Andre De Kock
Motorsport Editor
3 minute read
6 Feb 2016
1:00 pm

Sarel’s still stepping on it

Andre De Kock

Fires are still undimmed in this South African motorsport legend.

Racing driver Sarel Van der Merwe poses for a picture in his racing car at the Zwartkops Raceway, 29 january 2016. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

There is a strange phenomenon in South African motorsport.

In 1979, Jody Scheckter won the Formula One world championship, driving a Ferrari. Jon Ekerold, Kork Ballington and Greg Albertyn won world motorcycle racing titles, while George Fouche and Gary Formato did heroic things in the World Sports Car Championship.

Since then, Giniel de Villiers has won the Dakar Rally and stood on its podium many times, while SA boasts about a dozen world karting champions. Yet, ask local cricket or rugby fans to name a well-known South African motorsport hero and they will, without hesitation, say “Sarel van der Merwe”.

That is the case today, with Supervan 70 years old and officially 20 years into retirement. Does his age not bother him?

“Not really – the secret is, I grew old, but I never grew up. Grown-ups are boring and to be avoided – they are forced to work.”

Racing driver Sarel Van der Merwe poses for a picture in his racing car at the Zwartkops Raceway, 29 january 2016. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Racing driver Sarel Van der Merwe poses for a picture in his racing car at the Zwartkops Raceway, 29 january 2016. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

There are reasons for his enduring fame. The bare statistics tell a story – back in the day, Van der Merwe won 11 South African rally championships, six South African circuit racing titles and the Daytona 24-Hour Sports Car race, He rallied for Datsun, Toyota, Ford, Audi, Hyundai and Volkswagen.

He raced for Alfa Romeo, Ford, Audi, Porsche, Kreepy Krauly and General Motors. He contested the Le Mans 24-Hour race seven times, leading it twice, and standing on the podium once.

After retiring two decades ago, “Supervan” started dabbling in off-road driving and was asked to instruct a few enthusiasts in the art. More and more people asked, the local motor industry took heed and today the Amarok Spirit of Africa event has thousands of participants every year.

We speak in the Zwartkops Raceway pits, where he lounges against the venue’s famous red 1965 Ford Galaxie. He comes out of retirement in January every year to drive the huge seven-litre Ford in the annual international Passion for Speed Historic Car racing festival.

This decade-old agreement between him and the Zwartkops management became synonymous with the event’s massive popularity. Two reasons – seasoned people who fondly remember old race cars regarded Van der Merwe as a hero in the old days. They still do, and for good reason.

Racing driver Sarel Van der Merwe poses for a picture in his racing car at the Zwartkops Raceway, 29 january 2016. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Racing driver Sarel Van der Merwe poses for a picture in his racing car at the Zwartkops Raceway, 29 january 2016. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Last Saturday, Van der Merwe indulged in two ultra-quick, bruising, corner-by-corner racing wars in the massive Galaxie, taking on the hugely talented, currently professional racer Hennie Groenewald in an equally huge Plymouth Fury.

They flung the behemoth cars around Zwartkops side-by-side and sideways, often making contact, in a show of skill and aggression that had an 8 000-strong crowd on its feet.

In the end, Van der Merwe won both races – the second one by five-hundreths of a second. Afterwards, the other competitors – 270 of them – overwhelmingly voted Van der Merwe “Driver of the Day”.

“Hell, if you get to drive a race car, you might as well do it properly,” the maestro grinned. What does he think of current international motorsport?

“Formula One is an expensive joke, World Sports Car racing is great and MotoGP offers the best spectacle in the world.”

And locally?

“National championship racing could thrive with the advent of the new Global Touring Car formula, though the cars are still far too expensive.

“Club racing, endurance racing and historic car racing are healthy, because the categories are affordable and accessible.

“Local rallying has priced itself out of existence and will die if the powersthat-be do not return to locally sourced vehicles in a big hurry.”

Any words of advice for aspiring young race car drivers?

“Motorsport is like sex – you start with what you can get, as well as you can do it, and learn as you go.”

When will he finally stop driving race cars?

“When I can no longer climb into one.”

Long live the maestro.

Sarel van der Merwe’s book, titled SuperVan and I, is available at bookshops countrywide.