Andre de Kock
Local motorsport says goodbye to legendary Mick van Rensburg.
These days, the term “legend” is loosely thrown around regarding pretty ordinary people on social media. We are almost reluctant to apply the moniker to Mick van Rensburg. But Mick, who died of natural causes aged 81 last week, was the Big Daddy of South African drag racing, the long-time owner of the country’s only full-sized, custom-built drag strip, and the enabler of dozens of local drag racing competitors.
He owned and drove the fastest race cars in South African history and will be remembered as a legend by those who knew him in the quarter-mile racing world. Born in Lichtenburg, Mick qualified as an electrician, studied electrical engineering, founded VR Engineering in 1959 and turned it into a massive enterprise.
After owning a variety of V8-engined road cars, he started to race a Chevrolet Corvette at the then Rainbow Drag strip near Alberton. But Rainbow had a very short braking area at the end of the 400m strip, which caused a number of crashes and Mick decided to build his own drag strip.
He bought various plots of land near Krugersdorp – mainly because the area was flat – and late in 1977, the Tarlton International Raceway was born. The venue – which features 402m of racing distance with a 800m braking area – gave rise to a number of imported and locally-built quarter-mile cars and drag racing quickly gained popularity among Gauteng motorsport enthusiasts. This was the noisy stuff of dragons and jet fighters, with massively powered cars and motorcycles reaching improbable velocities in the standing start quarter mile.
Mick drove a Top Fuel rail dragster, his Mighty ‘Vette, and a drag racing truck. As time went by, the number of cars grew, with most of the vehicles owned by the Tarlton Raceway itself. There were Top Fuel dragsters, Rail dragsters, Funny Cars, Altered cars and Modified Street cars, plus a variety of privately owned racing motorcycles.
Tarlton soon had a core audience of more than 8 000 spectators. The popularity grew even stronger with the arrival of Tarlton’s two Westinghouse Jet cars in 1986. Again, Mick was the driving force. He went to America, learned to drive the Jet Cars, imported them, and trained a number of local drivers to operate the most fearsome race vehicles to ever turn wheels in this country.
This brought a new level of mind-blowing spectacle to local drag racing, with the eardrum-bruising, fire-belching cars often exceeding top speeds of 400 km/h at Tarlton. Mick achieved the Jet cars’ quickest quarter-mile run in 1993, with a time of 5.941sec and a top speed of 455.02 km/h. Another wow factor was the “Meltdown”, where a car wreck would be tied behind the Jet car, which would then proceed to literally melt it.
Mick’s oldest son Michael also started competing in a V8 supercharged dragster, running in the seven-second bracket and eventually achieving a personal best ET of 6.77 sec. As time went on, Mick’s youngest son Nico rose through the ranks to eventually drive a Jet car, a Top Fuel rail dragster, a Funny Car, plus an A Altered car – all at the same meetings. In 1998 he set the current overall South African drag racing record at Tarlton, with a time of 5.677 sec and a top speed of 414 km/h.
There were crashes – in 1989 the parachute ripped off Mick’s Jet car at around 370km/h at the end of a run. The vehicle sailed on, through the braking area, a sand trap, the Tarlton perimeter fence, over the Magaliesburg road, through a neigbouring farmer’s fence and about 50m into a ploughed field. Mick was not injured, but the car needed a lot of tender loving care.
More seriously, 1998 saw a throttle jam while Mick drove a Top Fuel dragster. The engine blew at around 350km/h, the parachutes burnt off in the resultant fireball and the car slammed into the catch fences at the end of the braking area. It was destroyed and Mick was lucky to escape with severe bruising.
Over the years Tarlton diversified to cater for other forms of motorsport – the venue saw Short-circuit Off Road racing, Motocross and Speedway conducted in the area adjacent to the drag strip. The Tarlton-owned cars were mostly prepared in the venue’s massive workshop, which also, over the years, see a never-ending production line rebuilding a vast array of historic American cars.
At the age of 70 Mick decided to retire from active racing, and he did that in style, too. In the week before his final meeting, he went to hospital for a laser procedure to remove kidney stones. Other people who undergo that procedure get into bed and stay there for a week. Mick drove to Tarlton, donned his fire suit, and drove a Jet car at over 400 km/h.
Along with other forms of local motorsport, drag racing here was hit by the 2009 recession and subsequently shrunk. In 2016 the national series was discontinued and the number of competitors depleted as it simply became too expensive to run sophisticated dragsters.
Today, Tarlton caters for street car racing and limited club style events, with its workshop full of old cars a fond reminder of the glory days brought to the sport by a true legend in the sense of the word: Mick van Rensburg.
Some of Mick’s greatest achievements on the drag strip:
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