The New Kyalami: Impresarios with passion
- Greg Mills
- 13 Mar 2016 11:52 (South Africa)
It could so easily have ended differently, and badly. Motor-racing circuits occupy, by definition, big chunks of real estate. When Kyalami was built in the early 1960s, it was out in the sticks, constructed on farm-land acquired from a Boer called Botha. By GREG MILLS.
Since its establishment in the 1960s, Kyalami has hosted 20 Grands Prix. It was a regular venue on the international calendar until apartheid and international sanctions brought down the curtain in the mid-1980s, the scene of thrilling races and heroes from local boys John Love and Jody Scheckter to superstars Jim Clark and Alain Prost.
By then the circuit was surrounded by commercial and residential properties. Rebuilt and shortened in the early 1990s, it held two more Grands Prix and several motorcycle events until, amid periodic bankruptcies, it was finally abandoned by international promoters.
Occupying 72 prime hectares, the track seemed destined for the chopping block of property development. Then, on 24 July 2014, Kyalami was auctioned off for R205-million to Toby Venter, the man behind Porsche South Africa.
Photo: Venter (pointing) and Eddie Keizan (Greg Mills)
Now, the facility is being rebuilt in three stages at a cost of a further R250-million.
The first involves the remodelling of the track. The names of the corners of the original track — including Crowthorne, Leeukop, the Kink, Jukskei and Barbeque — have returned, the circuit being lengthened by 250 metres to just over 4,500 m. It was less a renovation than a rebuild, however, involving the removal of 110,000 old barrier tyres, the laying of 12,000 tonnes of asphalt, and the installation of 6 km of three-tier guardrail and 75 km of tensile steel rope.
Away from the track itself, the changes are even bigger. The avenues of unsightly and somewhat seedy corporate bomas which lined sections of the track have been demolished to give way to a more expansive, open feel.
Photo: Kyalami’s new pits complex (Greg Mills)
“I want to make motorsport a family activity once more,” says Venter, driving former F1 driver Eddie Keizan and myself around, “when people sat on grass verges, and camped out to watch the races. This demands proper ablutions,” he adds, “attractive facilities, good viewing spots and the right atmosphere overall.”
He speaks with passion, noting “a responsibility to preserve Kyalami for future generations”.
But he is not just a romantic petrolhead. “To preserve the legacy Kyalami cannot rely on being primarily a motorsport venue. Instead,” he says, looking out over the track’s elevated view, “we must become a conference and exhibition centre that can be used for motorsport. Our research shows that there are on average as many as 30 conferences each day in this area.”
When not in use, motorsport tracks are ghostly places. Far from the noise of high-performance engines, usually the only sounds are wind and the tunk-tunk of empty polystyrene cups across the asphalt. And that is precisely why they usually don’t make commercial sense.
The way things were: Works Porsches in the Kyalami nine-hour (Courtesy Kyalami)
In isiZulu, Kyalami means “my home”. Venter aims to capitalise on the track’s central location between Pretoria and Johannesburg to host a multitude of events in facilities which can accommodate from 20 to 2,000 delegates. With the track rebuild and remodelling finished in December last year, focus has shifted to the completion of the pits complex by this May. “The success of a conference business depends,” he observes, “on the quality of the service and the food, the overall experience.”
Photo: An early version of crowd funding. Kyalami Nine-Hour, 1968 (www.motoprint.co.za)
This does not mean motorsport is off the agenda, far from it. Initially Venter and his team felt that they would be “event takers” rather than “event makers”, offering the place solely for hire. Now, in order to maintain a high standard of spectator experience, they realise the importance of being involved in event promotion.
Photo: Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell 007, winner of the 1975 SAGP (www.motoprint.co.za)
Venter is keen to host international races, probably only in late 2017 or in 2018, leveraging the Kyalami brand, such as that around the famous annual nine-hour endurance race, a popular November feature on the global motorsport calendar until the early 1980s. With such events inevitably come tourists, television and goodwill, a positive vibe probably of wider benefit to South Africa.
Photo: Clubhouse Corner, 1985 SAGP (www.motoprint.co.za)
Motorsport is thought of mainly as an activity that centres on drivers and, more recently, designers and engineers. But they are merely actors on a stage established by the producers, including men such as Bernie Ecclestone, Alex Blignaut in the original incarnation of Kyalami, and now Toby Venter — impresarios with passion and common sense. DM
Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and is the grandson of the SA Grand Prix driver WAF “Billy” Mills.
Main photo: Eddie Keizan, 1975 SAGP, Lotus 72 (www.motoprint.co.za)