WHEN: Most Friday evenings. TIME:

04 October 2007

Ecurie's Golden era of Metal Racing - by Alan Seymour

Slot Car Racing

I was introduced to slot car racing in 1963 when I joined the Maritzburg Model Car Club. At that time the Club had a four-lane scalextric track that was nothing more than a basic figure 8 with a couple of squiggles at each end. We ran almost standard scalextric cars with the only modification being brass rear wheel hubs to add weight and give better traction.

We raced each Friday evening and I won my fourth meeting and was never again beaten at a Club evening. After a few months VIP cars became available. These were very agile cars that suited our small twisty track. At some stage in the second half of ’63 we were invited to the first Natal Grand Prix to be held at the Ecurie Elite Club in Durban.

We were completely shattered when we arrived for the Grand Prix by both the track and the speed of the cars. By comparison our cars were embarrassingly slow, and their track was a proper slot car track made of wood. It was also about four times bigger than our track. Needless to say we were all knocked out in the very early heats.

The next Friday evening we gathered at our club but, none of us had the heart to race and we spent the evening planning how we would find bigger premises and how we would build a new track. Surprisingly within three months we had found a new clubhouse and completed our new track. We had also dumped our uncompetitive cars and replaced them with cars to the same specifications as those used by the Durban guys. They were scalextric rear-engine Lotus 20 F1 bodies fitted with Pitman 196 motors.

In 1964 a league was formed in Natal with 9 clubs from Durban and ourselves in Maritzburg. A league championship was organized on a home and away basis and our first meeting was at a club somewhere near Virginia airport in Durban. The club was at a private home but nevertheless their track was fine except for one thing. The league rules required an electronic lap-counter and the owner of the track had mounted a large wooden board on the wall opposite the driver’s stand. On the board he had installed four rows of lights (one row per lane/driver) and it was wired up so that a new light would come on as you completed each lap. This was quite a nice idea because it was easy to keep track of how far ahead/behind the other cars were. However; the problem was that you “accumulated” lights as the previous laps’ lights did not go off.

Races were 30 laps long so, by the time you reach halfway you were facing 60 lights. As the race progressed the lights increasingly blinded the drivers and the last five laps or so were driven almost from memory. We did put in a complaint to the league and I believe that it was sorted out after our meeting.

The Maritzburg club finished third in the league, which was a good result for us.

In 1965 I turned 21 and bought a kart. It was only natural that I should invite my slot car friends to try the kart and most of them also bought karts and unfortunately the slot car club virtually folded.

After we moved to Durban in 1980 I discovered that the Ecurie Elite Club was still running, albeit in new premises and with a new track, and so I joined. At that time they were running two classes – kit cars and Specials. Kit cars, as the name implies, were exactly that. You bought a kit, screwed it together and raced it. No modifications were allowed. Specials were completely different. They had to be built from the ground up and I had neither the knowledge nor equipment required. I raced kits with some success and one evening Russell Sheldon lent me a Special. I must have impressed him somewhat as will be seen later. Before I could really get into the swing of things, we were transferred to Benoni.

In 1982 when I heard that we were to be transferred back to Durban I wanted to start racing again but I also wanted a Special. I contacted Russell with a view to trying to buy one of his old cars. Russell asked when we would be moving and when he heard that we would be back in Durban in time for me to drive in the Durban Grand Prix in October, he volunteered to build me a new car. This surprised and delighted me because Russell did not generally build cars for other people and he was recognized as the best slot car builder in South Africa.

In those days there were four National Championship Grands Prix during the year with a driver’s best three results counting towards the Championship.

Drivers were divided into three Classes according to ability and experience. When you started you were put into C Class. If and when you had proved yourself you would be promoted to B Class and the top ten or twelve drivers were in A Class. In addition, all drivers were eligible for the Open Class.

In the morning of a GP each driver raced in four 3-minute heats (one race per lane) and your best distance was taken. The fastest driver in each Class automatically qualified for the Class final with the next 16 racing a series of knockout Semi-Finals with the first three drivers in the last Semi qualifying for the final. Also; the fastest driver overall qualified for the Open Final and the next fastest 16 competed for the other three places in the Open Final. The winner of the Open Final was the winner of the GP and the top point-scorer of the year in the Open Class was declared the South African Champion.

As the 1982 Durban GP was my first national championship event I was placed into C Class. I top-qualified in C Class and fifth overall. This automatically put me into the C Class Final and meant that I only needed to race one Semi in the Open Class.

I qualified for the Open Final and won the C Class final by around 5 laps. In the Open Final I was up against Russell, Gustav Heymann from Pretoria – both past SA Champions, and Johan Louter who was best placed to win the 1982 Championship. Russell jumped into the lead whilst Johan and I had a (brief) dispute over second but I was way out of my league and had to settle for third place. Johan’s second place was enough to clinch his first SA Championship.

For the 1983 season I was promoted to B Class.

The first three GPs in 1983 were all at tracks that were new to me but I did manage to finish second in each of the B Class Finals and finished reasonably well in the Open Class.

Although I won the B Class Final in Durban in 1983 and scored the most points in B Class, I finished in second place in the B Class Championship due to having to drop one score. The winner of B Class that year had two wins and a second whilst I had one win and two seconds counting to the Championship. I again qualified for the Open Final and after a hectic start, found myself in the lead. I was going fine until the thought struck me that I was actually leading a GP Final! This thought so un-nerved me that I made a mistake that allowed Johan into the lead, which he held onto to win both the GP and his second SA title. In the off-season I was furious with myself for allowing my nerves to get the better of me and I was determined not to let that happen again.

I finished 5th in the Open Championship which I was pleased with, especially as it was my first year racing at national level.

The year started on a high note. We were invited to take part in an inter-club endurance race in Dunnottar sponsored by Daan Jacobs. The Dunnottar circuit had 8 lanes and seven clubs competed with Dunnottar entering a “B” team to make up the eighth team. On the morning of the race each team was given a bag containing a kit car together with some spares and a choice of gear ratios. Each team comprised four drivers. The race was divided into eight segments of 300 laps each with no driver changes allowed during the segment, and each driver in the team would have to drive two segments.

Dave Greer started the race for us but encountered some problems with the car and at the end of his stint he handed over to me in third place some 21 laps behind the leader. By the half way stage of my stint I had taken the lead and eventually handed the car over to Johan with a 19-lap lead. I had driven 321 laps only spinning once. I still rate that as my best ever slot car performance. We eventually won the race quite comfortably.

When the 1984 seedings came out I was promoted to A Class.

The first GP of the year was at Newcastle and, as we were driving to the track on the morning of the race, Don Ebsworth – the Ecurie chairman - asked me what I was hoping for. I was very conscious of the fact that I was starting what was only my second national season as an A Class driver and so my reply was to the effect that I did not want to finish last in A Class. I need not have worried because I managed third in the A Class Final behind Don and Johan.

In the Open Final Don and Johan continued a battle that they had fought all through the A Class Final until almost inevitably, they collided and took each other off. In the confusion neither of them noticed that I had slipped through into the lead followed by Denis Samson from Pretoria. Luckily for me it took Johan and Don some time to get back past Denis by which time I had a half-lap lead. Half a lap might sound a long way but in reality, it was just about two seconds and there was still half the race to go. Finals were held over 120 laps with the power being switched off as soon as the leader completed 30 laps when the cars were changed to another lane so that each driver raced on each lane.

By the end of the third segment I was still leading by about half a lap and I was determined not to make the same mistake that I had made in Durban the previous year and let my nerves get to me. I drove the last segment very carefully and managed to hold the lead to the end.

I had won what was only my sixth ever GP.

The 1984 Annual Nine-Hour Endurance Race was held at Dunnottar and I was a member of the Ecurie Elite team, which won the race.

The second GP of the year was held at Dunnottar on the day after the Nine Hour and having won the first GP of the year and raced at Dunnottar earlier that year as well as the Nine-Hour, I should have done well but only managed 8th in both the Open and A Class. I don’t know what went wrong. The car was fine and I knew the track. Fanie Viljoen from Dunnottar won the race with Johan second.

The third GP of the year was in East London. At the start of the year Russell had designed a new car which had to be partially built in England because the design required that a section of the spring steel chassis be bent 90 degrees without loosing the “spring” effect and he could not find anyone in South Africa who could do it. The car was sent to Pete Hore in England for this to be done and the car was thereafter known as the Hore Car. Between Dunnottar and East London Russell announced that he had been promoted by SAA to manage their office in Paris and so would not be competing in the rest of the season. Russell then passed the Hore car on to me.

The Hore car – 1984

Despite my performance at Dunnottar I went to East London full of confidence armed with the Hore car and with East London being my favourite track. In addition, Johan had to miss the race due to army service duties. The GP however turned out to be very traumatic.

The day before a GP was always reserved for practice by visiting drivers and by 2.30pm I was happy that the car was going well and I felt that I knew the track as well as I was going to. Don was having problems and wanted to go back to the flat to work on his car, so I left with him. We later found out that this created a bit of a stir. The other guys knew that Don had a problem but for me to forego so much practice time had them worried.

For the morning heats drivers were split into two groups so that whilst one group was racing, the other would be marshalling and running race control. I was in the first group and set the fastest time by beating the track record by half a lap. I paid attention to the racing in the second group to see if my time would be beaten. The race controller would call out the completed laps after one minute and after two minutes. Nobody came close to my time until Fanie suddenly beat my time by about half a lap despite being behind my time after two minutes. It didn’t seem possible. There had been a problem with the East London lap-counter during the previous year’s race due to “double-counting” at times and I was convinced that it had happened again. Fast as he was, I didn’t believe that Fanie could have made up so much time in the last minute. Neither did Don nor Hennie Petzer, the East London club chairman but with no proof there was nothing that could be done. Nevertheless I had a feeling of being robbed not only of the fastest qualifying time but also of the lap record.

This all meant that I had to run a Semi for the Open Class – Fanie being a B Class driver at the time meant that I automatically qualified for the A Class final. I experienced a major problem in the Open Semi. I had decided to change the rear tyres, which Russell had prepared because I was worried that they had worn a little too much. I fitted a pair of tyres that I had prepared. Preparing tyres meant gluing them to the wheel hubs and turning them down to size on a lathe.

After a few laps in the Open Semi my car began to jump off the track at one rather tight left-hand bend. There seemed no reason for this and I fell further and further behind. By mid-race I was in fourth place and way behind. Only the first three drivers in the final Semi qualified for the Final and it seemed hopeless. I had just decided to stop so as not to get in the way of the other drivers when Denis Samson’s gear stripped putting him out of the race completely. This was a lucky break for me as I was able to trundle around and pick up third and a place in the Open Final.

Don and I checked the car after the Semi and found that one of the tyres that I had prepared, had become unglued and must have been folding under the wheel hub causing the car to come off the track. I put the Russell-prepared tyres back on the car for the Final.

For the first few laps of the Final I took the bend where I had had the problem very carefully until I built up confidence in the car as there had been no opportunity to test the car between the Semi and the Final. By the time I was sure that the car was OK Fanie was long gone but I did manage second.

I packed my stuff away with very mixed feelings. I felt I had been robbed of fastest qualifier but I also knew that I had benefited enormously from Denis’ gear problem. I then went and sat on the grandstand waiting for the prize giving. Denis came over and sat next to me and said that I must now be favourite for the Championship. That astonished me because, until that moment, I had never thought of winning the Championship and also, Fanie now had two wins to my one win and one second. I said as much to Denis and his reply was that Fanie had never gone well in Durban and as Durban was my home track I should have no problem in beating him.

Going into the final GP of 1984 there were three of us with a mathematical chance of winning the title. Bearing in mind that the best three results would count; Fanie had two wins, I had a win and a second whilst Johan had two seconds. Fanie was my only real problem but as long as he finished third or lower and I won the race, I would take the title. Johan on the other hand needed to win the GP and hope that I didn’t finish second because, even if he won and I finished second, we would share the Open Championship and the SA Title.

Luckily for me Russell had a chance to prepare my car before leaving for France and it remained locked in a cupboard until the GP.

Fanie was a bundle of nerves and qualified badly. His nerves could not have been helped when I top-qualified. Fanie was faced with running a number of Semis and eventually finished 12th putting an end to his Championship hopes. It must have been a huge disappointment for him.

I had used Russell’s tyres for the heats and was in two minds about changing them for the Open Final. There was quite a bit of wear but in the end I decided to chance it with those tyres because I had lost confidence in my ability to prepare tyres after East London, even though I had stripped and redone all my spare pairs.

A Class had ceased to be of interest to me and I used my spare car for that Final.

In the Open Final Johan jumped into the lead with me about a metre behind. I found that I could hold on quite comfortably but naturally I didn’t know how hard Johan was trying. Of course this meant that I could conserve my tyres and at the start of the final segment I decided that the tyres would last the race and closed right up on Johan so that we would both be credited with the full 120 laps and of course winning the Championship was more important than winning the race.

Johan and I shared the Open Championship and the 1984 SA Title.

The first round of the 1985 season was held at a new club in Stillfontein. In the absence of Russell I had to prepare my car myself and I felt that the best I could do was about 95% of the car’s capability. The problem was that you really couldn’t afford to give away even 5% if you wanted to compete at the top.

In retrospect my 6th in the Open Class and 4th in A Class wasn’t bad considering that it was a new circuit which only the Transvaal guys had previously raced on. The only non-Transvaal driver ahead of me was Johan – no shame in that!

I missed the second round of the championship due to the business commitments and was considering packing it in completely. Russell had not only prepared my cars but was also a good friend and my lack of confidence in my ability to prepare my cars added to Russell’s absence had taken much of the enjoyment away. When I mentioned this to Mike Abramson he offered to buy my entire box of cars and equipment.

The Durban GP was again the last round of the championship in 1985 and Mike invited me to drive the Hore car in the event. He had fitted the latest motor in the car and it was flying. I won the A Class Final and could have won the Open Final if I had not become involved in a backmarker’s accident 10 laps from the end of the race. I finished second to Johan. It was the third year in a row that I was second to Johan in the Durban Open Final – must be a message in there somewhere!


Grands Prix Entered – 11 Open Finals – 6 Class Finals – 10 Open wins – 1 Class wins – 3

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