Waking up to the roar of engines around the Kyalami racetrack, in the chilly Johannesburg autumn, was a part of growing up for Christine Bingham’s family. They waited for months to sleep in the back of their green Toyota Cressida station wagon in Kyalami’s parking lot. On this Saturday, in 1977, there were 90,000 waiting to see the best of Formula One (F1): Jody Scheckter; Niki Lauda; and James Hunt.
Drivers from across the world dreamed of competing under the African sun at Kyalami in the 1970s. The South African track was considered one of the fastest in the world. It suffered a slow death after ceasing F1 racing in 1993.
In July, the four-kilometer asphalt surface went under the hammer.
The auction, at an opulent venue in Sandton, was packed with expensive suits and dresses. The room fell silent as Lead Auctioneer Joff Van Reenen, of High Street Auctions, opened the bidding at $18.8 million. A bid came from the front row in seconds. A second bid, for $19.3 million, came in over the phone. The bidding ceased when the first bidder shook his head. Van Reenen slammed the gavel down once, twice and sold. In the space of minutes, the iconic racetrack had a new owner. The question on everyone’s lips – who was the bidder on the phone?
“We can reveal that the bidder on the phone was a representative of Porsche South Africa. If the property had gone for development, we estimated that it could have been worth R300 to R400 million ($28 to $37 million). I am glad that the racetrack will stay in the industry. We had seven registered bids for the track, but in the end it went to the right person,” says Lance Chalwin-Milton, MD of High Street Auctions.
According to Chalwin-Milton, it is the highest price paid for a South African property under the lot. The previous record price was for development land in Knysna, a gem on the south coast of South Africa, which was sold for $11.3 million.
Kyalami may yet see racing. Porsche South Africa has indicated that by December the site might be upgraded for endurance circuit racing, but almost certainly not the F1 racing that left fans like Bingham with warm memories.
“I think it was the atmosphere that made you want to go to the races. I remember the tickets being very expensive. It was always John’s job to make breakfast, a gas-cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs. We would spend the day on the stands with the crowds watching the cars go by. In those days, there were no TVs so you would only see what happened in front of you. I also remember losing our voices by the end of the weekend screaming to talk over the noise of the engines,” she says.
Bingham, a widow living in the quiet northern suburbs of Johannesburg, has been a racing fan all her life. She grew up around the tracks of Silverstone and Mallory Park, in England. Bingham would hide in the boot of a car to get into the races and avoid the entrance fees. It was also here that she met her husband, John. After they were married, they took their daughter to a race once, it stopped after they realized the engines were too loud for the baby.
When her family came to South Africa, in 1971, they gravitated toward Kyalami. It was a long drive to get there from their home in Krugersdorp, a time when Sandton was only a farm, says Bingham. Tickets for Kyalami were bought months in advance.
“The crowds were huge. But the kids got rather bored and it was too noisy for them,” recalls Bingham.
Motor racing was a lot more dangerous in those days, says Bingham. The last time rubber was burnt on Kyalami’s track was in 2010 for a MotoGP motorbike race.
“I remember in 1977 when a track marshal was killed, Tom Price the driver also died in the accident. We didn’t see him crash, all I remember is watching people running around the stands to go see it,” she says.
It was during lap 21 of the South Africa Grand Prix. Italian Renzo Zorzi’s engine caught fire. Two marshals ran to help. One of them was 19-year-old Fredrik Jansen van Vuuren. He never made it to Zorzi’s car. As Van Vuuren crossed the track, with fire hydrant in hand, Pryce hit him. Both died in the collision. Zorzi was cut from the team after finishing one of five races, having scored no championship points.
Bingham also remembers an African motor racing legend in the same race, who finished second. His name is Jody Scheckter and in 1979 became the only African to win an F1 title.
“Scheckter was a very reckless driver. He was the kind of driver who would take risks without thinking about safety, especially when he started; being English we all supported the British racers,” she says.
These days, you won’t find Bingham near a racetrack. At the age of 71, she watches F1 from the comfort of her couch.
“I watch the racing religiously on Sundays. It’s much easier now, following it on TV, and if I miss it I watch the recording later that evening. When you were at the stands you could only see if the cars had shifted positions. It’s actually much more exciting on TV,” she says.
Over time, Bingham has seen drivers come and go. She proudly admits to having supported only a handful; Nigel Mansell, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton – until he became arrogant, according to Bingham – and Sebastian Vettel. Racing has changed a lot, she says.
“I think the big thing that has changed is the issue of safety. But the technology is more advanced now. I remember it taking 12 seconds for a pit stop in those days, these days they can do it in four.”
At the auction, in the time it takes for a pit stop, 43 years of racing may have been lost forever.
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