IN THE JEANS

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By Allen Lewis

When I was a young boy, our family would frequently go camping. It was the days before TV, but Dad would make sure he brought a portable radio along and on more than one occasion our trip coincided with the running of the South African Grand Prix. I remember choosing to sit with him, rather than going out swimming with the other guys.  The sound of the action somehow drew me in and hooked me for life.

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My school years saw weekends filled with watching the action at Killarney with a friend. One of our dads would take us to the track, we’d watch the racing and then hitchhike all the way home to Muizenberg. When the news of the rally Minis from the Monte Carlo Rally reached our shores, they became my focus and I scrounged for any news material or magazines I could that mentioned race or rally Minis. The magazine section of CNA became my favourite hangout.

Following school, I started work as an apprentice at the GPO technical (later Telkom) and began earning my own salary, so I bought a second-hand Mini from the estate of a dear old lady. My friends and I entered some gymkhanas and club rallies and while there was no major success, fun was had by all.  

A stint of compulsory military training put a dent in competition progress but upon completion, I jumped headfirst into track racing. The Western Province Motor Club had just introduced the GTR series, which appealed to me as I could use my road car with a few engine mods. It was a road/race car, which meant it was perfect for the track and the Friday night dices.

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With absolutely no mechanical knowledge I got advice from a friend of my uncle who had a garage in Kloof Street in Cape Town. His tutorage went along the lines of “undo these nuts and bolts, then come call me”. I slowly built up some understanding and eventually won the Class Z title in the GTR category – I entered the car as a 1000S (a South African homologation special) so that I could use the bigger-than-standard 1¾ carb.

Feeling more confident, I set my eyes on the series everyone wanted to be in – Argus Modified Saloons was the target for anyone wanting to race tin tops. Although the plan was to buy a race-ready Mini, I did not have that sort of cash. But luckily, through the likes of Rodney Goldberg and his modified-Mini racing cronies, I manage to get a partially prepared body (courtesy of the then-editor of CAR magazine), a scrapyard engine and Minilight rims. These parts and my limited knowledge came together in my garage.

Brian Johnston, who had the Victory Motors race Mini, was the most important person in my race career. He and I decided to race in Class F and go for the 1098cc motor, the short-stroke engine used in a few of the snub-nosed Minis and the Clubman. His mechanical knowledge was beyond anything I could even dream of but he guided me, and I built my own modified motor. However, as we were both in the same class, he held back on a few tuning details (as any wise racer would), so that I always finished second to him in class.

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To start with I had no sponsorship and the car simply ran in white with a red band down the flanks. But then Rodney Goldberg and his friends started up a business promoting race drivers. Through them I got the Rustler Jeans sponsorship, which although was not a great deal of money, helped hugely as I was not in the high-earning bracket. The shoestring budget build and running meant that before the Rustler deal, life had been a case of choosing between food and racing slicks every other weekend.

With help from Brian I progressed to a twin split sidedraft Weber carb set-up, which made a big difference in my lap times but still wasn’t enough to pass Brian. On one race day, during the morning practice, the engine blew. I was pulling 7000rpm and a conrod was thrown through the block, gear box and other vital bits. Only the flywheel and cylinder head were salvageable.

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Brian then stopped racing his Mini and Albert van Eeden took over the car, but I still could not catch the car. I simply had no idea how to win the class. Then the day came. Albert retired from Mini racing and came to me with a package. He handed it over and said: “What I have here is the difference between winning and losing. It’s my gift to you”.  It was a diff, but you’ll forgive me if I won’t mention what ratio. I fitted it and began breaking class lap records almost every race from then on. The WPMC introduced a points’ reward for lap records and Serge Damseaux (in a higher-class Alfa) and I traded the championship points leader board top spot through the year. In the end I managed to scrape it to take the 1977 overall honours – but as luck would have it, that year no Western Province colours were awarded. Typical!

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Occasionally I’d take in a race outside of Cape Town. The first of these was a trip was to Oudtshoorn for a Port Elizabeth versus Cape Town event. The circuit was very short which played into the Mini’s hands and despite an engine capacity disadvantage, I finished up near the top. I then went on to the Aldo Scribante circuit in PE and ran a few race meetings there with mixed fortunes. Sadly, at one PE race I ran bearings with an oil leak to blame. We managed to carry out a rather rushed repair before heading up to Johannesburg for the SA Grand Prix support race at Kyalami. At Kyalami I was dubiously bumped up a class, although it didn’t really matter as the issue from PE wasn’t really resolved and I failed to finish. I didn’t get any points but competing on the same day as the F1 cars was an experience and my sponsor got coverage in front of a huge crowd.

I returned to compete at Kyalami and have many fond memories, like being lapped by Eddie Keizan (Ford Taunus 20M) and company. They caught me entering the Esses so I kept a tight line, but on exiting the corner they hadn’t passed and weren’t in my mirror, so I let my car run its route out wide. It was only on the long straight that they came flying past. At the end of the race I got a standing ovation from the crowd in that section.

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On another Kyalami occasion we had a rolling start. A driver ahead of me had obviously not read the race regs and when the cars got rolling on the outlap, he floored it as for a standing start and took two cars. It was a good race for me though, and I actually ran ahead of the higher-classed Jan Hettema for a few laps before cubic capacity made the difference.

Formula Atlantics was the formula pulling in the spectators, so I followed that circus for a year to give my sponsors some value. This meant I also took in a race at KZN’s Roy Hesketh circuit. But my most memorable race was at home at a wet Killarney. Being in class F, I was naturally at the rear end of the field. At the fall of the flag I rocketed through the field, slipping the clutch to limit wheelspin in the wet. I had Dunlop SP 73s instead of race slicks but by limiting wheelspin I came out of turn 1 (Hoals Hoek) in second place overall; I just dodged and weaved down to the first corner while the guys in front were wheelspinning. I hung on to second place for a few laps but then the rain stopped and my SP73 advantage was negated. The bigger-class cars eventually streamed past, but it was fun while it lasted.

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As with so many of us, family and personal commitments ended my race career way before I was ready, and I parked the Rustler Jeans Mini for good. Until 2018, that is, when I sold the car to Cape Town Mini enthusiast and racer Dion Valentine. Keen to keep the integrity and story of the Rustler Jeans Mini intact, Dion has carried out a mechanical rebuild but for the most left the original paint and race scars intact. Only the roof, which was weather-damaged, has had fresh paint applied.

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