This is a story about very fast vehicles, handlebar moustaches and peeing in your pants.
But let us start at the beginning. Which in the case of this story happens to be a giant, red, inflatable arch, covered in the logos of motor racing sponsors.
I am standing on the icy-cold and rock-hard rugby field of Tarkastad, a small farming town in the Eastern Cape, and have just pulled on the cream overalls of Boy Stone, South Africa’s current off-road racing co-driving champion. His name is embroidered over my heart in red logo type and my boxer shorts and a GQ T-shirt are all else that stand between me and the minus something winds whistling through the air.
It is just minutes from the start of the time-trial of the Tarkastad 400, the 5th Round of the South African National Off-Road Championship. And I am about to become a co-driver for Greg Harvey, who, along with the man whose overalls I am wearing, won the SA championship in the Special Vehicles category last year (They also won together in 1998, and Harvey with another co-driver, Lionel Acton, in 1995).
Harvey has not raced since picking up the championship trophy for the third time, six months ago but has invited me to join him for his ‘last’ race, here in in his home area. He is chairman of Settlers, the off-road club which organises the race; his company, Queen Motor Spares, are the sponsors; and his wife, Ronell, is the race meeting secretary; so you could say he’s pretty closely involved with the weekend’s event.
A mud-splattered truck inches its way along the first few metres of the start line, spraying water into the ground to keep down the dust for when the vehicles eventually screech away. The spectators, who are hanging around the ‘pits’ chatting to drivers and peering into engines, as if a genie will appear when the mechanics rub something next time, don’t seem the type that would be bothered by a bit of dust.
But the ground-wetting ceremony has another useful function to my mind: it creates a cartoon-like start, with each vehicle battling to get grip on the newly greased surface, then shooting off as if they’d been held back by elastic when the first few, wet metres have been successfully negotiated. Dust is replaced by mud. It makes for great TV.
It is is my extensive off-road experience from TV (I saw it on Supersport once), that must have been the attraction for Harvey in picking up the phone and asking me to join him as co-driver. Either that or he’s heard of my co-driving skills from my wife.
‘Left, left, I told you left. Oh, yes, sorry, I didn’t see that. No, you carry on while I check the map again.’
And, it seems, news of my talents has spread far and wide. For when I arrive at Tarkastad to register for the race I see that we have inexplicably been seeded 10th out of 51 starters (a lineup which includes Giniel de Villiers who raced in the Dakar rally earlier this year). Our seeding is presumably down to Harvey’s three-time champion driver status and my co-driving skills in equal measure.
As we queue with the other vehicles, waiting our turn behind the start line for the time trial, two racers in matching shiny-blue overalls approach me and ask if there is a one-minute delay between the start of each vehicle.
‘No, it’s two minutes’, Harvey tells them. ‘Where are you starting?’
‘Oh, we’re 10th,’ I respond with a self-satisfied smile, then nod, hoping they’ll go away and not watch my attempt at getting into the car for the first time. I don’t think I’ve got in a car through its roof before.
Around us there are many racing ‘couples’ in matching overalls, all doing their best to look macho in the slightly homo-erotic stretch outfits, tightened with the little elastic waistband, which I avoid doing up. Every second racer or mechanic seems to have a handlebar moustache. Stretch outfits. Handlebar facial hair. It looks like the platteland’s annual audition for the Village People.
But they could be all be dressed as Mary Poppins and singing children’s nursery rhymes as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got the matter of peeing in my pants to consider.
‘When was the last time you wet yourself?’ Harvey had asked me. ‘Because we don’t stop; it wastes time. If you want to go, you have to do it in your overalls.’
But before I have time to consider my options, it’s ‘Go, go, go’ of a different sort and we are off across ridiculously rough terrain at ridiculously fast speeds. Human-sized sharp rocks, and inhuman-sized holes blur past while my body bounces around in the cab like a newly burst piece of popcorn.
‘What’s the odo reading?’ Harvey asks through the radio that links our crash helmets.
‘Eighteen,’ (the time trial is over 36km).
‘We’ve got a puncture. But I’ll drive on,’ he adds, realising it’ll be quicker to continue than wait for me to get out and ‘help’ him to change it.
Soon afterwards a back tyre goes as well and we slip and slide our way through the rest of the trial, arriving back with seriously shredded rubber to a few ironic cheers.
Later I discover that, remarkably, even with the double blow, we qualified 15th for the start of the race, just eight and a half minutes behind the leader.
During my time in Tarkastad I notice two things in particular. One is the number of genuinely friendly people who ask if I am/was scared and two, the number of people who say; ‘I drove with Greg once…’
There is a real interest among locals as to why I am doing this and what the experience is like, but I am more concerned by those people who leave the word ‘once’ hanging in the air when they say they drove with Harvey. Why once? Does no-one go again? And why do they smile when they wish me good luck?
Maybe it’s because doing up to 180km/h on dirt tracks with no windscreen is a seriously exhilarating, seriously-worth-smiling-about experience. For that is the speed we were apparently doing at times. That, and the other extreme of creeping along as slowly as is necessary to avoid slipping off rocky paths and over the edge into some nasty looking drops.
The only time we touch tar is to cross a road, points at which marshalls and spectators wave us across safely while performing a variety of finger gestures to let us know how we are doing.
It’s like being trapped in a PlayStation game that you can’t turn off. And the other guy has got the controls.
Greg Harvey has been racing since he was 16, but got into this type of racing in 1990 when he bought a rolled Nissan bakkie at a police auction. ‘I just patched it up and decided to have some fun,’ he says.
Three years later the fun had turned serious and Harvey flew to America to import his first car. ‘I raced in all the nationals from ’94 to the end of last year.’
Which is not a cheap thing to do, it has to be said. A new Jimco, the type of car Harvey races, costs around R1,2 million. A back tyre, of which you need many, is R2,500, while a rim is about R5,000. I remember these figures because my lack of tyre-changing speed led to us buggering up two perfectly good tyres and rims in the trial. Ahem.
Overall, Harvey estimates that it costs about R120,000 a year to race competitively. ‘Travel is the expensive part,’ he says. ‘Costs of getting to the venue, accommodation and food, is not just for yourself. There is the co-driver, the pit crew; you need about five, sometimes more.’
Harvey then launches into the pros and cons of a manual/automatic gearbox, a subject close to his heart, because ‘after switching to a manual I won my first championship.’
It’s obviously a favourite theme as hours later I hear him telling another racer in the bar: ‘You have to change to a manual; you’ll never win that championship until you get rid of that automatic.’
As we line up for the start of the race I am comforted to see that it is a manual gearstick by my right knee, although how Harvey sees it in the first few kays, let alone the road ahead, is a mystery thanks to the dust kicked up by the 14 vehicles that start ahead of us.
Early on I miss a left and we overshoot into the driveway of a house, and are forced to turn just metres from the front door. One of the staff, who is cleaning the pool, looks up in bemusement. I resist the urge to wave.
Despite this hiccup we make steady progress through the field, passing other vehicles with regularity. The finger-waving spectators are getting increasing excited as they require fewer fingers to tell us our position. Harvey is back.
As we come up behind each vehicle, my job is to press the horn so they’ll (hopefully) move out of the way. The first time I send down a couple of polite ‘beeps’ and nothing happens, so Harvey tells me down the radio, ‘Right, when I say so, just sit on that hooter.’ He moves to within millimetres of the bumper of the bakkie in front, I do my horn job and they move out of the way. Nice.
On the couple of occasions when the vehicle in front won’t budge, Harvey gives them a not-too-gentle nudge in the back while apologising to me for his language. Being linked to someone by radio for the duration of such a physically demanding event is the closest you’ll ever get to thinking what they think. Every cough, splutter, and ‘fuck off out the way’ is there. And if breathing expresses emotion then Harvey is breathing pure determination.
We carve our way though the field, moving up to fourth overall and second in Special Vehicles.
My job is simple enough: shout left or right when I see an orange marker, press the horn hard, and pass Harvey rags when mud spins off the wheels and sprays his visor.
The pink plastic bracelet I am required wear (like the one they give you in hospital as you are wheeled in surgery) is a reminder of the potential dangers, as are our blood types painted onto the sides of the vehicle.
But quite frankly, peeing in my pants has been top of my agenda for quite some time. Let’s just say ‘going’ in a moving vehicle – even if you want to – is not as easy as you’d think.
I might not be the best co-driver in the world but I now hold the record for running from the posts to the toilet at Tarkastad Rugby Club.