their ass, but I felt like I had outgrown these people and their simple pleasure.
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