It has taken me two days to digest what happened this Saturday, April 2nd, 2016. I was given a full competitive race car drivers certification in early February, 2016, through Skip Barber Racing School, but it took me another month to work through the detailed medical exams and paperwork associated with actually securing an SCCA racing license.
Making my life and the start of my racing program a little more complicated, I was invited by friend and Shelby racing leader Mark Lauth, CEO of Fantastic Racing in South Africa, to join his Team FR-Shelby Racing Team for the 11th Annual Phakisa 2-Hour Endurance Race — in South Africa. I happened to be traveling there on business during the same time frame, and having trained me last year, he thought I had the talent to add to his team. And one more request — he wanted to feature the them and spirit of the financial literacy empowerment organization I founded, Operation HOPE, prominently on the team livery for all team race cars.
I said ‘yes,’ and then had to figure out what that actually ‘meant.’ In short, we had to get the SCCA, which had just licensed me to compete in the United States, to endorse me competing in another country — which is no small feat. Furthermore, we had to get the authorities from South Africa to confirm my ability to race in the country from their side. Everything fell in place, and on Friday, April 1st, 2016, I found myself in Free State, South Africa suiting up for a series of practice runs in a Shelby Can Am prototype race car.
Exhausted from a full week of meetings and work tied to Operation HOPE, South Africa, I arrived in Free State in need of rest, which meant I missed the first three of five scheduled practice sessions on Friday. Over confidence told me that I could show up to practice #4 and be just fine. I was wrong. Within 2 minutes of being out in my newly built and prepared race car I found myself spinning out on turn 2 at Phakisa. The one thing I had not factored: cold tires.
The rest of the team had been out practicing all day, and had warm racing slick tires. My car had not been sorted out, beginning with proper tire temperatures. I spun, and my confidence was challenged almost instantly. The final practice of the day was not much better, so Mark Lauth, who is one of the finest race car drivers in all of South Africa, arranged for a special 10 minute end of day ‘chase the rabbit’ session with just him and me on track. That went great, but then track officials ended this experiment at minute 4. Officials needed to shut down the track for safety reasons to prepare for the next day.
The next morning started with officials announcing that the previously planned 1-Hour Endurance Race would not be a 2-Hour Endurance Race, with part of the final section run in early evening darkness. I had prepped my mind for a one hour race, and my car had no race light system installed.
I signed up for the 2-hour race, and went off to qualify. That didn’t go so well either. I qualified 21st out of a field of about nine 45 drivers. The result: a middle of the pack start, and team members and just about everyone else with somewhere between low to no expectations of their American driver.
Five members of Team FR-Shelby Racing entered a rolling start 2-hour endurance race, with their American team member significantly behind everyone else. I must enjoy being the underdog in life, because I quickly gained several positions within the first four corners of lap one. And this became the theme of the next 60 laps for me. I passed consistently, and was only passed by two drivers — my fellow team members and race leader’s Mark Lauth and Michael Jenson.
By the end of the Phakisa 2-Hour Endurance Race, Mark took 1st place with 66 laps, Michael took 2nd placement right behind him, also with 66 laps. I was 3rd place overall, with 60 laps. 4th place registered 58 laps, as did the four finishers behind him. Finishers continued to stream in, with 47 laps completed. And then of course there all of the incredibly talented drivers who had mechanical issues who did not complete the race.
Beyond being shocked that I finished in the top 10 (my goal was to finish the race wth me and my equipment in one piece), I cannot explain the experience of driving that last 15-20 minutes of the race, when you are alone in that cockpit, pushing the envelope at 110-135MPH in what felt increasingly like near total darkness. There were times when I would approach a high speed corner unable to easily differientate horizon, from grass, from the track. In those times, with helmet visor cracked upon, I was quite literally driving by faith. As ‘faith is what you do when you don’t have all the facts.’ Fortunately for me, by the 45th lap I had pretty good muscle memory on both laps and driving line for most of the track.
A special thank you to a first class racing team, and the support crew too.
A legitimate, competitive race win at 3rd place on my first race out. My first time driving competitively with other race car drivers on the track. My first time in a 2-hour endurance race. My first use of my SCCA race car driving credentials, and by extension, South African credentials too. The only American on Team FR-Shelby Racing Not bad.
The Phakisa 2-Hour Endurance Race will be television broadcast in coming weeks in South Africa, and available online, through Ignition TV.
A special thank you to my trusted EA Charmela Freeman, who moved heaven and earth to make sure I had all the licensing authorities and medical clearances needed. I could not have done this without her — quite literally. Thank you Charmela. Thank you as well to Jannet Wood and the team from Fantastic Racing. Team work, makes the dream work.
Okay, let’s go…
John Hope Bryant, Bryant Group Motorsports