Etienne Fouche takes his camera behind the scenes at South Africa’s iconic drag strip, Tarlton Raceway and talks about the Mick van Rensburg, that man behind the facility.
There is something captivating about the American cult following of horsepower, the Space Race and the art of the Automobile, the ultimate expression of freedom. A big part of the American dream was seeking thrills behind the steering wheel. While some did it in nimble sports cars the majority of these joy riders followed the straight line theory. Youngsters piloting big thirsty V8s on open roads was not the safest though, and eventually organised legal drag venues came into being.
Like America, South Africa has the big scenery and vast open areas to cover by road and powerful cars were plentiful. While sanctioned drag racing here goes back to the 1950s the lack of any facility meeting international rules meant that national championship events had to wait until the country had at least two first class facilities. Tarlton Raceway became one of these under the ownership and vision of Mick van Rensburg.
Known as ‘Mr Drag Racing’, Mick’s first car was a 1952 Oldsmobile Super-rocket 88. This was followed by a 1958 Oldsmobile Rocket, which soon livened up the likes of Eloff Street Extension and Jules street with barking exhaust notes and squealing tyres as he went dragging. The Rainbow strip on the East Rand came into being as a dedicated venue and although continually improved on over time, was limited by the lack of space to grow, which meant it soon became dangerous in the seriously quick cars. This was 1972 and set Van Rensburg rolling what would become Tarlton.
He bought three adjacent smallholdings in Tarlton, West of Johannesburg and set out to build an international standard drag strip. Following initial planning and layout he realised that he had to buy a fourth piece of land to accommodate the primary and emergency braking area. As per international rules the track measures 402.6 meters with the speed trap waiting at the end and in the day was as good as any international venue. Other forms of motorsport were catered for too and Tarlton has hosted national and international motocross, speedway and short circuit off-road racing as well as a few rally special stages over the years.
Visiting Tarlton on a day when no racing is taking place is a surreal almost eerie experience that throws you back in time. The old buildings and stands completely occupy my mind while strolling down the quarter mile in almost deafening silence – a total contrast to the roaring blown big block V8 monsters screaming down the two lane black top, people screaming and the smell of burning rubber and race fuel in the air that I am more used to. Surrounding signage is still original and painstakingly hand painted by some talented but forgotten sign writer. Billboards and warning signs are in both English and Afrikaans, further echoing the past.
500 meters from the strip you find a huge workshop and storage area for the race cars. I was dumfounded by all the amazing cars, engines, bodies, space frames, tools and just the general atmosphere of this place. Everywhere you look you see something so damn cool your jaw drops. While there is a lot of technology and high-end cars and parts, it still has a overwhelming feeling of history and glory days. It is essentially a drag racing museum where for the most part the high speed competition cars still run.
Just when I thought I’d seen it all I turned a corner and was blown over by jet cars, top fuelers, pro stock cars and an impressive muscle car collection including 3 Pontiac GTOs, a Plymouth Roadrunner, Plymouth Fury and a Mustang Boss 429 with its NASCAR homologated ‘SemiHemi’ big block (the only one in the Country) under the hood. It is truly a kid in a candy shop scenario for any petrol head.
Tarlton Raceway opened its gates for the first time in 1978 and continues today with tremendous spectator turnouts and action that will fix any need for speed. And the Van Rensburg’s haven’t been shy to show their skills behind the wheel either, with running Mick and son Nico often running their alcohol and top fuel dragsters and his jet cars. If you think racing in a straight line is not so serious try these figures that helped Mick Mick set a Jet Drag speed record in 1992 - he did a 455.02 km/h run at Tarlton and followed this up with an elapsed time record, dipping below 6 seconds for the quarter mile with a 5.941 run on his own strip.
This jet car tale goes back to 1986 when he went to America to take part in a jet dragster training course. He successfully completed the training, bought a jet car to ship back home and negotiated a second car ‘donation’ on the grounds that USA drivers visiting our shores could pilot it. Shipping them into the country wasn’t as easy though as the vehicles were seen as military goods, having had their engines sourced from McFonnell Banshee fighter planes, and South Africa still had an arms embargo hovering over it. Eventually after Van Rensburg signed an affidavit stating they wouldn’t be used for military purposes and paying a hefty deposit special dispensation was granted by the US Senate.
The 11 00 horsepower cars soon became a Tarlton favourite and those spectators that smelled the burning diesel and the kick in the chest when the afterburner was engaged will never forget the excitment. One of the proudest moments for Mick was taking part in the 1990 Jet Finals at Palmdale in the US, where he finished 3rd in the finals.
On home soil the records tumbled in both jet and piston-powered cars as he became the first driver to dip under the 7 second quarter mile barrier barrier and the first African to break 200mph barrier in a piston-engined vehicle. In 1993 he was first here to go under 6-seconds and reached the highest recorded speed in South Africa with a terminal speed of 478km/h at Margate Airport.
For his dedication to the sport of drag racing and success he garnered both on and off the strip Mick van Rensburg was awarded a Motorsport South Africa Life Time Achievement Award in 2003.