Interviewed by Charl du Plessis
Published in PLAYBOY South Africa April 2012
His trophy room is wall-to-wall with silverware, including the coveted Sir de Villiers Graaff SA Rally championship trophy. When Sarel van der Merwe won it the third time, he joked that he was going to keep it. After 10 years in a row, they gave it to him. Undoubtedly South Africa’s greatest racing driver ever, he was as fast on the road as in the bed, at one time cheating on both his wife and his mistress. His footsteps are all over the local rally and race track scene, and he won the Daytona 24 and came as close as dammit at Le Mans in his seven rides there. Since he took to racing in 1967, SuperVan has fired up the scene wherever he went.
PLAYBOY (PB): Sarel, who are we speaking to today, SuperVan or Sarel van der Merwe, and can you tell us why the split personality?
SAREL VAN DER MERWE (SM): Hmm. You know, I started off as Sarel van der Merwe and then John Oxley, motoring editor at the Pretoria News coined the phrase “SuperVan” in 1972, and that kind of stuck. The identity grew through the years, but these days I am more Sarel. The more daring SuperVan now only emerges once in a while when I get the chance to get out on the racetrack.
PB: Some people also call you “Sideways Sarel.” Is that because of a special sex position or a driving style?
SM: Ja, that comes from my rally days, where there was a lot of sideways sliding. It took me a while to get away from this influence once I started racetrack. So, it has everything to do with my driving style at the time.
PB: Which one of all these personalities do you like best and is more your real self?
SM: I like myself the best. SuperVan has just been a really great scapegoat for all the shit I have caused in my life.
PB: Your life is defined by fast cars and fast women. If you were forced to choose, which one would you do without?
SM: Cars are probably the cheaper option! Although, I must say that the one attracts the other and I do not think one could do without either.
PB: As you say, the world of motorsport is full of sexy women and you had your fair share while also running a mistress on the side while married. Why do you think women are attracted to racing drivers?
SM: That holds true with any sport, not just racing. Look at rugby and those groupies. These women are into the razzmatazz and the glamour. Maybe it is not true with golfing as one does not see the groupies there, but then again there was Tiger Woods. Well, on second thought, he bought most of it. When I drove for Hendrick Motorsports in the US, they also owned a football team and would sometimes book out a whole block just for the groupies. Don’t knock it though. It worked for me!
PB: Is it as glamorous as what the groupies think?
SM: It is actually quite a lonely life, traveling from hotel room to hotel room as I did, always finding oneself in a new destination. It is the harsh reality of what it takes to succeed in professional sports, and these groupies are no more than brief interludes.
PB: What is it about speed that got to you? Describe the feeling of racing at breakneck speed.
SM: Whether you are rallying or racing, for a brief period, you get that feeling that you are in perfect control of your own destiny. If things go wrong, it can go terribly wrong. It is a real adrenaline rush and you can die if you are stupid enough.
PB: You describe the name SuperVan as “a cool name with a death wish.” Do you or did you have a death wish?
SM: No, not a death wish. I never had that, although with both my parents having died in their 50s, I probably suspected I had to take my chances. Rather, it’s a matter of how, when you race, you sometimes have to go into unknown areas. Your car might not exactly be up to scratch. The other guy might just be faster. And to get ahead you have to go over what you may feel is your own safe limit. At those moments, you accept you may have to be prepared to die.
PB: What do you consider to be your biggest achievements behind the wheel? You won the 1984 Daytona 24-hour and ended third at Le Mans at the same year. Could you have clipped Le Mans?
SM: Daytona was special because it put me on the map internationally, and we should have won Le Mans that year. We were leading with three laps to go, but very close to the end I thought I heard a strange noise in the back of the car and I radioed it in. We had to take about 15 minutes in the pits to establish that it was just a small chip on one of the valves, but we lost the lead. No regret, however, as it was the right thing to do at the time. My best races were when I left Audi to go race for Ford in 1991. By then, the Audis were just too good and it became just too easy to win, and I almost had to fake it to keep the interest of the spectators. In my first race with Ford, I started in eighth position to win. This win was all about the driver, not the car.
PB: Rally or racetrack – who are the real men?
SM: You know, in the 50s and 60s, with drivers like Jim Clark on the racetrack, the drivers were it.
Probably 70-80% of the win could be attributed to their skills. Today, with the Hamiltons and Vettels of the world, their contribution is likely no more than 30%, with big brother in the pit and the technology dictating what happens on the track. It has almost become like a big Scalectrix. The drivers may be earning fortunes, but the risks have been significantly reduced. I call it “sissie racing,” as you can’t really die out there unless you shoot yourself.
So, the real men in my eyes are the rally drivers. At times with a rally, your view is obscured, or you have to contend with an unknown surface. There are no crash barriers, no run-offs. You go through snow high in the Alps. Or look at what Dakar asks of the drivers. But, with track racing, everything is practiced and worked out in advance of the race. You know you brake at 50 metres before a turn. If you brake at 45 metres you die. It is probably the reason why motorsport’s popularity has been in decline. Not enough people are dying anymore.
PB: You never did Dakar…
SM: It wasn’t there in my days, and even today, it takes too much time from the drivers. They probably test and qualify for six months of the year and that makes it very difficult to take on any other contract with manufacturers to do other races.
PB: Speaking of death and spectators, have the Portuguese learnt yet how to keep their spectators out of the way?
SM: Look, rallies in Portugal are sheer lunacy. You come flying down the road at 200 km/h and the next minute you have spectators jumping out of the road just in time. They paint their hands and try to splash your car with their colour as you fly through. Sometimes the noise of their slapping your car is so loud that you cannot communicate with your team. I think it was in 1984 that something like 30 spectators got killed in one rally. They must have lots to spare because they have done nothing about spectator safety since.
PB: Has Portugal had great drivers then, or from where does all the passion come?
SM: No. It is probably because nothing else ever happens in Portugal!
PB: What was your most spectacular crash, and have you ever thought, “Now I die?”
SM: It never comes up. If something goes wrong you will be so busy fighting it to the end that you will not even know you are dying. You never think about it then. Afterwards, yes, you realise that you could have died. I have rolled 13 cars in rallies. In 1992 Terry Moss hit my Ford Sapphire in Welkom at what we now know as the Phakisa Freeway at 300 km/h. I broke two of my ribs with my own elbow. And there was the famous crash with Ian Scheckter at Kyalami in 1980 in the Manufacturer’s Challenge Saloon Car championship, when both our cars were completely destroyed.
PB: Crash and burn. You had the same approach to women. And some of them to you, I hear. What was the most direct approach you ever had from a strange woman?
SM: When racing in America, there was this 81-year-old sponsor of an event with this gorgeous 30-something year old wife. He had to go to sleep. She just came up to me and said that they had this yacht in the bay and that she would meet me there. And this was some yacht! One of those where you need 15 people to keep the thing going.
PB: Now, if racing is peppered with interesting women, it is populated even more so by big character drivers. Who are the best drivers you ever competed against, and how do you rate yourself against them?
SM: There were lots of good guys I competed against. Stefan Bellof, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Bob Wollek, Derek Bell, Al Holbert, although I did beat some of their times in some of the races. I was seriously handicapped by the boycotts during the Apartheid years in terms of where I could compete and I could have had a lot of better drives. It was even suggested by some of the manufacturers that I get a different passport and, in retrospect, I probably should have done that. But, thinking that my opportunity as a South African to compete internationally might stop any day, I rather went for the money instead of the best cars, and I often had to compete with inferior equipment at Le Mans, for instance.
PB: Who were the most interesting characters in the racing world, even if not the best drivers?
SM: I surrounded myself with clowns. I appreciate people with a sense of humour, as I have been a shit stirrer of note since my schooldays already when I crashed my mom’s car at the age of 12. My dad also had me locked up in the police cells for a few nights and ignored me for six months after I crashed his imported Porsche 356 Speedster at the age of 15.
Now, Stuck was a complete clown. In a professional sport like this there is a lot of pressure and you need the laughs. Klaus Ludwig was another one. And then the US driver AJ Foyt was a complete lunatic. He didn’t like Andretti and called him a “wog” because he came from Italy. He deliberately tried to take him out in one race and missed! Then there was the NASCAR marshal that made him wait because he accidentally ended up lining up in the rookie line. Foyt was so upset he chased the marshal with his car and tried to run him over.
Look, it can’t be all pain. One must have some fun too. I went to my 40th anniversary reunion at Affies in Pretoria recently. The arseholes from schooldays were still arseholes. They all went to work for the government and got fired by the new government. The rest of us ran out of booze by 3:00am and had to go to a shebeen to continue the party.
PB: You drove for virtually every major manufacturer during your career. Which do you consider the most outstanding car or cars you have driven on rally and on the racetrack?
SM: In 1988 I joined the Porsche team driving one of the Shell-sponsored official-works Porsche 962s and that must be my highlight. It was the start of the electronic era and it was fantastic to be involved. I drove most of the supercars available at different times, and there is much to say about German engineering. It really is one step up from the rest.
PB: You are known to be a great fan though of the plain old American workhorse V8 models?
SM: For raw power and at a cheap price you cannot beat the V8. It is just a lot less complicated.
PB: What cars do you own yourself and do you ever get them out on the road for a quick flip?
SM: I should have kept all my old cars. With this historic thing now becoming so big I would have been worth a fortune. I currently drive a VW Amarok and also a Honda 12 VFR bike. If I could have just one of my old cars, I would choose one of the Le Mans Porsches from roundabout 1987.
PB: In a country where so many people die on the road, why do you piss on the idea of a reduced speed limit?
SM: Can we do another book so I can tell you all about this? It is because the government has no answer to the same question. All they want to do is fine people and it has become a moneymaking scheme. They now even charge people for murder for bad driving. Government has done nothing about the atrocious driving and almost 30% of drivers do not even have licenses. But it also makes it easy, as people just bribe themselves out of trouble. We live in a country where everyone is corrupt, including the President. If you ask for statistics, forget about it because they know it will show how big a problem taxis are. The answer lies in proper driver education. Look at the Autobahn in Germany. You have no speed limit and you can fly because no one will do anything stupid in front of you.
PB: You have been a rebel and a very vocal critic of MotorSport SA. What is your problem with them and where did it start?
SM: They are just there. It is a bloated bureaucracy just feeding on itself. They have done nothing for the sport. Look at what other sport codes have done to secure sponsorships to grow their popularity. Instead MSA takes a cut on all sponsorships in order to pay themselves. In 20 years, they have done no international promotion for our industry. I was a member at some stage and they made sure not to notify me of meetings. There are no more entry-level opportunities for young drivers. The sport has become stagnant and has never been in such a terrible state as right now.
PB: But you and Ian Scheckter are busy setting up an alternative?
SM: Yes, by mid-year we will be rolling-out a stock standard series. Guys with cars starting at 1400 cc’s and which are five years or younger will be able to get out on the rack. The only modification they will need is a roll-bar and seatbelts. Now we can have 50 cars out on the track each weekend, instead of putting down the R4 million odd it requires to import one modified production car and keeping it on the road with expensive mechanics and slicks.
PB: Is it true that smoking in racing cars got banned after race officials at an endurance rally saw you drive by with a cigarette in your mouth?
SM: Ja, that was in the 1983 6-hour race in a standard Golf where I likely got to the park faster than what I was going to drive on the track. It would take me an hour and 40 minutes to finish my tank of petrol so I took along a couple of Pepsis and cigarettes. I was a Rothmans smoker till I quit in August last year. I raced the Camel Series in the US for several years since 1983, and there were only three of us who smoked. We used to get loaded up on all the free cigarettes.
PB: Tell us about the scariest moment you ever experienced in a racing car.
SM: Well, I was hurtling down the track on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in 1984 in complete darkness, as it was 10.30 pm, and travelling at 385 km/h. Ahead was a 90 degree corner and I had to find my mark where I had to hit the brakes and I had no clue where I was. It would have been moer-of-a-interesting if I missed it. Sou seker nou nog geval het. (I would probably still be falling). Luckily I got it right. And then there is Potter’s Pass near East London, where you must hit a nasty turn flat-out, and you really need to motivate yourself to do just that.
PB: Are you holding true to Danielle, whom you met while married?
SM: I met her when I had both a wife and a steady girlfriend. But we have set the record – 20 years straight. She is a good wife. She deserves me!
PB: Well, while being so modest, if you could play god for one day and build the perfect racing driver, apart from the big pair of balls, what would you add into that mix?
SM: Modesty is overrated. I would look for intelligence. Good drivers of the past have been able to see the whole race and think for themselves and about what they and the other drivers will be doing. He would be small, as the game is all about weight. You need physical strength, especially because of the Gs that you pull in the car. Braking can pull as many as 5 to 6 Gs, and you are constantly subjected to Gs of 4 to 4.5 sideways for the whole duration of the race. I used to jog and did push-ups in the hotel room, yet you also get driving fit. At some stage I was racing 42 weekends of the year. As for the perfect personality, I would make the driver a bit abrasive and not interested in the other guys at all. He must have the ability to switch off completely when driving and forget about wives, bankruptcies and so on. Finally, you need serious dedication, which I think holds true for any professional sporting person today.
PB: What is the one one-night stand you regret you never had?
SM: (No hesitation). There was this streetcar race in Durban in 1984 and two women were involved. I went to bed on my own. I have regretted that bitterly ever since.
PB: And the one race you would have still wanted to participate in?
SM: I would always want to do another Le Mans. It is the Wimbledon of racing. And, of course, I never got the chance to do the East African Safari Rally. This was run when I was at the top of my game, yet politics barred me from participating.
PB: You have a new book coming out in April, the fourth month of this year. What is it with you and the number 4? Are you really superstitious?
SM: It’s not superstition. It’s just the way it is. Every time I had a number 4 on my car something bad would happen. There was this rally where the race organisers even switched my number 4 to Roman numerals, and still the rock on which two spectators were standing high up came loose and hit my car when I thought I was clear on my way to a win. At another time, with a number 4 on my car, a jack slipped and went straight through the sump while I was looking in a different direzction. I did not even start that race. And so it goes on…