It’s dangerous and fun and the drivers of these spinning vehicles are addicted to it.
This tarmacked arena in Soweto, South Africa is part of an alternative motorsport scene that has been drawing daring youth, curious neighbours and adrenaline junkies for close to three decades.
To the observer, it looks like the point of it all is to speed, spin and blow up lots of smoke from a car’s rear tyres while occasionally dangling out the door or sunroof.
But to those who take part, it is a way of life.
“We live for it, we wake up in the morning we work on our cars, in the evening we think about when we going to spin again, this is our life, my life is my car, spinning that’s what my life is,” said car spinner, Bradleigh “Skopas” McGregor.
“Spinning is everything to me in terms of the friends, family, support, supporters, fans and all of that, it means a lot to me. I mean, I started when I was 15 years old,” said Rivaldo Schalk.
South Africa’s car spinning goes back to the 80’s when car thieves would escape into the townships at high speeds – partly so they wouldn’t get caught but also because the spinning and screeching provided an adrenaline rush that became a near obsession.
The car of choice has always been the BMW e30, because of its stability and front wheel drive, although other makes like Toyota now make it on to the arena as well.
With time, car spinning has grown into a business – a ticket to watch a show goes for about 7 US dollars.
More so, it is a celebrated cultural phenomenon and an element of pop culture in South Africa, featuring in films and music videos. Spin drivers are considered celebrities.
“Spinning is life. It is culture. It has become a living you know. It’s something that we practice now every Thursday, every weekend. We have even established an office, so spinning is business… you know? Spinning is a niche now even for business people to come and talk to people like us who have got places like Wheelz ‘n Smoke for investment purposes,” said founder and owner of ‘Wheelz ‘n Smoke’ arena, Monde Hashe.
But it also comes with tremendous risk. Skopas, one of the drivers, talks about a stunt gone wrong in 2011 that almost ended his life.
“I fell off the roof, cracked my skull, broke my shoulder, burnt my back. I was in hospital for about six weeks and I was almost dead. But the day I came out of hospital, I carried on spinning and here I am,” he said.
Those that take part consider themselves sportsmen and women but their discipline has struggled to shake off the gangster reputation.
Many see car spinning as a layer for drug dealers and criminals, even though it was officially recognized as an extreme sport in the country 10 years ago.
Organizers say car spinning actually deters young people from crime.
“There is no ways we can smoke drugs when we spin, we practice this sport in the presence of SAPS (South Africa Police Service). There is always police whenever we do events and we fight against crime, drugs and crime and anything that is wrong to you and anyone else,” said Hashe.
“I think it’s a very exciting sport but people see it as a gangster type of thing, but I think it’s a very good thing,” said Vuyelwa Mabhena, a spectator.
“We love the smell, we love the sideways action and we just love the adrenaline of spinning,” said Wayde Walker, another fan.
Car spinning is no doubt a form of self expression for township youth. To help regulate the sport, organizers now insist that drivers are trained and registered before they go into an arena and that emergency medical staff are always present during shows.