Motor racing is generally an expensive and exclusive sport, particularly at the top echelons where big budgets are required to be competitive. As a result, being part of a winning team is an extremely limited club, whether as a competitor or as part of the support crew.
Accordingly, Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM), which designs and manufactures the Ford Ranger for cross country racing in South Africa and around the world, is doing its part to develop a new generation of motorsport technicians and engineers with the emphasis on diversity and empowerment.
"As one of the leading teams in cross country racing, we have an important role to play in creating new opportunities for all South Africans, but especially black South Africans to enter the field of motorsport," says team principal Neil Woolridge. "In what has traditionally been a white-dominated sport, there's great interest from a much broader spectrum of South Africans in not only attending races and supporting the various teams and manufacturers, but also playing an active role in building and maintaining cars, as well as competing as drivers or navigators.
"With this in mind, we initiated an empowerment project at NWM in 2019 by giving Wiseman Gumede, our workshop driver for almost 10 years, the opportunity to join the team as a race weekend technician," Woolridge says.
Gumede had already shown keen interest in mechanics by working on his own car in the facility's Neil Woolridge Motors 4x4 Centre workshop. Under the tutelage of the company's experienced technicians he had learnt a great deal, and eagerly took on the new challenge in the action-packed but unpredictable world of racing.
"Preparing and running up to three top-level vehicles in the highly competitive South African Cross Country Series is exciting, fast-paced and very rewarding when things go right, but exceptionally difficult and challenging for the team when something goes wrong," Woolridge explains.
"Wiseman learnt a lot over the past season in which we won our second consecutive Class T championship. He was more than up to the task, even when it required working long hours and late nights to replace parts or repair damage incurred during a race - often in dark, cold and even wet conditions. He has shone and learnt a great deal, and we're delighted that he has become an integral part of this close-knit racing team."
Gumede says: "I'm so grateful for the opportunities being given to me by Neil Woolridge Motorsport. I'm learning so much and exposed to so many new things, and it's fantastic to be part of such a professional and successful team."
But that's not where the journey ends, Woolridge explains: "Our goal for Wiseman is to get him behind the wheel of a Class E standard production vehicle in the national championship to learn the cross country racing scene. We would ultimately like to see him racing a Class T Ranger V8, and we're working hard to find the sponsorship and budget to make this happen."
Aside from young and energetic Wiseman Gumede, NWM has a total of eight full-time employees of colour in its motorsport department, with the emphasis on developing technical skills to address the shortage of quality fabricators and welders.
The team selected and trained two welders, Byron Chetty and Duran James, specifically for the new FIA chassis homologation methods to ensure traceability and accountability, and to guarantee the highest quality of work and materials on the chassis builds. This involves recording material certificates for welding rods and tubes used for each chassis, documenting the welding settings, taking before and after photos of the critical welds, and even performing non-destructive dye penetrant tests to ensure full weld penetration.
"Chassis welding for motorsport is an extremely specialised field, and requires a very specific range of welding tests to be done to SABS standards in order to pass the required tests," Woolridge says. "We are delighted that Byron and Duran are now fully qualified welders, and are part of our team that produces vehicles of the highest standard to cope with the rigours of top-flight cross country racing."
Additionally, NWM has trained Ernest Ngcobo, who has been with the company for 10 years, having started as a worker in the washbay. He now forms part of the chassis jig team and assists the two main welders by preparing pipes and plates for welding. "Ernest already does some of the basic welding, and our goal is for him to learn and become a fully qualified welder too," Woolridge states.
"We continue looking for new opportunities to bring more people of colour into the sport," he adds. "This is essential to ensure that the series attracts more competitors and technicians, as well as growing the support base of enthusiastic spectators and fans. This will also help broaden the appeal for potential sponsors, and will help ensure that the sport is viable and sustainable for the future."
Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport are proud to be supported by the following sponsors and partners: Castrol, Ford Credit, BF Goodrich Tires, Vedacit, Wurth, Bosch, Mastercraft, Sign Solutions, Tiger Wheel & Tyre, Ironman 4x4 and Shatterprufe.
Follow the team's updates and progress on the following social media channels:
Published by: Colin Mileman
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