When you think of South Africa, sports are probably not the first thing that jump into your head. Given the country’s volatile history, that’s to be expected. However, South Africa is a proud sporting nation. Rugby is probably the most recognizable sporting commodity that the nation possesses, as both their 7’s and 15’s teams are perennial contenders when rugby world cups roll around. Hell, Matt Damon even made a movie about their World Cup win in 1995. Soccer might also pop into your head, or more accurately, the sound of the vuvuzela, that godforsaken horn introduced to the world during the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Soccer and Rugby get the lion’s share of the attention from the masses, but there is a new contender, rising up from the inner cities of urban South Africa. It has criminal origins and has taken over the minds of a generation since its informal debut in the 1980s. It’s taking South African’s, both black and white, by storm. And oh, yeah, it’s not even a real sport yet. Allow me to introduce you to the wild world of Spinning, South Africa’s motorsport of the future.
On the surface, Spinning is as simple as the name suggests. Drivers take a car, preferably a BMW for most drivers, and drift the car in circles, blowing tire smoke everywhere and making a whole lot of racket. But that’s where the similarities between Spinners and teenagers in the parking lot of a 7-11 end. Spinners up the ante by doing stunts while still driving their cars in circles.
Drivers will lean out the open driver’s window to wow the crowd even further or climb onto the top of their cars, using a second person inside to help control the vehicle. It looks like a blast; the smoke, the squealing tires and the shadow of the drivers exploits flickering in and out of view, but there isn’t a clear set of rules or a point system to judge. It’s all about street cred, who can look the most impressive. This lack of centralization has been with Spinning since its birth in the 19’80s.
Spinning, until quite recently, has been the domain of black South Africans. It was born on some of the toughest streets in the world. Young gangsters from Soweto and other primarily black townships of Johannesburg had a special proclivity for stealing cars from wealthier South Africans. Kids would streak back into their neighborhoods with these boosted cars, to evade law enforcement and also partly to showboat, screeching tires and burning rubber. To celebrate, burnouts turned into donuts and donuts turned into spinning. As more kids got into the game, Spinning took on a variety of meanings. Obviously, it was often a form of celebration and defiance. Sometimes it was a show of respect between friends, rivals or fellow gang members. It even became a tradition to spin after the funeral of fallen friends.
What was once just expression of youthful emotions, Spinning is now a bonafide business. Spinning sessions are now held in designated outdoor arenas, a huge step away from the impromptu nature of the first spinners. The stigma of criminality in Spinning is also fading as well. Once, the earliest generation of Spinners ran from the police, now police cars are present for safety and a few off-duty cops perform themselves.
The car of choice from most spinners is the BMW e30, a boxy sedan with front-wheel drive and a solid suspension. BMW’s were almost exclusively the car used by spinners, but other models have bled into the scene, such as Toyota. The cost to upkeep these cars is steep. New ties are needed essentially after every performance, and tinkering with the cars body, engine and wheel system is constant. The vast majority of “Pro” Spinners work a day job to keep us with the large costs of their sport, but the money they do see from spinning is growing as new communities and corporate interests continue to be introduced to the sport.
Spinning was deemed an extreme sport by South Africa a decade ago and the country is now in the process of deeming it a legitimate motorsport. This would be huge for Spinning, being on the same level as racing, as well as having uniform regulations and standards for the sport will help with growth. Eyes are key for a sport with no set rulebook or competitive points or judging system. And eyes are coming from all over now, not just black communities like Soweto. Perhaps the most striking sign of Spinning’s growth are the white faces which dot crowds at events. White South Africans are taking to the sport, making their way into neighborhoods they would normally avoid, for a look at the action. Some are even joining the shows themselves, showing off their skills side by side with the fathers of the sport, many of whom are now literal fathers.
What exactly the future holds for Spinning is a bit cloudy, but this sport has morphed from a fast and furious genesis into a pillar of black identity in Johannesburg. Now it seems poised to become the wave of the future and the first true African motorsport. When the smoke finally clears though, Spinning will still rely on what makes it so unique. The creative thrill-seekers who devote their lives to it.