The Nissan Dealer 400, round one of the Absa Off Road Championship, is being held on the weekend of 19 and 20 March in Darling. This off road race is in its second year and an extensive field of competitors is expected. For the first time, the field will include a development team – and this is considered a watershed move within this popular sport.

That development team is one of three teams entered by Team Ford Racing. Neil Woolridge will be driving the recently upgraded Ford Ranger in Class T. His co-driver will be Kenny Skjoldhammer, Woolridge’s regular navigator. Team two consists of Manfred Schröder - advancing from Class E to Class D - and Jack Peckham, who will be putting the new 4-litre Ford Ranger through its paces in this highly competitive class. The third team is made up of first-time driver Baphumze (Bappie) Rubuluza, making his racing debut in a Ford Ranger 2.5 Turbo Diesel 4x4, and co-driver Kulile Vakalisa. They will compete in Class E.

The development team is a first for off-road racing - and Ford is the first manufacturer to back previously disadvantaged drivers. “We place a great deal of emphasis on diversity, and feel that off road racing, in fact motorsport in general, is sorely lacking in interest from previously disadvantaged South Africans,” says Craig von Essen, General Manager, Communications and Government Affairs, at the Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “It was great to find two guys who show such a keen interest in motorsport, and we are proud to assist them in the field. This race will be a real learning curve for Bappie and Kulile – and the Ford Motor Company is honoured to be associated with these two potential South African motorsport champions.”

“I’m excited, nervous; all the things one feels before a big event, but Kulile and I don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves,” says Rubuluza. “We’ve known Neil for about a year, and his guidance and advice have been invaluable to us. He has definitely given us confidence. Ford has given us a strong vehicle to drive, which obviously also helps.” Unlike the experienced teams – who will be looking to finish, and finish first, Rubuluza and Vakalisa just want to complete the race in one piece – which they feel confident they will do.

Ford’s Class D entry, the 4-litre Ford Ranger, was given the go-ahead late last year, meaning that the team has only had a couple of months to develop and prepare the vehicle. “There has been a great deal of pressure to get the car finished in time for race day. However, we really have great hopes for the vehicle,” reveals Schröder. “Not only does it boast the intrinsic ‘Built Ford Tough’ attributes but it also has a fabulous motor under its hood, which certainly bodes well.”

Rule changes regarding air intake restriction are expected to make a difference come race day. “The changes should level the playing field,” says Woolridge. “And the new engine specifications for the Class T Ranger should make a big difference.” Now petrol vehicles are restricted to a 35mm air intake with a maximum of 10,5 air compression ratio, while the air intake for diesel engines is 39mm, with a standard compression ratio.

“And, as much as there have been changes in the rules, the course has also undergone alteration to eliminate some problem areas from last year’s run - creating refreshing challenges for both drivers and vehicles in 2004,” comments Woolridge.

Team Ford Racing has high hopes for the Class T Ford Ranger. “We had a good run last year and have no reason to anticipate anything but the best this time round,” comments Woolridge. “We are looking forward to the race – and it will be interesting to see what changes have been made to the route.”

No doubt, all the True Blue Ford fans are also eagerly awaiting the race – and all eyes will be on this three-vehicle team.