The (not so contemporary) alternatives to Motorsport – Knysna Hill Climb
Joining Suzuki at this year's premier Motorsport event held out in the lush green surrounds of the Western Cape's Garden route area of Knysna, I learned a few things.
Firstly, there are some seriously impressive machines hidden away in some dark dingy garages 362 days a year. Secondly, I noticed that manufacturers do want to get involved.
Suzuki, for starters, threw good money behind the scenes and sent two Swift Sports up the hill in the production class. BMW showcased its i4 for the first time in the EV category and Toyota sadly missed a golden opportunity to sling their GR Yaris Cup cars, but that's another conversation for another day. Lastly, I learnt that alternative motorsport events need more opportunities like what the hill climb brings. Creating wider access for people to enjoy competing in motorsport.
It's no secret that main circuit support has dwindled over the years. The morbid maintenance costs are a big factor and discounting the melodramatic effects of Covid, the state of our main circuit before the big virus came along, was anything but healthy. Low participant numbers, low attendance numbers, and very little manufacturer/OEM support are all signs of a not-so-healthy scene. I do stress that this is a general case. There are exceptions.
Hill Climbing: A history
Now folks… Hill climbs may be new to some but are certainly not new to the motorsport world and certainly not to the South African scene as well. The world's earliest recorded major motorsport event was a hill climb. The Shelsley Welsh Hill Climb started in 1905 and continues to this day. Only later did we decide to close the loop and increase the number of laps and so circuit racing was born. You can think of hill climb racing as the OG of the racing world.
History lesson time… In South Africa, we had the Paarl Hill Climb. The legend of Hennie Mostert and his Renault Gordini dominated that event and dates to the 60s, including many stories of big blocked V8s shoved into road-going bodies. No replacement for displacement, ey? Well, in those days sure. In the 2000s, we had the King of the Mountain Hill Climb out in Ceres on the Gydo Mountain Pass before it was brought to an abrupt halt in 2008 when Desmond Gutzeit's Chevrolet Lumina went barrelling towards the crowd. I remember attending one year when some poor guy in a shifter cart went off the side of the mountain. Luckily, he survived. The sudden stoppage of that two-stroke whine at high RPMs is firmly committed to memory.
Given the lack of online media during those times, there isn't much-documented evidence to dig out, requiring one to resort to more archaic methods of fact-finding like phone calls. "What's the point of this history lesson, Brent?" You ask… These events have long been part of our history and they serve as a great gateway for those wanting a taste of motorsport. Be it what it may, and nostalgic flashbacks pushed swiftly to one side, events like the Knysna Hill Climb highlight that there is a demand for these types of events, and others like them. For instance, the drag racing scene in South Africa appeals to a much wider demographic than circuit racing. Again… another conversation for another day.
Say, is it accessible?
Alternative forms of motorsport like the hill climb format remain an untapped stimulant for the sport thanks to the relatively low entry barrier around costs. Anyone with a road car can enter an event like this and compete in a category. Perhaps not the Simola Hill Climb since it's a tad more established than that, but it does open the way for other events to enter the frame and make motorsport more accessible. That's an important point to make. Watching the two Suzuki Swift Sport models compete with respectable times, even beating a Nissan 350Z, is the type of David versus Goliath scenario we should make a fuss about.
And given the abundance of pristine hill climb-worthy roads we have in the Western Cape, thanks to the work of master road builder; Thomas Bain, I'm surprised that we don't have more of these events. More events that are more affordable for the wider demographic and who knows, perhaps turn it into a national series, with the big one being Simola? Perhaps. And no, I'm not saying "replace circuit racing"… I'm saying that we should have alternatives for everyone.
If you want to read about the business of motorsport and an interview with the organiser of the Simola Hill Climb, click here.
Words: Brent Van Der Schyff