The 2003 SA Off Road Car Racing Championship?presented by Absa came to a dramatic end at the Carnival City Casino 400 on Saturday and will be remembered as the event, which broke the Production Vehicle and Nissan?s stranglehold over the sport during the past two years.
Friday?s 6km Prologue on the Carnival City Casino short course track saw the Proudly South African Nissan Hardbody pick-ups again set a blistering base and this time it was reigning Production Vehicle champions Duncan Vos and Mike Griffith who qualified on pole for the first time in their short off road racing career.
Team-mates Hannes Grobler and Richard Leeke, who had won six of the seven rounds of the championship to date and already clinched the Production Vehicle and Class T championships qualified one second slower and were followed by Gary Bertholdt and Brandon Harcus (Adrenalise Corporate Entertainment BAT) and five other Special Vehicles.
Neil Woolridge and Ken Skjoldhammer, who last won on the 2001 Carnival City Casino 400, qualified ninth fastest in the Team Ford Racing Ranger and shared the same time with Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton (Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser), who last won on the 2002 Barberspan 500.
Both factory teams and the Class A Special Vehicle brigade were intent on breaking Nissan?s grip on the championship and the scene was set for a dramatic showdown on Saturday, and what a showdown it was.
Minutes after the start on the muddy short course circuit Grobler and Leeke got past their teammates but then overshot a turn. Vos and Griffith could not avoid them and collided heavily with the back end of the leading Nissan and damaged a water pipe, which eventually lead to their retirement 11km into lap one.
Grobler and Leeke were chased by a gaggle of Special Vehicles and the works Ford and Toyota but 12km into lap one the rear differential on the Toyota broke and Reyneke and Houghton were forced to complete the lap with front wheel drive only.
Grobler and Leeke, Bertholdt and Harcus and brothers Laurence and Gerhard du Plessis (Mobil Jimco) all had a turn at leading the race but then disaster struck the Nissan pair. The bolts on the steering rack broke on lap two and Grobler and Leeke?s race and Nissan?s unbeaten streak came to an end.
The scene was now set for a showdown between Woolridge and Skjoldhammer in the Ford and Reyneke and Houghton in the Toyota, which had been repaired after a lengthy pit stop but in amongst this group there were two Class E bakkies that could steal their thunder.
Newly crowned Class E champions Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin (Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i) and Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst in the 2002 Class E championship winning Toyota Hilux were sandwiched between the Class T Ford and Toyota and just waiting to take advantage of any possible problems they might encounter and grab an historic overall win by a near standard, 4-cylinder Class E vehicle.
The du Plessis brothers had problems during the race and Bertholdt and Harcus regained the lead, which they held to the finish to record the first overall win by a Special Vehicle in two years and, as a bonus, Harcus picked up the Overall Special Vehicle Co-drivers Championship and he and Bertholdt the Class A championship. BAT vehicles had won six of the eight rounds of the Special Vehicle championship of which Bertholdt and Harcus had won three in the Adrenalise Corporate Entertainment BAT.
Neil Woolridge and Ken Skjoldhammer were second across the line in the Team Ford Racing Ranger and had the honour of being the first team to beat the Nissan?s in 15 events and of being two times winners of the Carnival City Casino 400.
Toyota Dealer 400 Special Vehicle category winners Mark Corbett and Jason Bruwer (Century Property Developments BAT) were third overall and second in the Special Vehicle category after a troubled third lap, which included a shock absorber coming loose, a puncture and a broken oil cooler.
Newcomers to Class A Clint Gibson and Mike Brown (Praesidium Financial Services BAT) backed up their second place finish on the Toyota Dealer 400 with a fine fourth overall and third in the Special Vehicle category.
Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin delivered another giant-killing performance in the Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i and finished fifth overall, second in the Production Vehicle category and first in Class E for the sixth time this season. That they finished at all was a miracle. The front differential broke midway through the second loop, then they lost third gear on the final loop and got stuck in a mud hole.
John Moore, who drove solo in the Shell Connix Chenowth after co-driver Fred Werner injured his back on the Toyota Dealer 400, finished sixth overall and fourth in the Special Vehicle category and was followed home by Class B winners Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain in the Rollerbak Racing JRE who had been involved in a season long battle with Giel Nel for the Class B crown. De Chalain won the Class B Co-drivers Championship for the second successive year.
Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst brought their Toyota Hilux home eighth overall, third in the Production Vehicle category and second in Class E after also losing the front differential on lap two. Veteran Nardus Alberts and Colin Hunter were ninth overall in the Wrapsa Raceco and won Class S for the second successive time after only picking up one puncture compared to the seven they had on the previous event.
An ecstatic Danie Marais and Andrew Utterson finished tenth overall and seventh in the Special Vehicle category in the Intelegence BAT to record their second consecutive finish in their first year of racing.
Giel Nel (LUK Africa Truggy) achieved the impossible when he finished 11th overall and second in Class B. Nel won the Overall Special Vehicle Championship for the second time and the Class B Drivers Championship for the third time in five years of racing, pipping reigning Class B Drivers Champion Taylor to the post.
Husband and wife Ge? and Caroline Jooste (Atlas Copco Sandmaster) were 12th overall and ninth in the Special Vehicle category in only their second national championship event.
The next five positions were occupied by Production Vehicles including GBS Nissan Racing pair Coetzee Labuschagne and Johan Gerber who won Class D, Marius van Vuuren and Chris Mare? (Alberante Autospray Land Rover) who were second in Class D, Reyneke and Houghton in the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser who finished second in Class T, brothers Jurie and Andre du Plessis (BB Auto Nissan Hardbody) who finished third in Class E and Hein Grobler and Gerhard Prinsloo (GBS Racing Nissan Hardbody) who won the Class D Drivers and Co-drivers Championship for the second time.
Roy Slabber, who only has one arm, and Gerhard Victor finished a creditable 18th overall and tenth in the Special Vehicle category in the Industrial Hardware Chevy. Slabber collapsed after the race with a suspected heart attack but medical personnel revived him and established that he was suffering from low blood pressure and dehydration.
Father and son Cliff and Louis Weichelt (N1 4X4 Toyota Land Cruiser) finished ninth in the Production Vehicle category and were followed 19-seconds later by Scott Abraham and Richard Carolin in the Atlas Copco / Chicago Pneumatic Jeep who finished 10th overall in the Production Vehicle category and third in Class T.
Abraham flew out specially from Germany to drive the Jeep in its last event before it is sold and apart from a punctured tyre, which cost them close on 40-minutes to change because the socket on the wheel spanner was too large, they had a trouble-free run. Carnival City Casino general manager, Rod Walker, had the privilege of completing the Prologue and the first lap of the race in the ?red monster?.
The Carnival City Casino 400 was a fitting climax to a closely contested SA Off Road Car Racing Championship?presented by Absa and if this season was anything to go by the 2004 championship has the makings of being the best ever.