Killarney – Cape Town’s Gateway to the Rich World of Global Motorsport

Killarney racetrack is an extraordinary asset for the people of Cape Town. Its distinguished history and facilities are testament to great dollops of inspiration and perspiration. It is now poised to enjoy the fruits of these voluntary labours by tapping into the riches of global motorsport to the benefit of the city.

The start of a plan to do so happens this weekend at the SA Nine-Hour endurance race.   

The first iteration of the Killarney circuit was built on a disused bypass just after the war. Three more versions followed until, in 1960, the current one was completed. Generations of private investment have followed to create the current facility, where the replacement value of its bomas, workshops, garages and other infrastructure around the track is close to half a billion rand. SA’s oldest motorsport facility, remarkably it has been built without a cent of government money, and it has been run on a not-for-profit basis for more than 50 years by the membership of the Western Province Motor Club.

Killarney continues to make a large contribution to the economy and social life of the City of Cape Town, bringing in some R350 million in 2019, and creating at least 8,000 jobs. It plays a crucial role in road safety as a venue for training and in keeping racing off the streets.

The facility is, in the words of Brian Redman, a former F1 and sportscar driver for Porsche and Ferrari, ‘a diamond in motorsport terms. When added to the beautiful surrounds of Cape Town, and its iconic Table Mountain,’ says the Florida resident, ‘Killarney could play a very important role in the global economy of motorsport.’

To do so, the complex will have to play to its strengths in benefitting from the current and changing trends in international motorsport, an industry worth nearly R30 billion just in media rights.

For one, Killarney has the advantage of southern hemisphere weather in attracting shivering northern counterparts to SA’s warmer shores. There are big advantages in so doing. For example, the annual Goodwood Revival in the UK attracts 150,000 spectators and, along with its Festival of Speed, contributes over R2 billion to the British economy. Moreover, the value of the historic vehicle industry globally is also growing fast, being worth more than R200 billion in the UK alone.

With the circuits of East London and Killarney, both of which are unchanged in layout since they hosted Grands Prix in the 1960s, and with an active and comparatively low-cost restoration industry, Cape Town can gain a slice of this buoyant global economy with the bonus of creating not only jobs, but also high-value technical skills.

The hosting of the World Rallycross finale since 2017 is a step in this direction. And so is the staging of the Nine-Hour race this coming weekend. 

More than 40 entries will participate in the Nine-Hour. Despite Covid, a number of international superstars are making the journey to support Killarney, along with South Africa’s own Stirling Moss.

Competitive sport is, as ever, a fickle companion, a pastime characterised by enormous commitment to preparation and training, endless frustrations and, then, extraordinary moments of satisfaction which continue to draw you back: when the golf shot is hit sweetly with a reassuring ‘tink’, I am told, the penalty slotted or the tackle made, the first serve smashed in, and eight rowers sweetly in unison, the boat moving quickly under you.

For motor-racing aficionados, it really does not come much better than driving down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, the speedo edging its way towards 300kph, the famous 24-hour circuit with its 38 corners, no fewer than eight of them fast, flat-out and blind. Its an uncompromising test of machine and stamina, today a flat-out sprint race run over a whole day.

Sustainability demands commercialism. Not fewer than 252,500 spectators attended the 2019 24-Hours. Television coverage reached over 800 million worldwide, making Le Mans one of the top five sporting events in the world by most measures.

The Nine-Hour this weekend will see four Le Mans superstars at Killarney.

Dutchman Jan Lammers has completed 24 times on the 24-hour, with victory in 1988 for Jaguar, and several podiums. Countryman Jeroen Bleekemolen, the son of a former F1 driver, enjoyed a distinguished single seater career, before turning to sportscars. He has raced at Le Mans fifteen times, winning the LMP2 category in 2008 and finishing third in the GTE category for Ferrari in 2018. This year he drove a Porsche 911 RSR. They will be joined in the Team Africa Le Mans Ginetta GT3 by Scotsman Anthony Reid, a veteran of British touring car racing, twice finishing as runner-up in that ultra-competitive championship. He also participated in six Le Mans races, with a best finish of third in 1990.  

This trio will be joined by several other big names, none more so than Sarel van der Merwe, now 74, best known to South Africans as a rally driver, on account of his 11 off-road national championships. Internationally, however, he is better known as a track racer, where he started his career in 1967. He only tried rallying as a means, he reminds, of funding his track ambitions. After winning the Daytona 24-hour in 1984 in a car sponsored by another SA icon, Kreepy Krauly, Sarel’s endurance career really took off, with regular appearances at Le Mans throughout much of the 1980s, finishing a remarkable third on debut in 1984. When former F1 driver Jan Lammers won the event four years later, Sarel was in the works Porsche team, looking set for victory until engine failure in the night ended their hopes.

Sarel is, undoubtedly, South Africa’s Stirling Moss, the epitome of an allrounder. If we had an honours system, a knighthood or even a peerage would have followed his accomplishments. And he remains wholly committed to the sport, hence being lured out of retirement again this weekend.  

These superstars will be joined in Team Africa Le Mans by SA saloon car ace Hennie Groenewald as well as Geoff Mortimer, who like Sarel won SA titles on the track and in a rally car. Mortimer is renowned for his engineering skills, the teams he has run reading like a veritable pantheon of SA motorsport history, from General Motors to Audi, Toyota to Ford, and Leyland to Renault. Now in his eighties he is still fettling cars, and very quick in them, a regular on the top step at the annual Knysna hillclimb, a discipline in which he cut his motorsport teeth in the 1950s. The team is rounded out by Jaki Scheckter, son of six-time SA Driver’s Champion Ian and nephew of World Champion Jody.  

The reason why these stars are racing is more than about the buzz of speed and the lure of competition. Team Africa Le Mans has set a long-term commitment to promoting the anti-poaching cause globally. In 2019, when the team competed at Le Mans, it featured the endangered Pangolin on its Bentley GT3. Little did we know what was soon to follow with Covid-19.

And the Team, and its drivers, are together committed to boosting Killarney’s role, ensuring it realises it’s obvious potential as Cape Town’s gateway to the rich world of global motorsport.

Dr Mills is the President of the WPMC, and drives, too, for Team Africa Le Mans.

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