On a warm December afternoon in 1969, drivers took their places at the start line of the first ever race held in Zimbabwe, at the brand new Breedon Everard Raceway, commonly known as the Falls Road Circuit.
Report by Violette Kee-Tui
It was a three-hour endurance race, part of the prestigious Springbok Series, a series of endurance races starting with the Kyalami nine-hour followed by three-hour races in Cape Town (Killarney), Lourenco Marques (Maputo), Pietermaritzburg (Roy Hesketh) and Bulawayo.
With the big V8 sports cars no longer eligible for the World Championship, the top class was for 2 litre cars, mainly Lola and Chevron.
The series saw the cream of drivers from Europe and the region. Well-known names like Dave Charlton, Basil van Rooyen, Paddy Driver and a man who became South Africa’s only Formula One World Champion, Jody Scheckter, all competed in the series at one time or another, gaining for it a reputation of legendary proportions.
On that particular December afternoon, in the first Bulawayo race, the cars revving their engines in anticipation of the chequered flag included the iconic Lola Chevys of John Love and Mike de Udy, the Ford GT40 of Malcolm Guthrie and the Mirage Ford of Mike Hailwood, alongside an impressive line-up of local and South African driving enthusiasts.
Finally, anticipation rising with each passing second, the flag came down and the race began. De Udy, one of the top drivers in the country, had a comfortable lead in the race that day, but, after frequent visits to the pits, was forced to concede to superior driving skills of Love who was first to cross the finish line.
That first endurance race, known as the Embassy Three-Hour Race, was also the scene of the first accident on the newly-constructed circuit, when the Mini Cooper of Tony Figuerado rolled at what was then known as the SAA flyover.
With the death, a few years later, of the Springbok Series, motor sport took a nose dive throughout the region, including Bulawayo, until Brian Louth, chairman of the Bulawayo Motor Racing Association at the time, had a brain wave to revive the Three Hour,but with a difference.
The race had always been run from 2 to 5pm. Louth’s idea was to run it from 6 to 9pm, making it the only race in Africa to be run in darkness.
It was a massive success, with a catwalk erected, fashion models strutting their stuff and music so loud it sometimes drowned the noise of cars as they raced past.
Before the race, Father Christmas arrived –– as a skydiver in a light aircraft –– and landed on the main straight: aircraft and race cars on the track at the same time.
So it was all thanks to Louth and his team of workers the Three-Hour became Zimbabwe’s premier motorsport event, a position it held for many years.
Now, over 40 years later, the event is still going strong and, in fact, this year’s Endurance Race, planned for December 1 and riding high on a wave of publicity and hype from the last two highly-successful editions held at the circuit, is anticipated to be the biggest yet.
No longer known as the Embassy Race, the event is now sponsored by Toyota and Castrol and will this year, for the first time in many years, include a one-hour motor bike endurance race which, recently, has merely been a demonstration.
“There is a lot of interest in this year’s Three-Hour Endurance race, and we’re gearing up for a really fantastic day’s racing,” said Leonora Young of the Bulawayo Motoring Club (BMC) which is once again organising the event.
“So far we’re looking at around 40 drivers and 20 riders, coming from Bulawayo, Harare, South Africa and Botswana.”
Top contenders from the last two years vying for top spot on the podium include the 2010 winning car of Eric Heard driving with Richard Robinson in their Lotus Super 7, radically modified with a Yamaha R1 motor bike engine, as well as last year’s winner, Darren Winterboer, driving a BMW330i, and Stuart Young, who have been making a strong appearance in the National Main Circuit Races.
In addition, ex-Harare driver, Anthony Brandt, is travelling from the UK to partner a Harare driver (Kevin Steenkamp) in a Ford Sierra XR4i 2.8 V6, built specifically for the Three-Hour.
Ian Howden will be driving his championship-winning Subaru, sharing the race with legendary driver, Gary Kirk, five-time winner of the Three-Hour and several national championships.
The Three-Hour Endurance Race has somewhat of a legendary quality to it, not only because it’s a big crowd-puller but also because it’s the only event of its kind in the region.
“There are similar events in South Africa but they are for specialised classes, whereas, with the Bulawayo Three-Hour Endurance, it is open to all classes of cars conforming to regulations,” said BMC’s Leonora Young.