The popular Nissan Sugarbelt 400, which kicks off the 2005 Absa Off Road Championship season in Kwa-Zulu Natal on March 18 and 19, has attracted a huge entry in the Special Vehicle and Production Vehicle categories.

The Kwa-Zulu Natal region has traditionally been a Special Vehicle stronghold, which accounts for the fact that 57 of the 80 entries are in Class A, B, C and S with Class B topping the scales with 31 entries followed by Class A with 20 entries. The Production Vehicle category has attracted 23.

Following the postponement of the introduction of the new Super Production Class, which Ford, Nissan and Toyota have agreed to support with two vehicles each, until the Toyota 1000 Desert Race in June the manufacturers, Nissan and Ford, that have traditionally campaigned in Class T have been given dispensation to use their vehicles for the first two events.

Reigning Production Vehicle Drivers Champion Hannes Grobler and new co-driver Francois Jordaan and reigning Class D champions Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford will spearhead the Proudly South African Nissan challenge. The seemingly invincible Nissan squad is aiming for its fifth consecutive win on the event but Team Ford Racing’s Neil Woolridge and Ken Skjoldhammer are intent on putting an end to the Nissan domination by following up their win on the last Carnival City 400 with victory on home turf.

The Castrol Toyota team’s hopes for a podium finish and a Class D win will rest with 2004 Class D championship runners-up Mark Cronje and Chris Birkin in the Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i in which they finished third in 2004 and Paolo Piazza-Musso and Ockie Fourie who will want to make up for last year’s non-finish. Father and son Cliff and Louis Weichelt can be expected to give a good account of themselves in the Bosal / N1 4X4 Toyota Hilux.

The Nissan challenge will come from brothers Jurie and Andre du Plessis and Arnold du Plessis and Johan Knox in the BB Auto Nissan Hardbody pickups, Deon Schoeman and Jan Sime in the Topcar Nissan Hardbody and GBS Nissan pair Coetzee Labuschagne and Johan Gerber.

Local cane farmer Manfred Schroder and a co-driver still to be announced will be in the lone Class D Team Ford Racing Ranger.

2004 Milestone Award winners for completing all eight events in the championship, Henri Zermatten and Bodo Schwegler will campaign their trusty Mastercraft Ryobi Mitsubishi Pajero while brothers Mark and Stuart Moffat will be in action in the Bosal / N1 4X4 Land Rover, which finished well in the last three races of the 2004 season.

Reigning Class E champions Hugo de Bruyn and his father Jaap intend starting the season the way they started last year’s by winning Class E in their Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i. The formidable Vryburg based crew pulled off some giant-killing performances last season and will be difficult to beat.

Gavin Cronje and Robin Houghton crashed in spectacular style on last year’s Nissan Sugarbelt 400 and will certainly not want a repeat performance in the Castrol Toyota Hilux 2.7i while Durban based Zane Pearce and new co-driver Peter Chadwick in the Castrol Toyota Hilux KZ-TE will be under pressure to perform well in front of their home crowd.

Husband and wife Marius and Tracey van Vuuren seem to have got the Bosal / N1 4X4 Toyota Hilux fully sorted and will pose a threat to the rest of the Class E contenders as will relative newcomers Thomas Rundle and Stavros Yiannakis in the Barden Tyre Services Nissan Hardbody.

Team Ford Racing’s Baphumze Rubuluza and Khulile Vakalisa acquitted themselves well in their rookie year and finished second in the 2004 Class E championship and also received the Most Improved Newcomers Award. The Pietermaritzburg based businessmen finished third in Class E on last year’s event and are more than capable of pulling off a maiden class win.

Class F for unlimited two and four-wheel drive vehicles has not been well supported to date but expectations are that a number of vehicles that previously competed in Class T will make a comeback. In the interim reigning Class F champion Andre Botha and veteran Richard ‘Ouboet’ Carolin, who will share driving duties, will have matters their own way in the Kopanong Hotel Superteam Chevrolet.

The Special Vehicle category promises to be a full-scale horsepower war in Class A with power plants including Porsche, Nissan V6, Chevrolet LS1, Audi V8, BMW 540 V8, Subaru and Mitsubishi V6 twin turbo fitted to local Zarco and BAT chassis and imported Jimco, Porter, Raceco and Chenowth chassis.

Reigning Special Vehicle champions Atang Makgekgenene and Buks Carolin will be missing from the line up due to the fact that Makgekgenene is now based in the UK and unable to fit off road racing into his hectic business schedule.

2004 Nissan Sugarbelt 400 winner Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr will again be in action in the Audi V8 powered Century Property Developments BAT in which the pair also won the Carnival City 400. Corbett and Mohr will come under pressure from Kwa-Zulu Natal based Clint Gibson and Marcelle Trethewey, the daughter of off road racing stalwarts Vincent and Louise Trethewey. Gibson finished second to Corbett last year and wants nothing more than to pick up a maiden win in the Audi V8 powered Gibson Plant Hire BAT. Nick Harper and Andrew Chalupsky finished third in another Audi V8 powered BAT and their consistency could once again secure them a place on the podium.

Other BAT contenders include brothers Gary and Bevan Bertholdt and Terence Marsh. Gary Bertholdt and Siegfried Rousseau won the Mafeking 500, which was one of only two events they entered in 2004, in the Nissan V6 powered Advansoft BAT. Marsh and Michael Whitehouse will debut the new Nashua Mobile Racing BAT Spec-1, which is fitted with a 500hp Chevrolet LS-1 V8 engine, while Bevan Bertholdt and Nick Selamolela will be in action in an Chevrolet LS1 V8 powered Itech BAT Spec-1. The BAT Spec-1 chassis is the biggest space framed off road racing car ever seen on these shores and its performance in the Absa Off Road Championship will be watched with great interest.

John Weir-Smith and Geoff Minnitt will rely on their tried and tested BMW 540 V8 powered Kopanong Hotel Superteam Jimco, which has undergone a complete rebuild. The 2004 Lesotho Sun 400 winners are confident that they will have the measure of the competition in the handling and performance stakes. Former Special Vehicle Drivers Champion Shameer Variawa and co-driver Nadeem Dudhia believe they now have the radical American built Cornbake Foods Porter, which is also powered by a BMW 4.6 V8 engine, fully developed and are planning to start the season with a win.

Father and son Rob and Gareth Wark will team up in the Mitsubishi V6 twin turbo Superpave Chenowth previously driven by Greg Daus while John Moore and Graham Maclachlan will campaign their trusty Porsche powered Connix Internet Chenowth.

The American built Chenowth has a proud history in South African off road racing with Franz Czepek senior and junior winning five Special Vehicle championships from 1994 to 2001 and every race in the 2001 season in a Chenowth.

Brothers Laurence and Gerhard du Plessis who only competed in the 2004 Carnival City 400 and finished second overall in the Mobil Jimco can be counted upon to bring the fight to the rest of the Class A hopefuls.

Former Special Vehicle Drivers Champion and runner-up in the 2004 Class B championship Giel Nel and co-driver Peter Newbery make their Class A debut in the Subaru powered LUK / Ate Zarco Lite. Nel is a wily old fox whose aim is to finish every race and amass as many points as possible while the competition drives itself to destruction. Few would be surprised if Nel and Newbery were in contention for the title as the championship draws to a close.

Predicting a winner in Class B is well nigh impossible. The bulk of the entry in the class is made up of Kwa-Zulu Natal competitors who swept the boards on last year’s Nissan Sugarbelt 400.

Gary Campbell won in the Mighty Mag in 2004 and was followed across the line by Piet Retief based Johan van Jaarsveld and Marlene Lindeque in the Pro Ysco, reigning Class B champions Marcus Taylor and Marc de Chalain in the JRE Sandmaster and Will Battershill and Reg Sutton in the JRE Sandmaster.

It is likely that the winner will come from within the ranks of the Kwa-Zulu Natal based crews but not if the Gauteng based crews, many of them competing in the locally designed and built Zarco Lite chassis, have a say in matters.

Brothers Rudi and Pierre van Graan (Technochair Zarco Lite) were one of only two Class B crews that managed to complete the Lesotho Sun 400, John Thomson and Clinton McNamara (Ormond Zarco Lite) finished second on the Toyota Dealer 400 and joint third in the Class B Championship and brothers Hendrik and Louis Fourie (Zarco Lite) were the runners-up on the Carnival City 400 and are all hungry for that elusive class win.

Contributing to the growth in the Special Vehicle category and Class B in particular is veteran constructor Paul Coetzer who has designed an innovative new contender for the hotly contested class. Coetzer has been involved in off road racing since the 1970’s during which time he has built over 300 ORCO chassis, many of which are still used in regional and club races and won numerous championships and races as co-driver for Bodo Bertholdt. The pair has a combined age of 120 years and will team up in a Subaru powered ORCO for the 2005 season.

Husband and wife Gerhard and Zelda Niemandt will be in action in another of the new chassis and the Promotorsport ORCO will be powered by a Mazda engine. Brothers Alastair and Hamish Stubbs who finished joint third in the 2004 Class B championship will again be in action in the Fence Erect Viper in which they won the class on the Toyota 1000 Desert Race.

Ernest Corbett and Warwick Goosen in the Century Property Developments entry and newcomer Evan Hutchison and Trevor Ormerod in the Motorite entry will represent BAT. Hutchison and Ormerod finished second overall on the recent Stokkiesdraai 200 regional off road race and are confident of a good result.

Class S for beam axle, trailing arm front suspension space frame vehicles has the potential for significant growth and the presence of veterans like Nardus Alberts and Collin Hunter in the Wrapsa Raceco and former Special Vehicle champion and multiple Roof of Africa Rally winner Richard Schilling and Chris Davies in the brand new Plastotech Aceco should attract more contenders as the season progresses.

Nic Goslar has recovered from back injuries sustained in a high-speed crash on last year’s Sun City 400 and, along with new co-driver Jacob Robbetze, will be in action in the Kopanong Hotel Superteam Raceco Porsche.

Pietermaritzburg based Gavan Gray will be looking for a win on home turf in the Data Dot Raceco.

The Nissan Sugarbelt 400 gets underway with a 33km Prologue at 12h30 on Friday, 18 March. The main event will comprise two laps of a figure of eight course and starts at 08h00 on Saturday, 19 March at the Beaumont Eston Farmers Club near Pietermaritzburg. The Natal Off Road Motor Club has identified 18 spectator points along the route so fans will have ample opportunities to see the action.

Original article from Car