NOTE: This article has been written in 2014 August 12 – some news will therefore be a bit outdated.
When I saw this specific picture of the One-Man-Band again for the first time in 31 years, I think, I could not help but smile.
I love thinking back over the years, doing my best to sidestep the ever-present heaps on the lawn, called politics and backbiting.
There are great memories of the different teams I was involved in, magic moments with some of the best navigators in the business, lasting friendships that developed and lasted for a lifetime in some cases, special moments I enjoyed in the company of most people involved.
As I recalled this specific Rally where the picture was taken the words of that well-known song popped into my mind.
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
For we were young and sure to have our way”
Sitting here surrounded by nostalgia I enjoyed every moment recalled, but alas, it was not long before reality kicked in again.
Suddenly I realised that more words of this song still applied.
“Those were the days my friend…..”
In the picture in the background between Louis Balkin “The One Man Band” and his very own “gorilla” you will note the late Spotty Woodhead.
A friend who I sometimes regretfully “avoided” – as I did with so many others.
A friend whom I will never be able to ask almost anything about rallying again, or try to tap into his encyclopaedic mind where answers always seemed to stay clear.
There was almost nothing he would not be able to answer.
Yes, I avoided Spotty some days in good spirit because when he got started about anything, he was so enthusiastic to share all his knowledge, that you could not switch him off again.
Spotty was an exceptional brain and spirit in a frail body. A genius, almost never recognised and appreciated for what he was. Like so many others.
This picture was taken when we were about to start this rally.
I can’t recall which one it was, but I knew that there would be TV coverage and many people – the rally started in Rosslyn near Pretoria. Francois Jordaan and I decided to draw some attention to our team in the hope of getting more publicity and sponsors of course!
The One Man Band and the Gorilla walked in front of our car onto the starting ramp and I believe we hit TV before anyone else on that event.
Where we used to raise a glass or two
And dreamed of all the great things we would do
The overall sport was very different to what it is today.
Privateers could keep up with the factory teams, often because the privateers were simply much better than the favourite flavours-of-the-month. It was not always nice for the unpopular talent, but made excellent copy to write about and excellent topics over a beer or two.
There were cliques protected by bulletproof cocoons – but at least you could get onto the committees while the clubs played a major role in the running of the sport.
The sport actually did bloody well, thank you very much.
We were proud to be members of PMC, SAM and SCC – the latter was enemy of both PMC and SAM.
SCC had branches all over, consisted of the typical “Sieg Heil and how do you do” specials who though that gymkhanas and rallies were cousins. They did rule the roost as they occupied most key positions in the then AA Motorsport that later changed to MSA.
Still in a way, I suppose we loved them.
Then there were the Natal and Western Province setups we visited once a year.
I will never forget the WPMCC I think it was, organised the Duckhams Rally – where I believe my so called “controversial” reputation was sealed and signed.
In 1973/4 I managed to beat the works team in a stock standard Toyota 2000 GSL with road shocks and Uniroyal tyres. This was then also the first Group One car that finished in the Top 10 on a National Championship Rally as far as I recall. Gert Kruger, now a retired professor, navigated for me.
When the late Vincent Wright of Toyota told the “works drivers” he was taking me and my ex-wife to dinner, they wanted to know “what about them” and goodness knows I still regret making a joke by saying that “the uncles must learn to drive better, before such an invite would come!”
That was it! My permanent reputation as a “little shit” kicked in and a few other names were added to the reputation as the years went by.
Lesson 102353 in motorsport – do not joke with any “prima-donna”!
They suffer from enough complexes as it is and oh dear, oh dear, please do not ever write that they may not be able to win a rally!
Those days the main rally drivers who counted almost all lived in and around Pretoria.
The Jacaranda blossoms, the Apies River and local air made us as quick as you will ever get.
We had our idols, they had us!
Then the busy years went rushing by us
If by chance I’d see you in the tavern
“those were the days……”
Importance then crept onto the scene.
The banter changed into serious back-biting.
MSA became a power tower, the clubs had to compete against about 10 000 other forms of entertainment on offer.
In ’94 so-called “democracy” kicked in – and at the same time criminality on a world leading scale in South Africa.
I did however not rally from end 1974 to 1981.
In 1982 I made a comeback in a Ford Escort 1600 I bought for R450 and I started my comeback as car number 149 and the car (never me) saw to it that we started the next rally I think in eleventh position on the road.
After an unexpected class win in that almost worse than stock standard little car, one “works” driver said that the reason why I beat them was that I felt nothing for the car! It ran on Bandag Retreat tyres, had a camshaft and a Weber side-draught carburettor, a roll-cage, sump-guard and four Armstrong road shocks completed the car. All and all a deal of less than R1200 those days or a set of tyres of the competition who could not keep up!
Then I got the opportunity to buy a 1600 Toyota Corolla Class C and that was the start of at least a few impressive results.
A short-lived opportunity with Opel came but they, almost predictably if you look at my career, withdrew from rallying shortly after Eric Sanders and I were signed up – Opel is still out of rallying….
The car I later got from Volkswagen under Geoff Mortimer’s guidance was a little Class C monster that bit anything around or in front of it’s, backside off.
At the same time, the era of the Audi Quattro arrived.
Nothing could catch those cars, respectfully not even with mediocre drivers behind the wheel. So – in came the big money. Toyota, Ford and Nissan had to play catch up – BIG TIME.
The Audi team at first used a batch of Kleber tyres they got with the cars, not even caring if they were actually good or bad.
Then Nissan with Hannes Grobler behind the wheel gave them a wake-up call.
Suddenly Audi imported new tyres and drivers sat straighter behind the steering wheels.
Years passed. The group B monsters were replaced by more affordable cars.
Recently in the new millennium the Rand started losing ground, while fuel prices and all else skyrocketed – and “we” allowed the sport in South Africa to fall prey to the in-affordable rules of the FIA.
Solution: “We had to build a car that would be able to bring back the excitement the Quattros generated to try to blow new life into the sport.”
We “developed” according to some, the S2000 that was going to be the “affordable” car with a limited price etc. etc.
BOOM!!!!! We kicked off S2000 in style and with force. Eureka! The answer to all our problems – a car that’s price would spiral right out of the budgets of even the manufacturers! The moment they measured the investment against the price – Boom!!
The A7 class was still there as an option for the lesser fortunate and it was the logical class for those with pocket-depth-limits of around 500 big ones. There were four or five more classes – some well supported, some not. But there were options.
Main thing was – it worked rather well – in honesty – surprisingly well.
There was a class for “standard” four wheel drive turbo cars called N4 and one for normally aspirated two wheel drive cars called N3. Quite a number of privateers could afford to participate here, without necessarily being competitive.
Proving a point – after I got an offer to drive a Subaru in 2002 – when my season started-off on the Sasol which meant there were only five events from eight left, I managed to win the N4 championship by one point that year – using five different navigators to prove that we needed pace notes to get on par with certain drivers who had notes of almost every meter of gravel road in South Africa and also to give the navigator a definite role to play inside the car.
I was adamant to make a case for what I liked to call – a “South African” N4 class. All the rule makers had to do, was take out the stupid turbo-restrictor – because that was the main reason why certain people had to spend hundreds of thousands of Rand to get the car to go properly again. Secondly they had to simplify the rules.
But no sir, not on your life……..there were fears that the class S2000, the class that will in the end destroy rallying in South Africa, would be beaten by an unrestricted N4. Shows you clearly that they had no faith in the boy and grandpa wonders behind the steering wheels. It was like keeping a cat out of a cage filled with Dobermans – because the cat may beat the hell out of them.
Just tonight I stood before the tavern
In the glass I saw a strange reflection
Was that lonely person really me
After the money bags got a bit of a hiding from a stock standard Subaru with standard computer and nothing else, the war in N4 began. Serious money was thrown in behind an effort to beat the shit out of me?
I pleaded the case for a SA class N4, begged and predicted in 2003 exactly what is happening today, but as so many good ideas – the ball dropped and we followed the money spoor over the horizon leading to nowhere or maybe we now know where this led.
A7 – gone
A5 – gone
N3 – gone
N4 – gone
S1600 replaced everything below the top class and you could now enter the scene as long as you had the better part of R500K in the piggy bank and not much less than that to keep you going for a season.
As said I decided to call-it-a-day as I felt the competition was not talent based anymore.
All we, the permanently disadvantaged, could prove was that we could keep up with the moneybags or if you prefer, the chequebook-brigade, but that was more here and there, than anywhere.
Not one single rule protected the privateer or kept the escalating costs down. A disaster in the making!
In my case I knew that it was just a question of time before I would have a terrible accident at the rate I had to drive in 2003 to “defend” my title. To try to make up for the lost power due to a restrictor and no money to upgrade everything around it, I had to start risking my life unnecessary. The fact that I might take a navigator for a trip through the pearly gates with me, made up my mind – that was it for me!
This was then when I started writing “safety notes” to try to remain part of the scene I loved dearly.
Friend Bill Sturrock came all the way from Scotland to teach me the ins and out’s of Route Notes in a few days and I have to say that was when my life changed dramatically.
The then President (every time I write this title I cringe thinking that this is a title for someone now reigning over a group of about 60 or so people) of the Rally Commission, Willie du Plessis was “fired” in absentia. He was on a rally in Africa and Mr Man himself – Francois the Great swaggered into the room to tell the unsuspecting Exco that he was in charge from that very moment.
I queried the legality of this sudden appointment and when he could not produce anything substantial in writing to prove it, I told him to piss off. Which I have to admit, he did.
That would later prove to be my downfall – or the reason for being kept out in the cold first by him and then by the result of his appointments and shitty decisions.
From here on things turned bad, REAL bad.
Not long after this incident Beaulah Verolini resigned from her position as Chief Officer of MSA and the hunt for a new “suitable person” who would revive motorsport began.
It felt as if I touched an open Eskom cable when MSA proudly, mind you, announced that they appointed none other than Frankie, the Pranky Pretorius as the new CEO of MSA.
Entered the wolf dressed in a baboon gown or was it in sheep’s clothing.
Through the door there came familiar laughter
I saw your face and heard you call my name
Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser
Then followed in-fights like never before in the sport.
Fights where for a few reasons I always seemed to feature right there in the centre.
Visser du Plessis and I at least managed to show our resistance, and we pursued until “the swagger” fell off the bus – permanently!
The damage was done and done well!
MSA suffered the consequences of the worse appointment they could possibly have made and will continue to suffer for a long, long time to come.
Clubs disintegrated, the atmosphere around a sport that thrived on characters, personalities and camaraderie, lost all of it spirit and one by one the faces became more unfamiliar. The regular talks before, during and after events turned into complaining sessions.
I suppose with the type of money at stake these days, you cannot expect a smile from anyone anywhere and with the money required which few are willing to spend, I do not blame the sour faces. It must hurt to phone home and proudly say that you finished almost last in a multi-million Rand car!
The game has changed and we can start waving goodbye to much more than just the atmosphere or spirit – we are on our way to lose it all.
At this stage it costs around R400K per competitor to run the championship – and I am afraid that no one will easily prove that worthwhile.
Luckily some of the older ones of us who are getting fewer every month, can still smile when we think about the song of times gone by.
We can think about the fun we had during the times before now, a time where you have to be a sour-puss to be in count.
Now – all that counts is what those involved can get from it or how they can benefit. No one else or nothing else matters.
Most of them come from a small select group who came at a cost even to those who are doing their utmost to fill the numbers.
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
La la la la…
I almost forgot – I still need to do a preview on the Cullinan Rally, but before I do that, I have to mention what happened after the VW rally.
After the event, I received a telephone call to tell me that I did not give Mark a chance in the VW rally and he won the rally. “What says I now?”
I immediately grabbed the article I wrote and no matter how I read it, I could not for the life of me find anywhere where I wrote that he stood no chance – but you see – it does not actually matter as I actually do not write anything for competitors to read.
I write and do my best to get some interest in the sport going – to make people aware of the sport.
You have to try to understand that it is essential to draw more than the 40 or so people who are involved in the sport and then the 12 or so who run it, interested.
I thought it would be interesting to see what a story would look like in the future if I worried about this type of “what do you know?” criticism – usually from people who have only received from me and never gave even a compliment back.
A PREVIEW OF THE CULLINAN RALLY
“The Cullinun Rally will be held on the 15th and 16th of August 2014 and should be won by Mark Cronje based on current form.
The next rally will be in the Cape on 19th and 20th of September – I think. Be sure to join us in Cullinan or the Cape or both.”
Wow, now that is truly exciting, is it not?