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Amanzimtoti speed junkie ready to smoke tyres

For almost 30 years I had been giving instructions to drivers and now I was finally one.

Five-time Natal rally champ and adrenaline junkie, Brian Clifton is revving to spin his wheels in the new season of motorsport. Starting his racing career as a navigator, it was a class of hard knocks before graduating to life behind the wheel, where he belongs. “I was fortunate to grow up in Pietermaritzburg, not far from the Roy Hesketh Racing Circuit. I spent many, many hours at the circuit as a teenager, mixing with all the people involved and becoming intoxicated by the sounds, smells and excitement of motorsport. Access was unrestricted and the people were friendly and helpful, so the journey of learning soon became an obsession. “My dad was not a fan of motorsport, so I had to wait until my 21st birthday to get myself a competition licence. As a student I couldn’t afford my own car, so racing was not a viable option. There was another way though. I had been to spectate and marshal on a few rallies and found rallying to be extremely exciting. Charging flat out through forests or canefields really gets your attention. “My burning desire to become a regular competitor was solved when a friend decided to build a rally car. He didn’t really get much option as to who his navigator and co-driver would be and we started our first rally in a bright green VW Beetle. Sadly we didn’t win, as we thought we would. In fact just finishing events proved a major challenge. The learning curve was steep for novices like us, but we did take some steps forward. We managed to win a very small trophy for finishing fourth and that little cup was as precious as the World Cup to us. Sadly the project was ended by a crash while out testing.” READ ALSO: Amanzimtoti drifting ace is revving for next year’s competition So now what was Brian to do? After waiting so long to become a competitor, his love affair with rallying appeared to be over. However, in early 1978 Fred Franz, a four time Natal champion driver and regarded as something close to deity in the sport, approached him and over a beer in the NMCC clubhouse one evening, asked if Brian would like to do a rally with him. At the age of 48, he was considering coming out of a very short retirement from rallying, to use his everyday road car to have some fun. “Why he chose a novice navigator who was nearly 30 years his junior I still don’t know. It took me all of a second to accept the invitation.” The car was a standard Alfetta, with no roll cage. It had the standard three-point seatbelts, carpets, radio and tape, and all the trimmings. It was Fred’s daily driver and hardly likely to be competitive with purpose-built rally cars. However, the partnership clicked immediately and they finished their first event in fourth place with plenty of fun and laughter. “If this was rallying, I was hooked. Driving with a legend like Fred was certainly stressful and hard work, but the fun and giggles made it all seem easy and the lessons learned priceless. Reliability was paramount and our speed against the fully prepared cars proved competitive, thanks to Fred’s amazing ability to coax speed from his car, combined with superb mechanical sympathy. We managed to win the last event of the season to clinch the title – number five for Fred and the first for me. This was not something I had even dreamed about a year before. The year 1978 was a really good one for me, as my son was born in August, amid lots of celebrations! I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to spend a year in the pressure cooker with the ‘master’. Lessons learned went deep.” READ ALSO: Amanzimtoti rider predicts closer motorbike racing next season Sadly the honeymoon was over though, as Brian enrolled for two years of National Service. He was fortunate to do a few events during that time with Fred whenever he got a weekend pass, but opportunities were limited. The next few years produced lots of fun and excitement, and fair successes without Brian getting onto the top step. The sport was developing as motor manufacturers realised the value of rallying successes for their marketing departments. Special tyres, shocks and transmission parts became the norm and if you didn’t have the right stuff, you were left behind in the B division. Naturally, this escalated costs to be competitive. In 1985 the Toti ace received an invitation to join Tony Wicksteed, who had done a deal with GUD Filters to run a rally-prepped Toyota TRD Liftback for them. “This grew to be a very happy partnership. The car was well prepared, competitive and reliable, and we had plenty of close races all the way to the end of the 1986 season. We started the season as underdogs, but managed to grab the title by a tiny margin in a really exciting year.”


The sport then underwent another major change with the arrival of the lighter front-wheel drive cars such as the Golf GTi and Conquest twincams. “Suddenly cars like the Liftback were noncompetitive and ours was sold at the end of the next year. Such are the vagaries of the sport that the high of a title season was followed by ‘being fired’. This did, however, provide an opportunity to join Brian Scott in a properly built two-litre Golf. The Golf was pretty fast and competitive against the Conquest twincams and other Golfs. As ever, reliability was key, and we managed to win the title in 1990, with lots of laughs and excitement along the way. We decided to try to move to the National Rally Series the next year, but expense proved a problem. In addition the time required for us and a service crew meant that the programme fizzled out within a couple of events, despite encouraging results.”

The GUD Filters Toyota TRD Liftback.

For the next decade or so he managed to form moderately successful partnerships, but mostly “close, but no cigar”. Rallying was still very competitive, enjoyable and exciting, but by the time the ‘noughties’ arrived, the spark seemed to be fading. So it was time for him to step back for a while, but fortunately cycling was right there to fill the space. “The spark may have dimmed, but it still flickered in the background. I got lured back into the hot seat by old friends. Firstly a seat with Trevor Graham in a good old 1980s style three-litre Skyline fanned the flame.” ‘The beast’ proved to be quite a dramatic car, with oodles of power and a gorgeous exhaust note. Then Chris de Witt twisted his arm to join him in his little 20V Tazz, which proved to be a very competitive car. He enjoyed a good season with top people that proved to be seriously enjoyable.

Three generations of ‘loonies’, Brian Clifton with his son Stuart and grandchildren Anthony and Luke.

Rallies had evolved once more and now made use of safety or pace notes, which placed a huge emphasis on the ability of the driver and navigator to communicate clearly and efficiently. “Absolute commitment and serious intensity means fast times. It also means big crashes when things go wrong, so errors are not an option. In a rally car the scenery is always very close and unforgiving with no safety barriers or run off areas in the canefields or forests. When things go right, it is satisfying – if it goes wrong, not so much.” Chris then sold the Conquest and bought a rally-prepped Corolla from Toti’s Ken Brown. This Orange beastie proved to be a very good car, which was a good thing as there were some fancy (and expensive) Golfs and other Corollas to create a really competitive environment. “After some good results, among a few mechanical problems, we managed to make it two titles in a row – very exciting and satisfying for a crew with an aggregate age of 110 in a 10-year-old car.” Then the unthinkable happened when Brian was fired again, this time after consecutive titles. “Chris decided to put the car up for sale, so yet again I joined the unemployment queue. Opportunity came once more, with a very muted knock. I was offered a completely disassembled Toyota Conquest track racing car for what seemed like a reasonable price. Finally I could go racing like I wanted to do when I was a teenager and get that box ticked off the list. “Rebuilding the Conquest proved to be a mammoth task, as every single component needed serious attention. Eventually we got it to the track, but it proved to be a reluctant participant in my plan to make it to the top of the racing tree. In between a couple of engine blow-ups, I did manage to get a bit of racing done and started to learn the art of actually driving. For almost 30 years I had been giving instructions to drivers and now I was finally one. Of course none of the drivers I had navigated for over the years were shy in coming forward with ‘advice’. Thanks for your interest guys. Now no-one can fire me, except the bank manager!”

Brian’s current car he will race in the 2021 season.

This year the car has been put together again and the challenge of a new season is eagerly awaited. “Motorsport is all about challenging the laws of physics. It is exciting when the car is really going, teetering on the edge of adhesion and squirming underneath you in protest while going in the right direction. Getting it right is enormously satisfying, so we shall see what the future holds. “I am seriously grateful to have had the privilege of participating in motorsport for as long as I have. The people have been the most outstanding feature of the journey. Many, many people have helped, supported and provided encouragement along the way and I cannot begin to thank them all. It has been an epic journey and I have really enjoyed the ride. My son Stuart has also caught the bug. He has been competing for the past few years and seems to be passing it on to his boys. So let’s see where the legacy goes.”   DID YOU KNOW? Click on the words highlighted in red to read more on this and related topics. To receive news links via WhatsApp or Telegram, send an invite to 061 694 6047 The South Coast Sun is also on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest – why not join us there? Do you have more information pertaining to this story? Feel free to let us know by commenting on our Facebook page or you can contact our newsroom on 031 903 2341 and speak to a journalist. (Comments posted on this issue may be used for publication in the Sun)

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