Note that the laps of lead changes and cautions are from the broadcast, and might be a little off.
A bizarre track, a bizarre race, and a bizarre story. Here, we take a look at the 2010 Free State 500, a superspeedway race held at the Phakisa Freeway, in South Africa.
The province of Free State is in central South Africa and is one of nine provinces. Free State borders the small enclosed country of Lesotho, and contains one of South Africa’s three capitals, Bloemfontein, also the provincial capital of Free State. In 1970, the Goldfields Raceway was opened in Odendaalsrus, a town of 60,000 near the province’s second largest city, Welkom (it’s an Afrikaans/Dutch name, so the W is said as a V). The track was likely named after the area’s gold fields, or gold mines.
Goldfields Raceway was a popular circuit for national events over the years. Despite the area being famous for its depressions, Goldfields was a very flat circuit. It was fast, and could be run with little usage of the brakes, especially by open wheelers, though this sort of flat-out racing wasn’t always the best idea, as Goldfields was very famous as being a tire killer.
By 1997, the track owners were looking for more, wanting to bring American oval racing to the area, and so the old road course was demolished, and construction on a new circuit began. The new track, called the Phakisa Freeway, opened in 1999.
The oval is an interesting specimen. Measuring 1.5 miles, it is kind of a mix of pre-reconfiguration Las Vegas and Pikes Peak. The track is a d-oval and is about as wide as Pikes Peak, but the banking was heavily influenced by Las Vegas’, to the point that they are almost identical. The backstretch of Phakisa is banked to 3 degrees, the turns to 12, and the d-oval to 9, a near-exact match with old Las Vegas’ banks, which were 3, 12, and 8 respectively.
Also built with the oval was a 2.636 mile road course, which also has a short course layout of a bit under two miles. The road course doesn’t use any of the banked corners. It does, however, use the oval’s pit lane as its backstretch, and crosses the oval’s backstretch on two occasions.
In 1999, its first year open, the track immediately saw a major event in MotoGP. The South African Motorcycle Grand Prix was held at Phakisa from 1999 to 2004, when it left the track due to economic issues. The oval, however, remained unused. Phakisa’s road course continued to hold all sorts of national level events, but there were no known talks of actually putting the oval to use. Sarel Van Der Merwe, a legendary South African racer who even made a few NASCAR starts, was the only driver to ever lap the oval in a race car, doing so on opening weekend. He apparently was lapping it out of anger directed towards something, presumably the demolition of Goldfields, though I could never find any specifications.
In and of itself, stock car racing is very popular in South Africa, which has a set of dirt tracks for local events. Dirt late models and midgets frequent these circuits, and there are a couple flat asphalt ovals for superstocks and jalopies, such as what is seen in Great Britain. In 2000, an asphalt late model stock car series called SASCAR was founded, however again I could find no evidence that it ever ran the oval at Phakisa. South Africa. In 2004, a larger oval opened at Gosforth Park, near Johannesburg. The track at Gosforth Park, called the WesBank Raceway, contained a slightly banked 0.621 mile oval alongside an external road course and a combination track, and is known to have held several SASCAR events. The WesBank Raceway was fairly popular, but unfortunately it closed in 2007 and was demolished when a local company purchased the property. SASCAR went defunct at some point before 2009.
With the oval at Phakisa looking like it was never going to be used for actual racing, the American Speed Association, or ASA, took notice. Ever since its financial difficulties in the early 2000s, the ASA had been attempting to recover, and in September 2009, ASA President Dennis Hoth eyed a potential race in South Africa as a good way to bring American superspeedway influence to the country and potentially return to relevance. This ambition gave birth to the Free State 500, to be held at the Phakisa Freeway on January 31st, 2010. The cars were shipped out on December 1, and participating American drivers left on January 24. The cars used mostly dated back to the early 2000s, with a large chunk of the field consisting of Chevy Monte Carlos and Ford Tauruses. A few Dodge Chargers and Toyota Camrys dotted the grid, and some of the frontrunners brought along Chevy Impalas.
To drum up local interest, South African drivers were given the go-ahead to compete in a qualifying session, and if they could set a fast enough series of laps, they would be allowed to race. 21 drivers made the trek to attempt to qualify, and six were successful in doing so.
2010 ASA TRANSCONTINENTAL VRYSTAAT FREE STATE 500 STARTING LINEUP
- #8 Geoffrey BODINE (USA)
- #96 Marc DAVIS (USA)
- #52 Chris WIMMER (USA)
- #09 John MICKEL (GBR)
- #F-22 Russ BLAKELY (USA)
- #90 Toni Marie McCRAY (USA)
- #F-66 Steve CARLSON (USA)
- #19 Tiffany DANIELS (USA)
- #11 Jaco CORREIA (RSA)
- #97 Mark EBERT (USA)
- #22 Johan CRONJE (RSA)
- #98 Shaun RICHARDSON (AUS)
- #73 Gary LEWIS (USA)
- #68 Danie CORREIA (RSA)
- #55 Greg BARNHART (USA)
- #80 Mark SHAFFER (USA)
- #41 Ron NORMAN (USA)
- #85 Lance FENTON (USA)
- #20 Gugu ZULU (RSA)
- #61 Tim OLSON (USA)
- #900 Johann SPIES (RSA)
- #31 Dustin DUDLEY (USA)
- #00 Johan COETZER (RSA)
- #08 Rick McCRAY (USA)
- #88 Don UHLIR (USA)
The highest qualifying local was Jaco Correia, whose #11 greatly resembled Denny Hamlin’s white and purple Fedex scheme. Correia, a competitor in South African V8 Supercars, one of the most prestigious series in the country, started ninth. Businessman and hobbyist dirt tracker Johan Cronje’s #22 started 11th. Danie Correia in the #68, brother of Jaco and fellow competitor in South African V8s, started 14th. Starting 19th was the late Gugu Zulu of Cape Town, one of the country’s best rally racers. Johann Spies, a national Super Saloon class champion, started 21st in the #900, and young dirt oval racer Johan Coetzer started 23rd in the #00. Also in the field were John Mickel of Great Britain, who raced both in the ASA and in ASCAR, a stock car series which ran at the now-defunct oval in Rockingham, England, and Shaun Richardson, a Queensland, Australia native best known for his stunt work who also ran in ASCAR. The ASA picked up a television contract for the Free State 500 to be shown in the United States on a set of regional channels such as SportSouth, and several local South African channels were also there to broadcast the event.
Race day was extremely hot, reportedly approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the skies themselves were almost cloudless. Race attendance totalled in at about 11,000. Marc Davis got the jump and took the early lead. The grid was one car short, as Dustin Dudley had sold his engine to Johann Spies, who had blown his primary engine in practice. This left Dudley without an engine, so he was headed home. Luckily for him, the South African government had covered travel costs and lodging.
Davis led a few laps, but on lap five, Geoffrey Bodine took the lead and pulled out a decent gap. Sometime before a lap 22 debris yellow, Geoff had lost the lead to Davis. In fact, Geoff had fallen back to fourth. By this point, two cars had dropped out of the event, the #88 Chevy Monte Carlo of Don Uhlir and the #85 Dodge Charger of Lance Fenton.
The field used this chance to pit. By series rules, the cars were only permitted to take on two tires at a time, and were not permitted to refuel during a tire stop or vice versa.
On the lap 29 restart, Marc Davis was the leader, but the mostly unsponsored #73 of Gary Lewis found a fantastic burst of speed. The two Chevrolets raced side by side through turn three, and Lewis surged ahead into the lead. Lewis led them around and to the yellow flag, as the second caution had come out for the #11 of Jaco Correia ramming the wall on entrance to turn three. Correia, of Klerksdorp, North West Province, was out of the race, but he was not hurt.
Lewis continued to lead on the lap 37 restart. A third yellow flew on or around lap 55, likely due to Steve Carlson’s car breaking down. During this run, Chris Wimmer had fallen out of the race, and Mark Shaffer had fallen out the caution before. The cavalry entered the pit lane, and on the lap 64 restart, Geoff Bodine took the lead and led until lap 75 due to a double spin by the #97 of Mark Ebert, the owner of a driving school, and the #68 of Danie Correia of Welkom. The field restarted on lap 85, and not much occurred during the brief green flag run other than the engine on the #00 of Johan Coetzer of Welkom blowing up, putting an end to the 19-year-old’s day. Caution 5 flew on lap 94 for debris, and the field pitted again.
Marc Davis took the lead during pit stops and led the field to the lap 102 restart. John Mickel got a bit of a run in turn one, but Davis surged ahead on the middle line, and Mickel was quickly freight trained. The #08 of Rick McCray then made a move and actually led a lap somewhere during the shuffle, possibly even two laps, though Davis emerged victorious again.
Caution 6 flew on lap 105 due to Mark Ebert in the #97 spinning again off of four, this time to the inside of the track. The field restarted on lap 112, and Geoff Bodine pursued the #96 of Davis from the moment the starter flew the green. On lap 119, he took the lead, but once again Davis made the outside work, and on lap 122, he took it back. Gary Lewis tried his hand at a pass, but Rick McCray, who had somewhere along the line lost a lap, made it three wide and got his lap back in the trioval coming to finish lap 122 and start lap 123. Gary Lewis took the lead in turn one on lap 123 and held it for some time. He put McCray another lap down and led until the seventh yellow on lap 145.
The field made more pit stops, and John Mickel found himself up front on the lap 154 restart. However, Australia’s Shaun Richardson took the lead on the backstretch and pulled out to a great gap, which Geoff Bodine quickly made up as if he were the star of a bad racing movie. Geoff passed Shaun around lap 157. Around this time, Johan Cronje’s engine let go, and the Welkom native would be forced to retire the car. Russ Blakely’s #F-22 car also let go around lap 163. Blakely had gone about 35 laps down already, having pulled his car behind the wall earlier in the event, and this would do him in. Interestingly, even after his first mechanical gremlin, Blakely’s car had still been very fast…
Speaking of a couple of laps down, Marc Davis found himself in this situation. He had been forced to change tires under green, and it had cost him dearly. But the #96 was still quick. He was hoping for a yellow so he could get a lap back, and he got one on lap 167.
The restart flew on lap 174, but Shaun Richardson brought out the yellow on lap 176 when he blew a tire and skidded into turn one. The #98 Toyota Camry was done for the day despite not hitting anything, as Shaun had cooked the car’s clutch in his attempt to get back under way.
Bodine led on the restart on lap 182, but he found himself cutting it close on fuel. In the meantime, a massive cavalry of cars dueled one another to try and become the recipient in case Bodine ran dry. Coming to finish lap 205, Bodine’s car sputtered, and he bailed for the pit lane. Toni Marie McCray and John Mickel were the two beneficiaries, and the #90 of McCray led lap 205 and lap 206. On the white flag lap however, John Mickel in the #09 Chevrolet made a move on the outside of turn one and he made it stick. Mickel held off any further attempts by McCray to reclaim the lead, and John Mickel was the winner at day’s end.
Out of the locals, the #900 of Johann Spies was the best finisher, in fifth. Danie Correia finished 10th, and Gugu Zulu, a rally expert who had never raced on an asphalt track before, finished 11th. Johan Cronje, Johan Coetzer, and Jaco Correia failed to finish.
2010 ASA TRANSCONTINENTAL VRYSTAAT FREE STATE 500 RESULTS
- #09 John MICKEL
- #90 Toni Marie McCRAY
- #96 Marc DAVIS
- #08 Rick McCRAY
- #900 Johann SPIES
- #73 Gary LEWIS
- #19 Tiffany DANIELS
- #55 Greg BARNHART (-1)
- #8 Geoffrey BODINE (-1)
- #68 Danie CORREIA (-3)
- #20 Gugu ZULU (-5)
- #97 Mark EBERT (-5)
- #41 Ron NORMAN (-9)
- #98 Shaun RICHARDSON (-31, Burnt Clutch)
- #22 Johan CRONJE (-52, Engine)
- #F-22 Russ BLAKELY (-79, Mechanical)
- #61 Tim OLSON (-92, Status Unknown)
- #00 Johan COETZER (-119, Engine)
- #F-66 Steve CARLSON (-153, Engine)
- #52 Chris WIMMER (-169, Mechanical)
- #11 Jaco CORREIA (-179, Crash)
- #80 Mark SHAFFER (-179, Out)
- #85 Lance FENTON (-195, Out)
- #88 Don UHLIR (-206, Out)
- #31 Dustin DUDLEY (DNS)
Known Cautions: 9
Known Lead Changes: 14
Known Leaders: #08, #09, #8, #73, #96, #98
MoV: 0.4 sec
Hard Charger: #08 Rick McCray
Purse: Apparently about $US300,000
Pole Speed: 149.938 mph
The intention was for a few more races to be held at the oval track. Ron Barfield, owner of the #88 and the #55, stated his intention to leave a couple of race cars behind for the South African local drivers, and a racing school was reportedly supposed to be created, however no further races were held at the oval. A planned second Free State 500 scheduled for January 2011 never went anywhere, nor did a revival in November 2012. The ASA faded away during the early 2010s, and the loss of Gugu Zulu, who passed away in mid-2016 after descending Mt. Kilimanjaro, further hurt any possible return. However, the one race that was held was very entertaining and unique, with overtaking galore, especially on the outside line, and the drivers put on a fantastic show.
As for the track itself, national events are still going very strong at the road course, but the oval has remained dormant ever since the 25 stock cars packed up and left the track on January 31, 2010.
“South Africa embraces V8s in 2001”, February 21, 2001 article to Motorsport.com
“Six SA drivers named to race Free State 500”, January 26, 2010 edition of IOL
“ASA Returns To South Africa For Free State 500 Nov. 25”, March 30, 2012 article to Raceweek Illustrated
“Florence’s Barfield on racing safari to South Africa”, January 26, 2010 edition of SCNow