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East London’s Grand Prix past – a book begging to be written


Off the Circuit: A South African Town Makes Grand Prix History, will be launched in November this year and will coincide with the historic Grand Prix festival to be hosted at East London’s legendary race circuit.

There are several factors that made this uniquely East London story worth telling but mostly it was the passion of veteran racing enthusiasts like Jim Redman, Norman Hickel, John Pringle, Clarence Coetzer, Ray van den Berg, and many others. Listening to their memories of racing endeavour, track construction and redesign and cobbled together racing machines, it seemed crazy that their stories had never been documented. This book makes a very small dent in that challenge.

When researching this book, I came the realisation that East London had been short-changed. The 1930s motoring reporter for the Daily Dispatch, Brud Brown recognised the unique capacity of the people of East London to leach a bit of excitement from facilities and resources that were generally unremarkable. Brown managed to kick-start the Grand Prix adventure because he had a few overseas contacts, a talent for spin but mostly because he had an inordinate appetite for risk.

It became clear to me that Brown’s vision had paid off in spades – although he had garnered little recognition for his efforts. From 1934 to 1939 the crowds that flocked to East London in trains, ships and cars rivalled any sports event in the Southern Hemisphere. Not only did the city lap up the attention and the large tourist spend that came with it, it responded in a coherent and creative manner that could, and indeed should still be an example, to the city’s current economic investment planners. The city’s leadership sailed out to meet the arriving race teams and drivers were treated as royalty – their appreciation soon became apparent in the publicity generated back in Europe and America.

I was fascinated by the different spectrum of people that were drawn into racing in far flung places. Grand Prix racing in this era attracted the rich, the idiotically daring and many with seriously dodgy political inclinations.

Fascism was on the rise and birthed its own racing elite in the form of the 1937 Auto Union team, British woman racer Fay Taylour and her equally politically tainted compatriot, Richard Seaman. They would all be welcomed to South Africa, and some to the winner’s podium in East London, by the right-wing politician, Oswald Pirow – a self-proclaimed admirer of Hitler and other fascist leaders. Towards the end of the 30s, Mario Massacurati – an Italian engineer who had helped to build Hout Bay harbour, would be interred in a POW camp despite his contribution to South African infrastructure and his popularity with the East London racing fans.

In the wake of the austerity that followed WW2, East London managed to keep motor racing alive with the beachfront Winter Handicap races. Although lacking Grand Prix status, these races were hugely popular and seriously dangerous. Prominent landmarks like the Kings Hotel and the Windmill roadhouse were an integral part of the circuit that would sometimes be likened to the inner-city circuits like Monaco.

With the 1960s return to the redesigned Grand Prix circuit on the West Bank came the big international names like Hill, Moss, Brabham, Bonnier and East London ploughed its still limited resources into a series of annual events that many still regard as the peak of motor racing in South Africa.

Races were multiple day events with the public allowed to scrutinise cars being race prepped and to camp out at the track. Practise sessions attracted 10 000 or more and that figure increased by nearly tend fold on race day. Ultimately East London lost out to larger economic forces and GP racing moved to Johannesburg, but the rich history of the Grand prix era survives, not just in racing circles but in the memories of anyone who was fortunate enough to make it to the track.

The above is a short reflection on writing the book on East London’s Grand Prix history provisionally titled Off the Circuit: A Small South African City Makes Grand Prix History. The book was written by Glenn Hollands and is scheduled to be released in time for the historic GP Festival in November 2018. Copies of the book may be pre-ordered from glenhol@telkomsa.net or rentia.ellis@gmail.com

The book will be available at the Grand Prix Circuit where Glenn Hollands has a stall. All three of Glenn’s books will be available at the Christmas Market on 24 November. Dutch Reformed Church, Bonza Bay Rd, Beacon Bay. Market starts at 10am, till 2.30pm. Free entry

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