It was at the Zwartkops Raceway in Centurion, Johannesburg, that I first met Gugulethu ‘Gugu’ Zulu the South African motor-racing and rally champion who died on 18 July while attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.
I would go on to meet and experience Gugu’s humble personality various times on racetrack sessions and events at Zwartkops Raceway and Kayalami Racing Circuit. I also remember a chance encounter at one of those hangouts on the outskirts of Johannesburg where corporates like taking non-South Africans for a good time. Having gotten tired of corporate indoctrinations, a group of us hacks – there were also naughty fellas from West and East Africa – commandeered this corporate’s minibus for a jolly-ride that ended up there. But that is another story.
Gugu, who was buried on Thursday this week at the age of 38, had always carried himself with the same easiness that, if you did not know him, would never bring to your attention that you were in the company of a champion professional racer and rally driver. He had an aura that would put you at ease, and could make you feel as though he had personally known you for ages.
But it was in the summer of 2004 when I first met Gugu at Zwartkops Raceway. He was among the team of pro-drivers provided to train us, a team of motoring journalists, on how to handle powerful machines, as part of some other corporate’s public relations exercise.
This young black man who became a professional racing driver had fascinated me. His image has been ingrained in my mind thanks to the PR machinery at Volkswagen Motorsport, his team, which would constantly flood our inboxes with press releases of his winning stats accompanied by his pictures.
On that day parked on the pit was a beautiful collection of Ferraris, that included – if my memory serves me well – the legendary F40 racing model, the 360 Modena, and the F430 (which in my mind at the time was the most beautiful car mankind had ever made). His presence on the track was the cherry on top of this beautiful sight of red on the tarmac. My already testosterone-fuelled body immediately kicked up the adrenaline dose in me. Gugu was to teach mere mortal me how to drive like a pro. Wow!
You would understand my excitement to see Gugu in flesh, to stand next to him, to talk to him, if you knew that by then Gugu inspired every black car-racing enthusiast, more so us the young black motor journalists writing for newspapers. We were in an industry largely dominated by specialised car magazines staffed by experienced people who either were once professional racing or rally drivers, or had in their possession a professional racing driving licence.
At newspapers the person most worth his salt as motoring journalist only possessed an advanced driving paper. And boy we carried ourselves as pro drivers and not letting it slip to motor dealers that we had not underwent some sort of advanced driving course hence they should trust us with their expensive vehicles for a weekend of test driving.
South African automobile manufacturers and the car magazine journalists – who even belong to a guild of motoring journalists – did not take seriously young motoring journalists from newspapers. They did not even glance twice at us from little known newspapers in Namibia.
But here was a smiling Gugu, a professional racer, extending genuine welcoming warmth to a bunch of young motor journalists – of whom only one was well known by everyone assembled because apparently he happened to write for South Africa’s most revered broadsheet. Looking at pictures now from that day, we look like we shouldn’t even be allowed near race-karts.
It was Gugu who calmed our nerves during the day when our driving came short of what our big mouths predicted before we got behind the wheels of red beasts that are Ferraris.
It was Gugu’s pep talk – a reprimand really – that had some of us focus on the first session of training with the 1.3-litre Nissan Micra. I personally could not understand why I was made to waste the entire morning perfecting driving manoeuvres on a Nissan Micra, which for me was a horrid looking automobile I would not be found dead in. Let alone behind the wheel.
‘I came here for the V6 and the V8 power. Not 1.3-litres microwave thingy,’ I said under my breath. The sun was baking. And apparently we were not yet ready to punish the monsters – which is what we came to do.
His pep talk was simple and straightforward. It went something like this: ‘If you can’t execute the turns and master the track in that small car, it would be difficult for you to do it in any other car. You might as well forget driving the Ferraris today.’
So I drove and drove. First yellow cone: lean in; second red cone outside: brake, soft; third red cone: harder; fourth red cone: harder, harder; firth cone inside: turn in and accelerate; look ahead, floor it and aim for the next cone….
Gugu would spend nearly the entire training session baking in the sun on the wall watching our performance and in the pit commenting on where we went wrong. Am sure he could have sat in the gazebo on the off-ramp and still dispense the much needed advice adequately.
Having perfected the track in the Micra – and some of us clocked good times – we were now determined to clock professional lap times in the Ferraris.
Our pathetic performances had Gugu in stiches. No matter how much advice Gugu and his colleagues would dispense, we kept clocking lousy lap times. And each time we would boast, as we watched others make the same mistakes, of how we would do it better next time. How this time one would brake, tilt, and bury the accelerator to cut the corner just right coming out of the bend into the straight stretch.
From what I remember none of us managed to push either of the Ferraris beyond the 95-km/h point. We would come to the pit stop, come out of the car smiling – thinking: ‘I have hammered it.’ Only for Gugu to ask, with a broad smile, if you know how fast you drove. The actual speed was always way below our own imagined speed when driving the car.
Gugu was born in Soweto, South Africa, and entered the world of motor-racing in 1999 after being selected to participate in the Isondo Sports 2000 series. He would go on to win the 2000 championship, earning himself a place in South Africa’s Wesbank V8 Championship, in which car he whizzed around the track at the most insane speed. He then turned to rallying with Volkswagen Motorsport in 2003.
Gugu, who died while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as part of an initiative with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, is survived by his wife Letshego and one-year-old daughter Lelethu.