It was the 23rd of June when I happened upon an interesting new Facebook page titled, “24 Hours of iLamuna“. iLamuna is isiZulu for lemons and a lemon in turn is a word used to describe a defective vehicle.
The concept is well known. Go and buy an old banger of a car within a very limited budget and then race it against other old bangers for 24 hours paying homage to the greatest endurance race on the planet, the 24 hours of Le Mans.
The iLamuna organisers, Phoenix Events, set a budget cap of R50 000 (excluding safety equipment) and welcomed all comers to rustle up the most unlikely bunch of would-be-race cars South Africa has ever seen.
Fitting the bill
Fortunately, I had just the car lurking around my yard as a constant reminder of my journey into motorsport and the associated school fees I’d paid along the way.
It’s a 1974 Datsun 1200. A rather ratty one too. Bought for the princely sum of R10 500 when a mate and I had big dreams of racing in the local historic series.
Needless to say, the eight years it sat in my driveway hadn’t helped the rattiness. There isn’t a straight panel on the car. Not even the roof.
The paint work – a home job by yours truly – shows my lack of finesse with a spray gun. Bought as a vaguely running vehicle, it hadn’t turned a wheel under its own steam for four years. So mechanically the car was dubious at best.
“What on earth could be a better lemon than this?” I thought. Three of my mates concurred and so we had a team.
Over the next few weeks there was lots of talking. We needed a pit crew so we reached out to some experienced hands who I race with in Lotus Challenge.
They obliged and now we had a proper race team of a manager, pit crew and drivers. Crucially, however, there was absolutely no progress made on the car.
Weeks turned into months faster than we all realised, by which time we’d only had the necessary safety equipment fitted, like a roll cage, race seat and fire extinguisher. But there was still a lot to do and it was already mid-September, with the iLamuna race scheduled for 29 October.
Sticking to iLamuna budget cap
A series of late nights and long weekends ensued. In order to stick within budget, we couldn’t simply outsource tasks and buy parts at will.
Brake adapters were fabricated in house to fit some old Ford calipers found lying in the shed. Wiring was kept to the minimum – just ignition, lights and wipers. Fuel tanks from old Lotus 7s were bolted into the boot and daisy chained together to give us 50 litres of capacity.
Plans were being made here, there and everywhere. Eventually we got to a level of confidence where we could test the car. So off I went to Midvaal race track with a fellow team member.
A couple of exploratory laps ensued. The car felt like a boat in comparison to my Lotus 7 race car but that’s to be expected – we had done very little in the way of suspension modification.
Then the inevitable happened. Coming down the back straight there was an almighty bang, followed by what sounded like stones being thrown up against the underside of the car. The engine cut out and I coasted around to the pit lane.
Diagnosis? The massive hole in the side of the engine block told us all we needed to know.
The conrod on number four of our little 1.4-litre engine had decided to make a side exit. It turned out our tachometer was under reading by some margin, so I thought I was at a safe 6 000 rpm but it was actually running at 8 000 rpm. This was a massive setback. With just three weeks until iLamuna race day, time was now firmly against us.
Having loaded the car and our gear we trundled back to Johannesburg. While on the road I started making phone calls, hoping to find an engine that we could secure at short notice.
Fortunately, a crew member who races Datsuns in Midvaal Historics had just what we needed. Not capable of enough power to make a dent in an out-and-out race car, the mill lying under his bench was perfect for our attempt to make it through 24 hours of racing.
On your marks
We arranged to swap engines, salvaging what we could from the damaged unit and had the car’s heart pumping just in time for scrutineering day on 23 October. What a day that was, too.
We arrived at MF Autobody, the location for scrutineering, not quite knowing what our fellow competitors would have to show for themselves.
Scrutineering allowed the organiser to ensure everyone had stuck to the budget cap (and issue penalty laps where they had not), as well as to check that all the cars were safe enough to take part. It was clear from the outset that penalty laps were due as some competitors had clearly missed the point of a race with the word “iLamuna” in the title.
By and large, however, most played inside the budget cap. Few questions were asked of our Datsun, especially with its blue and red livery having been fashioned from a roll of duct tape.
iLamuna race weekend commenced on Friday with practice and since we had a rookie driver in the team we figured he’d best get to learning the circuit.
This would also prove whether our new engine had any chance of lasting the distance. Not to mention that none of us had driven the car at night – so we also had to ensure our makeshift spotlight arrangement actually worked.
We had no idea how long our 50 litres of fuel might last. We didn’t know if the road tyres we were running on would last 10 laps or 100. Under-prepared doesn’t half cover it but we were all just so chuffed to have made it to race weekend with a working car.
Saturday morning was an early one. I only slept about five hours on Friday night and the sleep deprivation was only going to get worse – much, much worse.
We set about final checks on the car as qualifying was due to start at 10am. The one mistake we’d made was that we’d never test fitted our race wheels – which didn’t clear the spigot on the rear axle – a discovery we made as qualifying commenced.
By complete chance we’d packed some wheel spacers, which did the trick of providing enough clearance. Fortunately, it didn’t cost us much track time and we qualified 30th out of 42 entrants – a fact that is largely irrelevant when you consider how much can happen over 24 hours.
If you’ve ever watched footage of Le Mans from the earlier days, you’ll know the race started with competitors lined up on the opposite side of the track to where the cars are parked.
As the gun fired, drivers ran across the circuit, jumped in the car and set off. A unique start procedure indeed. Well, the 24 Hours of iLamuna started in exactly the same manner.
At 3.45pm on Saturday I ran across the pit straight at Red Star Raceway and jumped into our Datsun for the start of the most incredible journey of my motoring life.
We were scheduled to run two-hour stints per driver. After 30 minutes in the car I knew I would make it. Our fuel tanks leaked when filled to the brim, filling the car with fumes. I managed to hang on for an hour and twenty minutes.
At the refuel we made sure to avoid going to the brim. Time in the pits is critical in an endurance race as it’s all about covering as many laps as possible, so all our stops were hurried affairs with each member of the crew assigned a job. Like checking wheel nuts.
As the time and laps ticked away, night fell. The temperature dropped and so did our luck. To this point we’d run a fairly smooth race and had made up ground, running inside the top 20.
Other competitors had suffered incidents on track and already mechanical failure had bitten a few. But the old Datsun just kept pounding round the circuit – until a driver change and refuel at 10pm.
Looking at the live lap timer we noticed our car hadn’t come over the start/finish line for some time, then it arrived in the pits behind the recovery truck. It appeared to have run out of fuel, despite the 40-odd litres we’d just thrown into the tanks.
Some exceptionally quick thinking from the crew had us pump fuel into a container from a point just before the carburettors. The results were clear. We had fuel contaminated with water. So we set to emptying the tanks and refilling, a process which took nearly an hour. Or the equivalent of around 20 laps.
I was back in the car at just after midnight. A surreal experience to say the least. The bright LED lights of competitors coming up behind me were disorienting – and more so as I peered through the windscreen trying to find the apex of the next corner in the relatively dim glow of our old school halogen spot lights.
That was until I spotted a similarly dim glow from another old car in the race, a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. No ordinary Beetle though, but rather a well-established historic race car that’s been competing for the last 15 years.
I let him pass with the aim of giving myself something to chase over the last hour of my stint. Success, as I proceeded to set the fastest lap of our iLamuna race thus far.
From dusk till dawn
As night time turned to day we approached two thirds of the distance. A remarkable achievement in itself but the reality was that we still had eight gruelling hours to go.
Most of us hadn’t slept much at all and it was starting to show. The Datsun just kept going while others around us seemed to be in the pits, constantly. Cars that were capable of much quicker lap times were falling further and further behind us on the time sheets. We were starting to believe we’d actually finish the race.
Overnight temperatures had dropped as low as eight degrees Celsius, but as the sun climbed higher so did the ambient temperature.
We were starting to cook inside the car making worse the already waning levels of concentration. Those last few stints were a tough affair – and all the drivers were starting to report “unusual noises” coming from the car. Without any actual symptoms the overwhelming feeling from the pit crew was to just nurse the car home.
So, nurse we did but it seemed the clock was slowing down. The race just didn’t want to end. The car definitely wanted to however as in iLamuna hour 22 the retaining pin on the gear lever worked itself loose and the entire thing came off in the driver’s hand.
At the same moment the throttle cable got caught in the return spring on the carburettors and revved the motor past the end of the gauge.
Miraculously the car was freewheeled back to the pits to avoid needing a tow. With the retaining pin long gone we fashioned a new one out of a spare bolt and sorted the carburettor spring issue. I’ve never been so nervous as we cranked the engine.
A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the crew as the old girl fired back to life. We were on the final stretch now but none of us dared believe it.
The whole crew headed up onto the grandstand for the final hour, nervously watching our car make its way round the 4.2km circuit. Lap after lap after lap. All the teams were now in the same boat. No risks were being taken and the pace had slowed across the field.
The entire place seemed to be holding its breath. At this stage we were lying 16th overall, with 37 iLamuna competitors still in the race.
As the clock slowly ticked its way round to 3.40 pm everyone gravitated to the pit wall. I recall watching the chequered flag being unravelled but I couldn’t bear to look at the circuit for fear of seeing a ratty Datsun with smoke steaming from under the bonnet. Then the countdown started: 10, nine, eight…
Guts and grease
The walk to the pit entrance to welcome the car home was surreal. Here we were, a crew of nine hopefuls in a car most would consign to the scrap yard and we’d just completed 405 laps. That works out to 1 680km over 24 of the most memorable hours of my life.
This is more than just a motor race – it’s the coming together of a group of like-minded individuals in the effort to achieve something unexpected, remarkable and above all, fun.
Celebrations were only heightened by the news that we were classified 12th overall after accounting for penalties incurred at scrutineering. 24 Hours of iLamuna, we’ll see you next year.