Wheels24's Janine van der Post was thrown into a racing car and made to speed around SA racing driver Des Gutzeit's track in Durban for Round 1 of the Extreme Festival - in only the second race of her life. She shares what it was like to be a professional racing driver for the day.
Most petrolheads probably believe that they could race a car on a track on any given day. We're all such great drivers in our own cars, how difficult could it be to drive on a track?
About a month ago, I received a phone call, asking if I would participate in the Media Challenge during Round 1 of the Extreme Festival as a guest of Sumitomo Rubber at SA's legendary racer Des Gutzeit's Raceway outside Durban.
My immediate response: "Can't one of the guys from my team participate instead?"
"No, no, it has to be you," was their reply. I said I would think about it.
About three years ago, after Kyalami was renovated and reopened, Volkswagen Motorsport SA invited me to participate during the same race. It took a hell of a lot of convincing, but I eventually agreed.
Despite my nickname and social media handles being SpeedqueenJ9 - a name coined almost two decades ago as an enthusiast involved in the local car club culture - I'm not an ace racing driver. While straight-line racing on the streets and legal runs at Tarlton Raceway might have been my forte years ago, it still doesn't mean I am a seasoned racing queen on the track.
I hadn't been around Kyalami in five years, and even though I'd seen the new changes on paper, it's very different when you're on the track barreling towards corners. There was no practice session and I was up against several of my peers in the industry, most of whom had professional racing backgrounds.
My racing experience was a big fat zero. The only session we had before the race turned out to be the qualifying race. I was under the impression it was a sighting lap and I could learn the new racing lines from my more experienced peers. Instead, my car was right at the back of the pits, and one of my peers just ahead of me decided to play with the car before he sped off without me. I did so poorly that I was given an entire lap head start in the race and still managed to end second last, only because one of my faster rivals' car went into limp mode, which saw him crawl home.
This time was so much better. Both times, my husband was my biggest fan and moral support. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the pressure, but he kept saying he knew "I can do this".
The wonderful folks from Sumitomo Rubber, KZN Racing, Des Gutzeit and his family, and Volkswagen Motorsport took great care of us this time around. They made sure we had practice sessions when we arrived the day before. It meant we could familiarise ourselves, not only with the extremely technical, revamped track, but also their racing cars.
Racing drivers usually have a similar physique (read: they're super skinny); it's all about weight reduction and that's why Formula 1 and most racing disciplines have thin drivers. The lighter you are, the better for those all-important power-to-weight ratios.
Race cars are fitted with roll cages inside. These keep drivers safe in the event of a crash and in case the body of the vehicle is crumpled. There's only one seat inside; everything else is stripped out. There's a crossbar along the driver's side door, which means you can't get into the car conventionally. Getting in is a mission, even if you're a lithe driver. Then comes the challenge of getting the safety harness (read: seatbelt) over my, erm, fuller figure. Neither I or dear VWMotorsport's Gavin, knew just how close and personal we would have to become... "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry" - the poor man kept apologising profusely as he helped me strap up.
The journos were split into two teams: Team Falken and Team Dunlop, with the respective captains being Sumitomo Rubber CEO Riaz Haffejee and the legendary Des Gutzeit (how unfair, right?). We also had to share cars with a team mate, so I was partnered up with Autodealer's editor Sean Nurse. Due to the seating constraints, we decided I would race first in each race.
It was time for Race 1. My emotions were all over the place, as I was the last to be strapped in. There was some confusion with the marshalls as to how many laps we would perform, but off I went. I tried to push as hard as I could, anticipating each corner before it arrived, telling myself where to drive around those blind rises and where to brake before heading into each apex. I was apprehensive, but I brought it home. The next race would be better.
Suddenly the heavens opened up and the track was quickly transformed into a super slippery hazard.
My nerves were shot. This was only my second ever race and my heart started having palpitations as everyone else began to panic regarding the track conditions. Secretly, I was hoping they would cancel the race.
My husband, my No. 1 fan, kept telling me: "Why are you so nervous? I know you can drive well. You can do this."
And then I thought, well yes, of course, I can. I went into the second race calm and confident. Yes, I was loudly praying for "Jesus to take the wheel" along Turn 3 and 6, but ultimately I did quite all right.
Racing is not for the inexperienced, but I am damn proud of myself for participating. I never spun out, kept the racing line as well as I could, never broke the car, and brought it home in one piece. I didn't finish in last place as, ultimately, I was fastest of the three women and finished third out of the six journos participating.
We often underestimate our own abilities, when we really need to give ourselves way more credit. I think I'll be ready for the next one.