Mick van Rensburg grew up in a modest home in Lichtenberg before moving to Johannesburg in the late 50’s where he qualified as an electrician. A few years later he joined his brother’s fledgling electrical business, buying him out in 1966 to become the sole owner of VR Engineering, which he turned into a massive heavy engineering business.
Mick’s first car, after +/- 16 bikes, was a 1952 Oldsmobile Super Rocket 88 complete with 4 speed auto box, 323 V8 engine, plenty of muscle, but no stopping power. After that came a 1958 Oldsmobile Rocket that was his pride and joy. He began cruising the streets, looking for the odd dice, in the process meeting up with people like Billy Becker (1957 Chevy Bel Air), Mel Miller (1957 Ford Galaxy and Peter Manellis (1958 Oldsmobile Rocket). The noise of finely tuned engines in the early drag years shattered the once peaceful streets of Eloff Street extension, Jules Street in Malvern and Plantation Road in Westdene, although a private mine road in Benoni remained a favourite venue.
One day, spectating at Kyalami, Mick spotted a ’67 Chevy Corvette with a 427-cube motor and a six-pack – 2x2 barrel choke carbs on a special manifold. A few years later, while driving past a used car lot in Newlands, he saw the car again, now looking rather sorry for itself with a smashed front end. The owner turned out to be Johnny van Niekerk, a deal was struck and Mick claimed his dream.
He rebuilt the car into a wild street machine and soon started running it at the newly launched Rainbow drag strip. It wasn’t long before it was sporting a massive GMC blower out the hood, as well as side pipes. After that came drag suspension to transfer weight to the rear wheels and by the time Tarlton International Raceway was constructed in late 1977, the car was a 10-second purpose built drag rocket. The car still belongs to the family however, it has since been rebuilt to its original specifications.
Rainbow quickly became the Mecca of Drag racing with the facility undergoing various improvements. Back then, the contenders for the title were Brian and Gavin Murray who owned an imported, front engined, slingshot dragster, equipped with a blown 354, Chrysler Hemi engine. This car was a Rainbow record holder, setting a time of 8.1 seconds for a terminal speed of 192mph. Ray Yeo raced a 6 cylinder Chev Dragster, Willie Hepburn, a 1972 Chevy II, Alex Strydom competed in a V6 Ford Dragster along with John Rudman’s Formula 5000 Lola Chev, Pops Miller and the late Gordon Miller; who was tragically killed during a robbery on his farm, with their Chrysler Funny car which sported a Mustang body, Karin Miller’s Chrysler B-Class Dragster, Braam Blom and Pierre Pederson, with the Studebaker Hawk, fitted with a blown Chrysler Hemi, one of the first ‘Wild Bunch’ doorslammer cars. This car was unfortunately destroyed on its second run.
Then of course, there were the Smith brothers, Theo and Philip who had jacked up a Fiat Cub fitted with a 350 cubic inch Chevy engine and another Formula 5000 Chev. Theo, apart from being one of the founders of the Drag Racing Club of South Africa that was formed in 1965, was also a legend in his time, winning numerous races. Being the South African Top Eliminator Drag Racing Champion, he took Top Eliminator honours in his dragster on the opening day of Tarlton International Raceway on the 24th September 1978.
At this point in their lives, the Smiths’ owned a small tune-up centre and also widened wheels. Little did they know that this was going to grow into a major enterprise which eventually pulled them out of drag racing as business demanded more of their time.
The early years saw many bikers enter the fray. Chalkie Stobbarts’ V8 Chev Bike, Nic Carstens’s V8 Ford Bike, Steve (Hakneus) Rost with a dragbike that he used to trail round on the back of his Mark 10 Jaguar, Piet (Spoed) van Zyl’s Kawasaki, Gerry Anassis, father of Brad Anassis, Mike Bramley, Peter de la Rey and Dave Gayton.
The oil crisis in the early 70’s had a negative effect on drag racing, but people like Pops Miller, Rob Vermooten, the Smith and Murray brothers, Ray Yeo and other die-hards managed to keep the sport alive.
Mick bought his first A-dragster from the USA in 1976. The car was brought in semi knockdown form and assembled in SA. Although finances were a problem at that stage, the Smith’s Wheels dragster was also imported from America and the Cannonball car was built locally by American Vernon Hansen, an ex Vietnam, chopper pilot.
In 1977, as Theo and Philip Smiths’ racing career drew to a close, Anthony Smith was entering the sport. His ambition was to be the first South African to break the 7-second bracket. His dream was realised a lot quicker than he thought and began clocking amazing speeds at Tarlton. Anthony eventually became a successful businessman, finally immigrating to the United Kingdom. He is presently the Managing Director of a successful distribution network, marketing the Smiths Wheels products worldwide.
Reg Murray, well known drag racing personality, arrived from Rhodesia and joined the Smiths Wheels team. He raced the Smith Wheels dragster to many a victory and held many records over the years.
Because of a lack of space at Rainbow, racing the bigger capacity cars was a dangerous occupation. In 1972, Brian Murray was involved in a huge accident that almost cost him his life. Mick decided to build his own drag strip.
Three adjacent smallholdings of 20 morgen each were purchased at Tarlton in 1972 and he started laying out a circuit based on top American specifications. He soon discovered that the three smallholdings were not going to be enough, and was forced into buying another adjoining piece of land.
While laying out Tarlton, it was always in Mick's mind that the facility could operate as a multi-purpose venue. When Tarlton opened its gates for the first time 1978, it was primarily as a drag racing complex that matched anything in the world. The track length, start to finish remains 1320 feet or 402.6 metres with a speed trap extending 20.13 metres on either side of the finish line. In addition, a primary braking area plus emergency braking area extends a further 800m.
Provision, however, was made for other categories of motorsport and, over the years, Tarlton has hosted national and international motor-cross, speedway and the very popular TOTAL Super Series short circuit off-road racing, with the facility also utilised from time to time as a special stage on national and international rallies.
When it comes to sheer spectacle, there is nothing to beat Mick's pair of Jet Dragsters that, over the last decade, have become showstoppers at Tarlton meetings.
In 1986, Mick felt the show needed a new spark. He decided to travel to the United States and learn how to pilot these cars. Mick successfully completed the training course that is compulsory before the Americans part with this sort of awesome machinery and with the training stint behind him, he bought a Jet, with a second car ”donated” on the grounds it would be used by American drivers when they visited South Africa.
Getting the two cars into South Africa proved to be somewhat difficult as the arms embargo, which prohibited the sale of military goods to the country, was still in full force. The cars, powered by Westinghouse Jet engines taken from McDonnell F2H-3 (Banshee) fighter aircraft were, therefore, classified as military apparatus. In order for the cars to leave American shores, special dispensation had to be granted by the U.S. Senate. Mick had to lodge a large deposit and sign an affidavit to the effect that the engines would not be used for military purposes. As an aside, the F2H-3’s were in service with both the United States and Royal Canadian Navies and were decommissioned in 1962. The Tarlton Jets originated from the US Navy.
The cars, which push approximately 11,000 horsepower and utilize diesel rather than aviation fuel, were soon the main attraction at Tarlton. Mick trained Ray van Zanten locally and over the years, apart from being piloted by both men, personalities like 1984 Daytona 24 hour winner, Graham Duxbury, Grant Brackenridge, Theuns van Wyk and the late Johnny Peters have also been fierce Jet competitors. Today of course, Mick’s younger son, Nico pilots the second Jet.
The first time Mick produced a burner pop, family and friends gathered round for the spectacle. As he lit the afterburner, the gigantic explosion emanating from the burner pops sent everyone running for cover. Stan Wesson ran face first into the fence. Son, Nico, not waiting around to see his father blow himself up, vanished into the toilets along with a few friends to hide out. What made it even more amusing was the arrival of the police who were determined to locate the clear and present danger of dynamite.
During 1990, Mick began gearing up for the World Jet Finals in Palmdale in the U.S. On 6 October 1990, he finished 3rd in the finals, one of his proudest achievements.
Already a record holder as the first driver to go under the 7-second barrier in a piston engined car, on 31st May 1993, Mick did it again when he became the first driver to dip under 6-seconds. He blazed his Jet to a time of 5.941 seconds, a terminal speed of 455.02km/h. The record still stands today. However the highest speed every recorded in South Africa was his run at Margate Airport in the ‘90’s, where he ran a terminal speed of 478.00 km/h. What made this even more remarkable was that track conditions left a lot to be desired and the Jet could only run at 95% power.
The “Meltdown” where a car wreck is chained to the back of Mick’s Jet Dragster, the afterburner lit and the wreck melted in the resultant fire, remains an awe inspiring experience which has the crowd on their feet cheering for more.
At the beginning of 2000, it was decided with the help of the late Joe Graça, to incorporate the 4,6 and 8 cylinder street legal cars that had previously been running on their own since the late ‘80’s. Mick and Joe’s vision paid dividends with more and more streetcar contenders entering each event.
The family still owns a Top Fuel Dragster, numerous drag cars including two supercharged, alcohol Dragsters, the two Westinghouse Jets and four six-second alcohol Funny cars. There is also an amazing collection of American street cars, including a couple of original Pontiac GTO’s, 2 Boss 429 Mustangs, a 65 Thunderbird convertible, complete with wire wheels, a ’67 Plymouth Fury, a ’69 Plymouth Road Runner, a delectable ’57 Chevy and a Chevy Bel Air. In addition, there is an awesome collection of engines, including two 2.0 litre aluminium V8’s used by Bruce McLaren in the Can Am series in the late ‘60’s.
Drag Racing is the most extreme division of motorsport in the world and Tarlton International Raceway can rightly be referred to as South Africa’s Premier Drag Racing Strip. It stands as a testament to a remarkable man and his family, who despite the many obstacles being placed in their path over the years’, have kept the dream alive through an iron clad optimism.
Rest in peace Uncle Mick. Your abiding commitment and dedication to this extraordinary facet of South African Motorsport will never be forgotten. – Su Drzewicka
Sources: Mick and Nico van Rensburg, Andre de Kock, Mark Flemming (New Zealand)
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