Gymkhana: The Budget Motorsport Thrill

Gymkhana: The Budget Motorsport Thrill

How do you make a small fortune in motorsport? The answer is pretty easy, actually — start with a big one. Ask anyone who spends every other weekend behind the wheel of a racing car and they will tell you that this pastime devours money at a frightening rate. Even something simple and relatively cost-effective — an Engen Volkswagen Cup car for example — will chomp through your savings account like a Pac-Man chomping his way through ghosts and pellets.

This is a problem. Especially when the kick of competing is so addictive. So what do you do if you’ve got nothing left to sell or pawn but still need to feed that incurable motorsport fever? Well, the solution, I recently found out, could lie in the grassroots genius of Gymkhana. For, unlike other series, you don’t need a purpose-built racing car to join the action. Heck, you don’t even need a costly Motorsport South Africa licence. All I did was pay my entirely reasonable R300 entry fee and arrive at Zwartkops Raceway, just south of Pretoria, in my trusty Toyota MR2 Spyder, which has been running on the same tyres since I bought it in 2011.

It’s not the most powerful roadster in the world, but that doesn’t matter, as Gymkhana events aren’t about straight-line speed. Instead, they test your skill around tight courses such as the Zwartkops Kart Track: narrow loops of asphalt that demand a delicate right foot and consummate levels of car control. Get too carried away, too exuberant, and you’ll lose precious milliseconds of time — something that can have you sliding quickly down the overall driver standings. With two cars running on circuit at the same time — both leave from the centre but in different directions to avoid a costly smash — this so-called Head2Head round was pretty damn exciting.

It was surprisingly close too. Despite holding a 153kW advantage, the BMW Z4 M pitted against me didn’t quite dish out the ass whipping I’d been expecting. In fact, there was, in at least two out of the four runs, not more than two seconds between us. Even more encouraging was the fact that I’d lapped the track quicker than a Renault Mégane RS, Ford Focus ST, Mini Cooper S and a handful of modded Subaru STIs. Not bad for a 103kW hairdresser’s special. Once we’d all had four goes around the kart track, we headed to the skidpan, where things got seriously tricky.

Two obstacle courses, which mirrored one other, allowing for more Head2head action, had been laid out with traffic cones, the correct path around them illustrated on a giant whiteboard placed near the makeshift pits. Like CIA operatives learning escape plans from a top-secret security bunker, we had a limited time to memorise each course. One wrong manoeuvre, one incorrect turn, and we’d lose more valuable points. Learning the route map was one thing, but being able to recall it in the heat of battle proved to be another. With one eye on the Z4 and another on the next cone reflecting on the super-slippery surface, I fluffed three out of the four runs.

Stupid mistakes such as keeping to the left of a cone when I should have been on the right had me plunging down the scoreboard. I finished 29th out of the 46 competitors, which is, to be frank, rather rubbish. But I really didn’t care, because I’d enjoyed a full day’s action behind the wheel of my car without having to spend megabucks. In fact, the total, including entry, petrol and refreshments, came to R550. Something of a bargain in these budget-killing times, which have made motorsport more of a luxury. Even though a Gymkhana event doesn’t quite match the thrill of all-out circuit racing, it does, thanks to close competition, come impressively close. But don’t take my word for it — go out and give it whirl.

Thomas Falkiner