The immense success of the recent Toyota Dealer 400 off-road race held in and around the historic town of Lydenburg last month (22/23 October) has put motorsport firmly on the map in this area of Mpumalanga. Besides the scores of enthusiastic local inhabitants that turned out to watch the race, there was unprecedented help for the organisers from the community and local authorities.

Comments from spectators and competitors alike emphasised how well the event has been received by all involved. This was only the second year that Lydenburg had been used as the venue for this round of the Absa SA off-road racing championship and the standard was already exceptionally high. The event was so popular amongst locals that one farmer in the area, Piet Rabie, took down fences, built new gates, cleared a culvert under the road for competitors to drive through and even constructed a route of about 50 km on his farm to accommodate the low-flying racing cars.

Chief organiser, Willie du Plessis, of the Pretoria-based SA Motorsport Club, who is well-known for his very successful, annual Sasol Rally in Sabie and Nelspruit, tried his hand at organising this off-road event for first time last year and it was adjudged a very good event. This year’s Toyota Dealer 400 reached even high standards.

What really impressed Willie, who is one of the most experienced non-circuit organisers in South Africa, was the willingness of the Lydenburg community and local authorities to ensure the event was a success.

“I only wish there were more rally and off-road racing venues where the support was so enthusiastic,” commented Du Plessis. “The people from the Lydenburg area who assisted us are even arranging a ‘thank you’ party for me and my organising team, because they are so glad the event came to their area of Mpumalanga. They are already planning improvements for next year.”

Driving force behind the support given the event in the Lydenburg area was the father-and-son combination of Fanie Erasmus Snr. and Fanie Erasmus Jnr., of Lydenburg Toyota. This dealership is the current holder of the title as Toyota South Africa’s Dealer of the Year and this is the third time the title has been won by this team. They won previously in 1998 and 2001.

“You can see why they are the country’s top Toyota dealership,” commented Willie du Plessis. “They are enthusiastic about everything they do and great motivators of other people in the area. It is a very pleasant working with them, as nothing is too much trouble.”

“The Toyota Dealer 400 was without a doubt one of the best events of my career, and I am not only saying that because I won my class for the first time this year,” said Toyota’s outgoing Class E champion Mark Cronjé. Cronjé and co-driver Chris Birkin won Class D in their Castrol Toyota Hilux 2700i, after a race-long battle with class leaders Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford in a Nissan Hardbody.

Other teams were also full of praise for the well-organised Toyota Dealer 400, penultimate round of the 2004 Absa Off-Road Championship.

“The route was brilliant for us – a real challenge, not quite as sweeping and fast as one or two other events on the eight-race calendar. It was very demanding on both man and machine,” said Ford Racing’s Neil Woolridge, who finished third overall.

“We also enjoyed the event,” said Francois Jordaan, co-driver for Giniel de Villiers, who won the event in a Class T Nissan Hardbody. “The spectators were very well behaved, even though there were so many of them all along the route. We really enjoyed putting up a show for them.”

Willie du Plessis explained that he had once again used de-control points to permit competitors to stop racing and to drive some distance on public roads before linking in with the racing route again.

Not everyone liked this innovation. Toyota’s Mark Cronjé said he loved the opportunity to get a break, stretch legs and use the restroom (even though that turned out to be a tree in the veld), but Nissan’s Richard Leeke, navigating for Hannes Grobler, said they preferred to keep going. “The stop interrupts the flow, and that is what off-road racing is all about – its flat-out all the way for 400 km, not like a rally where you stop and rest every few kilometres…”

Competitors were full of praise for the rally-style route schedule, while spectators appreciated the accurate written and pictorial guide to spectating points.

“With support such as we enjoyed from the people of Lydenburg last year and this year, we will be back next year with an even bigger and better event,” promised Du Plessis.

The next event in the Absa South African Off-Road Racing Championship is the Carnival City 400, last round of the 2004 series, which takes place in Gauteng on November 19-20.