Ernest Hemingway, writer (A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea) and adventurer, once said, “There are only three sports: motor racing, bullfighting and mountaineering …the rest are just games.”
He knew what he was talking about. There are few sports more challenging than motor racing and, in particular, cross country or off-road racing. Apart from the obvious athletic, physical skills required as in any sport, there is the added challenge of the elements – dust, mud, rough off-road terrain – and the reliability and durability of your machine to last the distance.
The biggest cross country race in the world is the Dakar Rally, which annually takes place in South America over a two-week period and covers some 9 000 kilometres. Africa’s biggest cross country race is the Toyota Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race, first run in 1975.
Both are renowned for stories of bravery, hardship, triumph and defeat. The 2014 Botswana Desert Race on June 27, 28 and 29 was no exception and this year delivered one of the unkindest changes of fortune and twists in the tail in the long history of this modern marathon.
Defending national Special Vehicle champions and top seeds Evan Hutchison of Johannesburg and Danie Stassen of Nelspruit (Motorite Racing BAT Viper) found themselves in the lead with 50 kilometres of the 1 000-kilometre race remaining. Long hours of preparation and hard work had got them this far and they were beginning to think about the pleasure that would come from crossing the finish line in Jwaneng in first place, It would be their second victory in Africa’s longest and toughest cross country race in three years, the first coming in 2012.
They had recorded the 22nd-fastest time in Friday’s 100-kilometre qualifying race behind 15 production vehicles (who compete together with the specials, but in their own championship) and six specials and did well to end Saturday’s 450-kilometre race in third place in their category and seventh overall.
They were also the leaders in the Dakar Challenge, a separate event run in conjunction with the Desert Race that carried a winner’s prize of free entry into the 2015 Dakar Rally.
While Saturday’s route had suited the specials, Sunday’s 450 kilometres was tighter and slower and this resulted in Hutchison and Stassen losing the Dakar Challenge lead to the Ford Ranger of Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau. They had moved up to second place at the compulsory halfway service stop after 225 kilometres. With 50 kilometres to go the leading special vehicle, the BAT of son and father combination Quintin and Kallie Sullwald, stopped with electrical problems. Hutchison and Stassen stopped to assist and helped their rivals get going again, but now they had the lead.
Then, just seven kilometres from the finish, a bearing failed on the Motorite Viper’s tensioner pulley and the belt fell off. “We lost power steering (you can still steer the vehicle but only at a slow pace), alternator (the battery was good for another 20 kilometres or so) and water pump,” said Hutchison. “The water temperature rose alarmingly, but it was possible to nurse the vehicle for a few kilometres as a result of the vehicle’s large and efficient oil cooler, which is driven by the motor so the oil temps were still good and we were monitoring it as we crawled to the finish.”
The radiator pipe then burst and the special coolant that the team uses sprayed against the top of the driver’s seat and on to the petrol tank and exhaust which ignited and set the car on fire. All of this was happening behind both the driver and navigator, but because they were still on the move they didn’t notice the fire until it was well on its way.
“Danie shouted that there was a fire and I asked him what was on fire. He said, ‘You are on fire’. I immediately stopped the car at which point the flames were around my head and shoulders as the seat was on fire. We jumped out of the car as quickly as we could, disconnecting the intercom, parker pumper (fresh air system) and then safety belts (all five of them).
“We then tried to put out the fire, first with the portable Fire Strykers and the help of some locals who threw sand on the flames. We also activated the on- board extinguisher, but still the fire raged.
“As I stepped back to take a breath of fresh air the next competitor arrived in the form of Manfred Schroder in the factory Ford Ranger,” recalled Hutchison. “He gave us an FIA-approved portable extinguisher which had the fire out in 30 seconds. It was a huge relief.”
Fire is one of the greatest fears a motor racing competitor can have and this was Hutchison’s second experience – and close escape. “In 2008 we watched helplessly as our car burnt to the ground. It was an incredibly emotional experience
So there they stood three kilometres from the end of a 1 000-kilometre three-day race that five minutes earlier they had started to imagine the welcoming cheers of thousands of spectators.
Motor racing is not for sissies and Hutchison and Stassen and their hard-working pit crew and loyal sponsors will be back.
For the record, the race was won by son-and-father combination Wichard and Hermann Sullwald (Stryker).
“Apart from being very grateful that we were not injured, we can take a few positives out of this setback,” noted a philosophical Hutchison, who has five cross country and one national rally championship to his credit since 2005. “First, there was the sportsmanship of Manfred in stopping to assist us and then there was the fact that the high safety standards employed in cross country racing prevented us from being burnt.
“Cross country racing attracts a kind of competitor who is generally very helpful to his or her rivals. The camaraderie is a key element of our sport. We fight it out on the road, but otherwise we’re one big, happy family and we look out for each other.
“The Donaldson South African Cross Country Championship, of which the Toyota Desert Race is the blue riband event, is one of the biggest, most competitive and respected national championships in the world. It is strictly run to the rules of the FIA, the world controlling body, and safety is paramount. Our cars have substantial rollover cages which are usually built into and form an integral part of the tubular chassis. We carry on-board fire extinguishers and we are required to wear FIA-approved helmet, fireproof underwear, overalls and gloves as well as FIA-approved neck brace devices.
“In this incident, although my clothing caught fire and there was also damage to my helmet and neck brace, it was only superficial. Everything worked the way it was supposed to.”