On the face of it, it is pure insanity – an eight hour endurance race for lightweight single cylinder motorcycles on a tortuously twisty karting circuit with 13 corners in just one kilometre.
Yet, after 35 years, the annual ‘8 Hour’ is now the longest running event on the Killarney International Raceway calendar, attracting entries from around South Africa and, indeed, the world, featuring competitors of international stature, up to and including former Grand Prix riders.
It was first conceived in 1983 as a two-hour end of season experiment by the Clerk of the Course at the time, Jimmy Coggs, to see whether the modified 60cc two-strokes raced on the Formula K circuit in those days could stand up to being run long enough for pit stops, strategy and pace to become a factor. They could, but the race very soon became a two hour sprint; the only strategic element was how to make the compulsory pit stops as quick as possible.
So it rapidly grew in length to four, six and finally the current eight hour format; but it is still an day-long sprint race with the top teams’ average lap times only a few tenths of a second off those recorded in qualifying.
With the advent of superb high-tech 150cc single-cylinder four-stroke engines in motorcycles such as the Indian-made Yamaha R15 and Suzuki GS150 R, the Indonesian-sourced Kawasaki Ninja 150 and in particular the Thai-built Honda CBR150, these have taken over from the more temperamental two-strokes in recent years, although a few die-hard ‘smokers’ are still entered each year.
The 8 Hour is now open to motorcycles with four-valve heads of up to 155cc, and with two-valve heads up to 200cc. The engine, carburettor, frame and electrical system must be standard; the alternator and electric starter must be working. Wheels, tyres, exhaust systems and rear shock absorbers, however, are free.
Bikes with two-stroke engines of up to 85cc (including motocross motors made before 2007) are also eligible; their engines, gearboxes and frames may be modified, wheels and tyres are free.
Teams must have from two to four riders, each of whom should be at least 13 years old on the day of the race, although provision has been made for riders between the ages of 11 and 13, at the discretion of the organisers, provided that they have at least two years’ proven race experience in the junior or similar classes. Some of these pre-teen riders, it must be said, are so small they make a 150cc motorcycle look like a superbike – and they seem to have no trouble keeping up with the ‘grown-ups’!
Topping the entry list for the 2018 8 Hour is British-based Jonny Towers, CEO of the RST bikewear brand, who has been a member of the winning team in 10 previous editions of this event, most of them at the helm of his own RST ‘dream team’. Towers has yet to reveal the line-up for this year, but his ultra-professional team set-up always attracts top national and international talent. As always, No.17 will be the bike to beat.
Not that he will have it all his own way; Mad Macs has entered a two-bike ‘dealer team’ on Kawasaki 150 Ninjas, the first for top regional superbike contender (and former short-circuit champion) Trevor Westman, along with Wesley Jones, Powersport king JP Friederich and multiple former SA Superbike champion Greg Gildenhuys. The second Ninja will be shared between Masters’ heroes Rob Cragg (a former regional title-holder) and Jacques Ackermann, along with David Enticott and Brandon Storey.
Also lined up for 15 December is the Fueled Racing CBR150 of Slade van Niekerk, Bernard Haupt, Jean-Baptiste Racoupeau and Chase Hulscher. Van Niekerk and Haupt recently rode this machine to victory in a one-hour race on the Half Main and this team must be seen as a threat to the established stars, as is the all-teen Otto Racing team of Chris Wright, Ricardo Otto and World Supersport 300 racer Dino Iozzo.
Other entries of note are the Ellis brothers, Michael and David – the only two-man entry – who seem totally immune to fatigue and always give a good account of themselves, as well as the HSC Racing team of cousins Nicholas and Brad Hutchings, Jarryd Butler and Abigail Bosson, the daughter of multiple 8 Hour winner the late Chris Bosson and Martie Bosson, herself a veteran of numerous 8 Hours.
The ultimate veteran, however, is former Class A racer John Craig, who has competed in every edition of this race since its inception in 1983; this year he will share the No Rush Racing CBR150 with Jimmy Pantony and Gerrit Visser Snr, in a team with a combined age of 166 years – and that doesn’t include the bike!
Only two two-stroke entries have been received thus far; the first, based on a Yamaha TZR50 chassis with custom-built inverted front suspension by Martin Paetzold and a Yamaha YZ80 motocross engine, has been prepared by veteran two-stroke tuner Adrian van der Merwe, who will share it with Malcolm Steyn and Steve Thurling. Another TZR50/YZ80 is a group effort from Jannie le Roux, Schalk Pretorius and Andre Kotze – and there are rumours of a very quick Honda CR80 powered machine as well.
Entry is R80 for adults, R20 for scholars under 16 and free for kids under 12. The gates open at 7.30am on race day, qualifying starts at 9am and at 9.35am the top 10 qualifiers will go out again for a five-minute Superpole session to determine the starting order at the sharp end of the field.
The race will get underway with a traditional Le Mans start, in which the motorcycles are lined up in their qualifying order along the east side of the back straight, and the riders line up against the tyre barrier on the west side, approximately 50 metres away.
When the flag drops at exactly 10am, the riders sprint across to their bikes, hit the starter button – and eight hours of utter mayhem ensues. Nearly all the motorcycles will be crashed at least once, many several times; a number will undergo major surgery in the pits, either for crash damage or mechanical failure. Nevertheless, all but a handful will still be running when the chequered flag comes out at 6pm, some without a shred of bodywork, others held together by faith and duct tape.
As in all endurance contests, everyone who makes it to the finish is a winner; when you see their faces in the pits at the end you’ll understand why they keep coming back year after year for this truly unique motorsport challenge.