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Confessions of a racing junkie

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IOL mot jul25 confessions of racing junkie 1

Motorpics

Derek Wilsnagh with his old Anglia, which he has transformed into a lean, mean racing machine.

I am a race junkie, my current fix is a classic 1964 Ford Anglia in which I take on like-minded competitors at Cape Town’s Killarney circuit, and I am definitely not seeking a cure from the AA (Automobile Association) or any other institution.

You see, I am having the time of my life at a time I expected to be considering old-age options.

Some may suggest I was facing a midlife crisis when a friend innocuously offered to take me around Killarney in his classic racing car on an open track day.

Maybe, maybe not.

Fussed into a mundane Alfasud station wagon that looked more a Mom’s shopping runabout, I was regretting my decision until he fired the engine.

SURVIVAL INSTINCTS

IOL mot jul25 confessions of a racing junkie

Noise, vibration, fumes and the snap-crackle-pop of a straight exhaust without mufflers came as a shock to the senses and were soon replaced by survival instincts as we hit the track.

Rather meanly, my friend had me loosely strapped to a normal passenger seat – unlike the bucket seat on the driver’s side which, with mandatory four-point safety harness, glues the driver in position. As the pace picked up, I had to brace myself with arms and legs to avoid the indignity of landing on his lap – and I was hooked.

The problem: I had no mechanical experience, no knowledge of motorsport or race car set-up, no idea whether I could drive fast, and I knew nobody who could help me.

Formidable odds.

To this day I don’t know why, but I decided to buck them. And that’s how I naively entered a world I had no idea existed – armed with a minimal budget and the vital moral backing of my ever-supportive wife.

Common sense suggested that I should buy a complete race car, but when I saw a red racing Anglia, oozing “attitude”, it was love at first sight – after my wife had said any car but an Anglia.

The enthusiasm of its owner was highly contagious and I accepted the challenge when he insisted I could build one, cheaply, myself.

First lesson: cost estimates in motorsport are rarely accurate.

Up came an advert – an unlicensed Harry Potter blue lookalike in Darling – and we were in business.

I had to learn quickly.

On the practical side, I underwent a self-inflicted crash course on how not to strip a car to the shell, acquired a working relationship with a heat gun, overcame a lifelong fear of grinders, picked up a measure of spray-painting skill – but never came close to cracking the art of welding.

Next mission was to learn to sift good advice from bad, a perilous undertaking. My first encounter with a race car-building “expert” cost me a gob-smacking amount and almost provided an immediate cure for my enthusiasm for the sport.

We then had a major breakthrough – a son-in-law with an engineering background and a natural aptitude for engine building/tuning, and a few new friends and fellow enthusiasts who knew their stuff. I hit some luck – an impeccably built engine and gearbox from a Lotus 7 racer who had spared no cost and thought in building it – and one of the few panel beaters still prepared to take on a racing car.

And so the battle began, with blood, sweat and at times almost tears gradually bonding me with the little “Anglebox”. I had to learn fast.

Did you know old cars have no bolt-on performance parts?

Race cars have a centre of gravity; preferably as low as possible; power is great but weight wins races… a mere intro to the enthralling, scientific, yet basic, art of race car geometry.

One can source trick performance parts from the UK – but at a formidable price. So we South Africans make them ourselves.

As a result, many sleepless, early morning hours were spent in bed scheming how to make the impossible possible.

I found that if you are tenacious, determined and practical enough, a solution can always be found.

Our “expert” having botched the suspension (and a number of other things), we rolled up our sleeves and redid it ourselves, copycatting a dragster top strut design from a magazine photo that allowed us to adjust the car’s castor, camber and ride height.

DIALLING OUT BODY ROLL

The car now had Mk II Ford Escort-sourced steering rack, highly modified engine, cross-member and front struts – all carefully in accordance with the classic car racing rules. Also bucket seats, a racing steering wheel, gauges, and even a hi-tech dry sump so that our car would never go thirsty at oil time.

We cut out the inner part of the fenders so that the car could be drastically lowered and made the modifications necessary to prevent the rear leaf springs from twisting under power, or moving under heavy cornering.

We dialled out the “roll” at corner time with beefy sway bars, fitted aluminium interior body panels, sourced a glass fibre bonnet and boot lid to save weight, locked the rear differential because we couldn’t afford a limited-slip diff, and so the list dragged on… and on.

Three years later, we proudly rolled out a British racing green car with a broad yellow stripe and nose cone reminiscent of the Lotus F1 cars of the 1960s and, after considering calling it “Ugs”, fitted a number plate saying “Shrekkie” – the car being a smaller version of the Disney character.

And so our little star was born.

It was now one very serious racing car in an Anglia skin.

Shrekkie proved an immediate hit at the track, our mods were almost spot-on from the start, and the car soon developed its own little fan club of children, senior citizens who remembered their own Anglias and admirers of its feats on the track.

After a few seasons of racing, our booty already includes runner-up in the club championship, a lounge full of trophies, racing at international historic meetings against previous legends of the sport – and memories that will keep me, my family and new friends smiling long after the last of my teeth have become a distant memory.

A plaque on Shrekkie reads: Special thanks to Graham and Peter Twiss, Malcolm Uytenbogaardt, Arno Church, Sean’s Panel & Spray, Roy Phillips and Arnold Lambert, but most of all Frank van Aswegen, my wife, Sandy, and my family.

-Cape Argus

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