Nissan Sugarbelt 400 Jeep race report

The privately entered Vacation Vans Jeep Cherokee driven by Sarel van der Merwe and Stratford Voogt and navigated by Scott Abraham almost perfectly played the David role to the Goliath of the official factory entered Super Trucks in last weekend's...

The privately entered Vacation Vans Jeep Cherokee driven by Sarel van der Merwe and Stratford Voogt and navigated by Scott Abraham almost perfectly played the David role to the Goliath of the official factory entered Super Trucks in last weekend's Nissan Sugarbelt 400, round three of the 2001 MSA National Off Road Car Championship.

With motor racing legend Van der Merwe at the wheel, the V8-engined Jeep led all the state-of-the-art works Super Trucks competing against it in class T of the Production Vehicle category after the first 100 km of the 400 km event in the Eston and Mid Illovo areas of Kwazulu Natal.

Van der Merwe had qualified the Jeep third fastest among the Production Vehicles in Friday's 35-km time trial, behind the works V6 Nissan Hardbodies of Hannes Grobler and Giniel de Villiers, with less than a minute separating the three.

"Actually, we should have been fastest," said Van der Merwe afterwards. "We lost at least a minute when we were stuck behind a slower class D Nissan which was not intended to start in amongst the Super Trucks."

The race started from the Eston Beaumont Farmers' Club at 07h00 on Saturday in misty conditions and visibility was poor with road conditions slippery. Thirty minutes into the event Van der Merwe and Abraham were in fifth place and 15 minutes later they took the lead.

At the end of the first of four 100-km loops and two hours of hard driving, they were still in the overall lead, ahead of the leading Special Vehicle, the Vee Motors class A Chenowth of Franz Czepek senior and junior, overall winners of the first two rounds of the championship.

Strung out behind them were the four factory class T Super Trucks, the Nissan Hardbody of De Villiers and Francois Jordaan, the Ford Ranger of reigning Production Vehicle champions Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjoldhammer, the ex-Paris Dakar Mitsubishi Pajero of reigning Special Vehicle co-driver Buks Carolin and Hennie ter Stege and the Castrol Toyota Land Cruiser of former Production Vehicle champions Apie Reyneke and Robin Houghton.

Fifteen minutes into the second 100-km loop the Jeep stalled in a water splash and refused to re-start. A high-tension lead on the starter had broken off and after shorting out the solenoid they managed to get going again, dropping down to 11th place.

By the time he handed over the driving to Vacation Vans director Stratford Voogt in the pits at the halfway mark, after four hours of hard work, Van der Merwe had fought his way back to fifth place.

Voogt almost immediately started experiencing fuel starvation problems on the Jeep, caused by the safety foam in the fuel tank disintegrating and blocking the filter. He was forced to stop eight times to unblock the filter, losing about two hours in the process.

The pair also experienced engine overheating problems caused by sugar cane leaves wrapping themselves around the radiator fan. Despite all these problems Voogt was able to nurse the big 2 800 kg Jeep home, using only one choke on the carburettor and with virtually no brakes, to finish the eight-hour 400-km event in a remarkable eighth place overall among the Production Vehicles and sixth in class T for Super Trucks.

"It was a very tough event," said a disappointed Voogt afterwards. "The Jeep was in perfect shape to give the factory trucks a good run for their money. The route was very narrow and twisty in places, which did not particularly suit us, so Sarel's achievement in leading after the first two hours was a magnificent effort.

"It's not easy being the David to the factory teams' Goliath. We don't have the funds they have. We've used the same set of tyres for the past three events, while the works vehicles get new tyres for each time trial and race.

"I'm not complaining, but one needs to put these things in perspective. We're a privateer team, with Scott and I responsible for the Jeep's preparation. The Vacation Vans Jeep has proved to be a major drawcard in off-road racing and we're having a lot of fun entertaining the fans.

"With a bit of luck we'll slay the Giant and take that elusive first win before the end of the season, maybe even in the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in June, an event for which the Vacation Vans Jeep is ideally suited," smiled Voogt.

The Vacation Van Jeep team enjoys product support from Castrol, Champion, Chicago Pneumatic, Ferodo, Industrial Hardware and STP.

-MSA

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Giniel de Villiers