By Naomi Grewan
With beautiful beaches, friendly smiles and clear skies, East London is home to the world’s third fastest racetrack. Set along the coastline of the Eastern Cape, the East London Grand Prix Circuit attracts both national and international riders to try their luck on its sharp turns and long straights.
From 26 to 28 April , the Annual Memorial Motorcycle Race Day was held at this esteemed location.
This year, the event drew racers from across South Africa. Riders varied in age; the youngest rider being only ten years old and the eldest rider being in his late sixties, although not willing to disclose his exact age.
The event was set to begin early Friday morning with a practice run for all competitors. All of the competitors were broken up into six different categories based on the size of their bikes and individual racing times. This was the first opportunity for the riders to test out the racetrack. For many of them, this was their first time racing in East London.
“I’m a bit scared,” said Matthew Herbert, a 21-year-old class A rider. “The East Londoners are
used to riding this track, I’m not.”
Friday morning brought on the nerves. By 6am everyone in the pits was awakened by the roaring sound of motorcycles and the overwhelming smell of petrol fumes. The official practice was planned to run from 9am to 4:30pm but the hosts of the event, the Border Motorsport Club, ran into some unforeseen trouble. With a predicted forecast of clear skies, the last thing anyone expected was the rain that came later that morning. A small amount of rain, even a light drizzle, means that the track is too dangerous to be used, so the practice was postponed until the rain stopped.
“The rain is a bit of an offset, limited track time means not enough time to practice and that’s not good for anybody,” said Christopher Kretzen, a 19 year old class C rider.
The rain frustrated both the riders and spectators. Most of the riders decided to camp in the racing pits instead of booking into hotels. Despite the unforeseen delay, Friday evening turned out to be a night of friendly banter and bonding whilst preparing for the next day’s racing. All the riders kept their fingers crossed, praying for better weather and a safe track to ride on.
The next day began, once again, with the deafening sound of motorcycle engines as riders got ready for their heats. At 6am the weather was carefully examined and a go-ahead for the qualifying rounds to start was given. How well a rider does in this round determines the position of the racer for the two official races. The program started with the Supermotards, which was then followed by Regional Motorcycles, the BMW RR cup, ZX10R Masters Cup, Breakfast Run, Bridgestone Superbikes National Series and lastly the 150cc motorcycles.
The races are all specific to a different type of bike and the expertise of individual riders. The Supermotards are dirt bikes, which race on the off road track surrounding the Grand Prix Circuit. The Regional Motorcycles and the BMW RR Cup both compete in one race. These riders are competing in the BMW RR Cup which is sponsored by BMW and is not a part of the national series. The ZX10s are a specific type of motorcycle that race in one race. The Breakfast run pertains to riders who are no longer riding for sponsorships and titles, but rather for the love of the sport. The oldest rider of the day (a man in his late sixties) rode this race on his original Ducati bike from decades ago. The Bridgestone Superbikes are the most anticipated group of riders. Competing in the national series, these are the riders who hope to one day represent South Africa at the world Grand Prix. Lastly, the 150cc race is for the youngest of the bunch. These newbie riders only race six laps and for a few of them, this was their first race ever.
Following the qualifiers was heat one, lunch and heat two. Averaging on 10 laps per race riders came off the track tired, sweaty and grateful that they did not crash. Zooming past at speeds of 210 kilometres per hour it was hard for spectators to catch a glimpse of the bikes as they screamed past. The bikes became a blur of different colours as the riders gave it their all going around the track.
There was a buzz amongst the riders who were equally nervous and excited for their respective races. The thrill that comes with riding a bike paired with the fear of a fatal accident means all riders must be well prepared for their races both mentally and physically. Physically, these riders must be sure to balance themselves correctly when going at an incredibly high speed. Manoeuvring around bends and bringing themselves back up takes a large amount of core strength. When going down the main straight, the most difficult part is trying to keep the front tyre on the track. The only way to do this is by putting all your weight forward onto the handle bars and putting a lot of pressure on your forearms. Going slightly too fast on a bend or ever slightly too slow on a start could ruin a race and possibly an entire racing career. Most accidents usually end in concussions ranging from minor to life threatening. For most riders, one crash means the end of their career as it is rare for doctors to give them clearance to race again after a head injury. Ideally, riders should spend a minimum of 20 minutes mentally preparing for the race; calming down their nerves, not being intimidated by the competition and praying for a safe finish.
The weekend came to a close with prize giving and a celebration. Winners were chosen based on their average position across the two heats. Matthew Herbert and Christopher Kretzen, placed first and second overall in their individual categories.
With congratulations floating all around, an atmosphere of mutual support was felt by everyone present. The sun began fading as the cold weather rolled in. Riders, supporters and organisers came together to celebrate an underrated sport, regardless of who won and who did not. They all had a shared appreciation for the experience and new found friendships.
These races formed part of an ongoing series occurring across the country at various different locations. The racers will, however, make their way back to East London in August for another round of the series. With the bikes stacked in trailers the riders drove off to their respective homes, eager for the next opportunity to tear up the race track.