A record-breaking weekend - Knysna Speed Festival

Words & Photos: Jordie Ricigliano/Africa Media

It was a successful weekend of mud, sun, and fun at the fifth annual Jaguar Simola Hillclimb, the climax event of the Knysna Speed Festival. Franco Scribante and his Chevron B19 swept the championship with a record time of 41.159 seconds to make the 1.9 km trek up the Simola Country Estate’s idyllic roadway. It was a close win. Desmond Gutzeit, the runner-up of last year’s Hillclimb, flagged in another second place title, missing victory by a mere half a second. Third place was another close call, snuck in by Darron Gudmanz and his Nissan GT-R. The trio blanketed a mere 0.741-second difference, making it a knuckle-biting showdown.

Photo credit: Jordie Ricigliano/Africa Media

The Knysna Speed Festival caters to racers and enthusiasts of all eras by featuring historic, classic, and modern performance cars alike. The excitement this year began on 16 May with Classic Car Friday. The day included perusing the suite of pre-1975 race cars, a parade of local and exotic machinery through the town, and a race of 50 vintage prototypes battling it out on the hill to win the Classic Conqueror title by the day’s end.
Saturday started the qualifying rounds for the modern speed demons in the King of the Hill Shootout Challenge: one hill, two days, 83 competitors, and thousands of adrenaline-fuelled fans cheering to crown a single champion by Sunday night. Heavy rains the night before tested drivers’ skills on partially slick conditions. There were a few slippery moments, but no one was injured. Spectators did find a solid “ooh and ahh” moment in Shane Martin’s nasty spill on the third turn, which busted up the ruby red façade on his Mitsubishi Evolution 8 to the tune of  R100,000 in damages.
Sunday picked up the qualifying rounds right where they left off. Heats three through seven and the final shoot-out lasted throughout the beautiful, sunny day. The anticipation revved as engines popped and records were made and broken. Special cheers echoed in the crowd for local Tanya Watts in her jet-blue Audi RS4. Watts was the only female competitor, and while she finished 61 overall and 3rd in her class of A7, she was a definite crowd favorite, fist pumping to fans at her every start. At the end of the day, she took the podium for an honorary first place trophy as 'Queen of the Hill'. Also racing was her husband, Brent Watts, in his Porsche 944, finishing 51.
At 15h00, the white knuckles came out and the real business began, as the fastest 57 entered the Class final. It would take one run to win, in one car, and only one man to do it. A time of 40 seconds was the goal, but who could reach it? Grease-covered team members raced around tyres and toolboxes to refine any issues with their speed beauties. Smoke and wafts of burning rubber blanketed the pits in dramatic clouds. Many of the supped-up bullets were equipped with computerised launch control systems, engines, and disk brakes inspired by aviation technology, and the newest secret weapons in aerodynamic innovation.
The fastest weapon on the lot was quite possibly Greg Parton’s 2012 Lamborghini Aventador, bolstered with a 6.5-litre V12 engine and 7-speed transmission, which tested at 370 km/h on flat ground. But Simola is all about the Hillclimb, a challenging incline that takes power and girth as much as speed to scale. It beckons to skilled drivers who can balance incredible speeds with handling precision and sheer muscle. Parton’s raging-bull marque snapped out of the starting line like a loaded slingshot, but slowed a bit on graded turns two and three. He finished in 9th overall and 1st in his class of A7.
From the results of qualifying rounds two and three, it looked like it was going to be a face-off between Darron Gudmanz and Desmond (Des) Gutzeit in their speedy and scrappy Nissans. In round three, Franco Scribante proved otherwise when he blitzed the mountain like it was a knoll in his brutal, bright-orange Chevron B19. He held supreme in the next four qualifying rounds, unfazed by the likes of previous Hillclimb Champion Wilheim Baard and Formula Ford Champion Jaki Scheckter, who kept the track a tight melee as always. Scribante was driving off the confidence of winning the Classic Conqueror just two days earlier in Classic Car Friday. Now he was pushing the same orange rager against modern supercars. But the stakes were high and Des Gutzeit wanted the title as much as any other man. After coming in third in 2010 and second in 2012—less than half a second after his son and champion Jade Gutzeit—this was the year Des, or 'Dezzy' as fans cheer, would finally climb to box #1.
And climb he did, shaving off almost a full two seconds between his first and final qualifying round. Fans sang out 'Dezzy' with his 41.851 second victory time in round seven. The game was on.
Dezzy and his heavily-modified Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R rang out of the start, a true silver bullet glinting sparks of platinum from the day’s last rays of sunshine beaming down on it through each curve. But it was Scribante and his orange flame who blazed the slim victory lap, setting a record time of 41.159 seconds. He also made history as the only competitor to win both the Classic Conqueror and King of the Hill titles, and he did it with the same car.
This year’s results epitomize how the Knysna Speed Festival is gaining a reputation for bridging the gap between young and old, classic and modern. This was one Hillclimb that one man, his one car, and thousands of spectators won’t soon forget.

Photo credit: Jordie Ricigliano/Africa Media

A festival for the people

Although the racers and their cars take centre stage at the Knysna Speed Festival, the event has much more to offer. Nestled in the once-sleepy town of Knysna, the festival retains its village feel while meeting the fast-paced demands of the motor world.
Since its humble beginnings in 2009, the festival has grown to a three-day weekend (16-18 May), with classic cars featured on Friday and modern, exotic, and supercars taking to the track on Saturday and Sunday. A motor show and auction are held the weekend before with proceeds donated to local charities. After a forfeited year in 2013, due to struggles with the lead sponsor, the Knysna Speed Festival was back in fine form in 2014, starting a strong relationship with Jaguar.

When spectators were not rooting for their favorite cars, they could be found in Gasoline Alley sipping on craft brews and Porcupine’s white and red wine in the Mitchell’s Beer Garden, listening to acoustic cover bands. Food stalls lined the main pathway doling out skewers of chicken kebabs, samoosas, chips, bockwurst, and biltong by the stick. Those with a sweet tooth found respite with Belgian waffles and Udderlicious flavors of milkshakes. Parents could leave their children entertained on the inflatable bouncers in the kids play area while they shopped for art and vintage car memorabilia from local vendors.
For a more exhilarating perspective, one could go up in a helicopter for R250. The ride included sweeping panoramas of Knysna, the verdant hills of the Simola Golf Course Estate, and a bird’s eye view of the races from above. A stunt plane also ascended during lunchtime on Sunday for added entertainment. On ground level, historic motorcycle demonstrations, along with VIP track experiences and displays of Jaguar’s brand new F-TYPE Coupe filled in the gaps between qualifying rounds.
If there was a gripe to be made, it might have been directed towards the muddy conditions. Unprepared visitors swamped their way through the slippery pathways to find higher, drier grounds from which they could watch the race. On Sunday, however, the pleasant weather made most trek conditions manageable, and many more people could be found with boots than flip-flops.
The mud might have made hiking tricky, but it also added to the convivial atmosphere of the Knysna Festival. "It’s all part of the fun," said one local woman as she squished her bare toes into the mud and continued up the hill towards Gasoline Alley. "Just lose the shoes," offered another passerby. And I highly recommend the experienced wisdom of one woman who advised, "Small steps now, the big ones don’t work." Locals near and far mingled effortlessly with big name racers and high-rolling out of towners, both in the mud and out of it.
In the pits, the spirit of camaraderie was the same. "It’s a social thing," noted John da Silva, driver of the Mazda RX7 FDS - the very model used by Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious movies. "There are a lot of really good racers here, but we keep it fun too." The mood especially lightened at the prize-giving ceremonies. High fives and handshakes passed around like a game of telephone until Franco Scribante uncorked the champagne and ran after friends and teammates spraying bubbles of victory. An impromptu musical performance ensued by a violinist who drove into the pits in Willie Hepburn’s white Opel Reckord with a microphone and a stereo blaring, then serenaded attendees with a classic meets contemporary string solo. Everyone was in celebratory spirits for the remainder of the evening. 
Ultimately, the Knysna Speed Festival and its apex event, the Simola Hillclimb, is a family-friendly weekend event sure to entertain hardcore racing aficionados and local enthusiasts alike. Next year, the races will pick up again at the bottom of the hill with high expectations of another adrenaline-filled performance kickoff to the South African motorsport calendar. Remember, 40 seconds is the target and only one can claim the trophy.
What to bring next year: sturdy shoes good for climbing, layers of clothing to deal with unpredictable weather, sunglasses and sunscreen, cash for food and any other spending inside the festival, water bottle, a camera, foldable chairs if you have them, and lozenges for all the fever-pitch cheering you will be doing.

More information
For more information on the Knysna Speed Festival, visit www.speedfestival.co.za