Cape Town - As the sun begins to set, they emerge. Moving in from many directions, they converge at their favourite place, a place where they feel at home among others of their kind and where they can live out their passion in safety, without fear.
This is where they can listen to the noise, smell the smells and feel the surge of adrenalin for five hours of adventure, before they split up again and head home, memories made, lessons learnt and more barriers crossed.
It’s under the floodlights of Killarney racetrack where they are free to measure up against each other, but even more so against themselves.
They are Cape Town’s street-to-strip drag racers and, their numbers are increasing as the sport attracts more and more participants.
One Friday a month, more than 200 cars line up at the starting point of the Killarney drag-racing quarter mile. They are street legal cars, some new, expensive and brutally fast, others old, sometimes banged up and affordable. But there is space for everybody whose car passes official scrutiny; for safety the driver dons a crash helmet.
This is not a formal sport. There is no ultimate champion.
There are no big-money sponsorships and the only industry behind it is mostly home-spun. From the more advanced cars, to students’ jalopies, the cars are mostly modified by their owners, except when it comes to modifications that require more sophisticated work.
And the results of these modifications are tested at this quarter-mile drag strip, as two cars line up next to each other, the start lights flash and in a roar they shoot off, enveloped by the smoke from their tyres.
Of course, there is noise. But the cars taking part are street legal, which means they race with road tyres and road exhaust systems. Most of the cars taking part arrive at the track under their own power. In fact, most of the cars are the day-to-day drives of their owners. That is why this type of motorsport is growing in popularity because it is affordable and accessible to a larger group.
But the game has a way of sucking you in.
Before you know it, you are going further than you originally intended. You may start with a few minor breathing modifications – fit a better air filter and tweak the fuel supply, perhaps. But later on you might find yourself planning an engine replacement after the cylinder head job you had done was still not enough.
Duane de Nood of Wellington is behind the wheel of a very blue Datsun 1200 sedan. But the little sedan body has been raised off the ground slightly by large mag wheels shod with clearly expensive low-profile sports tyres.
Then it is his turn to sprint from the lights. The engine roars, the rear wheels spin and he’s away, easily beating his opponent.
That’s when you realise he wasn’t joking when he said he had a Toyota 20-valve engine under the bonnet, because there is no way a 1200cc Datsun engine could do that.
Nolan Walters, a paramedic who lives in Belhar, is at the trackside in his uniform. Walters is on stand-by duty, so he cannot take part on the night. If the two-way radio on his hip crackles and brings bad tidings, he has to be out of there, no questions asked.
But he has been racing street-to-strip drags for three years, driving Nissans.
“I have a stock Sentra with the SR20VVL engine and a modified Sabre. I prefer the Sentra’s chassis though. It’s a lot better.
“I like the older cars. The guys go to a lot of trouble to build them, to make them faster and to keep them going. Then you get guys who have the money to go out and buy a fast car from new and they come here to race it.
“I would love to race full-track. I know there are a lot of the guys here who would want to, but it is just too expensive.”
“This is what we can do because we can afford it.”
Duan Heyns of Kuils River is at the track with his 1.8-litre CitiGolf and his friend Andre Wentzel. This is Heyns’s first year of drag racing. He used to race stock cars, but finding a sponsorship for that has become just too difficult.
His 1999 CitiGolf, dating from before Volkswagen equipped them with electronic fuel injection, has been modified with a free-flow exhaust system, high-lift camshafts, a larger carburettor and a proper gas-flow job on the cylinder head for improved breathing.
But Heyns is having a fuel supply problem. He and Wentzel have come to the track with the car, only to find that when he wants to line up for the start, the car will not start. And they have no tools, except a knife.
With only the flashlight of a cellphone to split the moonless darkness of the infield for him, Wentzel goes at the problem with the knife, loosening hose clamps. In the darkness, they sort out the problem and the car flashes up, sounding livelier than the standard model.
As I walk off, they excitedly get into the car to go join the queue, their struggle worth the effort.