Not many people can say that they’ve raced competitively for more than half a century, and on top of that still be in the top rankings. But January 2019 marked local South African racing legend Willie Hepburn’s 54th year of racing. Yes, 54th year.
Many love him, some might hate him, but no one can deny that he’s a beast of a racer and one of the nicest grandpas you’ll ever meet.
A lifetime dedicated to racing sounds like the ultimate petrol-head’s dream, and that rings true for Willie who’s 77 years young this year. Willie began his racing career in 1965 when he entered his 1957 Morris Minor 1000 road car in the Krugersdorp Hill Climb.
At the same time he also became interested in track racing, and at one of the open practice days, before even completing a single lap, he spun out and ended up bending all the wheels on his Morris. This was quite a problem as a big race meet was only a week away.
Willie got the car fixed, but he was too late to qualify so had to start 36th on the grid. Despite that handicap, he ended up winning the race, lapping every car up to second.
Remember, this wasn’t a proper race car – it had no roll cage or anything. How’s that for raw talent?
Willie first got into cars during his mechanic apprenticeship; one of the guys he worked alongside wanted to hot-rod his engine, and that’s where the bug bit. He’s been a privateer racer his entire life, and every car he’s raced over the years he has built and maintained by himself. There’s definitely no rent-a-racer here, just someone with pure passion.
Testament to Willie’s legend status that was earned racing in South Africa, Zimbabwe and even the USA, are comments made by his large fan base on social media.
Willie has also had more press coverage than any other racer I’ve seen, especially in the good ol’ days of newspaper media. Then there are the albums – he has more photos and newspaper cut-outs than most people have family snaps.A Gentleman Racer
Willie has attained this status partly because of his ‘never say die’ attitude in any situation, be it working on or racing his own cars, and because of his willingness to always lend a helpful hand to even his biggest competitors.
He’d rather help and compete against someone than see them fail and win without having some healthy competition. Down and dirty is no problem for this legend.
Along with the hill climbs and circuit stuff, Willie has also competed in oval racing as well as drag racing and top end runs; he’s really done almost everything and done it well. Standard production cars, modified saloon cars, super saloon cars, and classic cars are just some of the classes he’s raced in.
He’s probably raced more cars than most, and these days he loves to race his mad V8 Opel Rekord, which he built in 1989 and has competed with since then. I’ll be doing a full feature on this magnificent historic machine soon, so keep an eye out.
Willie’s circuit racing career really took off in 1975 when he competed in a standard production Mazda RX-2 and consistently finished on the podium. He also raced a Capella and an RX-7 which he dominated in, winning multiple regional championships.
But the car that really put Willie on the map as a builder and racer was his Ford Sierra XR8, nicknamed The Animal. He won the national Wesbank Modified V8 championship many times in this car, and it was always a fan favourite because it was so loud, fast, and totally in your face.
Another monster of a car was Willie’s brutish 1982 Chevrolet SS, which he won the Star championship with. The original car isn’t around anymore, but Willie has actually bought an SS and is busy restoring it to his old race machine’s exact specification.
Throughout the years Willie has raced so many other epic cars, both his own and others he was invited to drive. These included Chevrolet Camaros, Corvettes, an Opel Superboss, and even the Roger Penske 68’ Camaro.
He was also invited to race Roy Cohen’s McLaren M8C in Seattle where he literally got off the plane, got on the grid, and placed 5th. The next two days there were two more races which he took victory in.
As I mentioned earlier, the Opel Rekord is the car Willie still races today. Under the hood is a normally aspirated Chevy 350ci V8 stroked to 383 cubic inches, with Wesbank-spec heads and a single 4-barrel carburettor, all good for 600hp. Oh and it’s got no driver assistance systems at all, not even power steering.
Willie likes to really drive a car and be totally in control, and it’s a quite a thing to see and experience.
He even holds the South African land speed record for a road legal car. Set in 1990 on an unopened highway with his Pontiac Trans-Am powered by a twin turbo 427ci V8 motor, Willie achieved 372.401km/h (232.75mph). Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that this was done on standard Goodyear road tires.
Nowadays, Willie doesn’t compete in historic racing with his Rekord, simply because it was deemed too fast. He regularly competes in hill climb and time attack events though, often placing in the top 10.
In the international Knysna Hill Climb event he races his car against 1,000hp Nissan GT-Rs and other heavily modified machines, and still gives them a damn hard time. Of course, all the while he’s having the time of his life and entertaining the crowds in the process.
When it comes to awards, you can see that Willie has no shortage of those, with trophies and achievements scattered all over every part of his house. These include the State President’s Award in 1980, the Normal Poulter’s Sportsman of the Year award in 2016, the Lifetime Achievement award in 2014, as well as the Midvaal Spectators’ Favourite Driver award in the same year.
In 2008, he became the oldest driver, at 65, to win a national championship in his Chevrolet Corvette.
On the day I went to visit Willie, I found him working on customers’ cars, greeting me with a big smile and his usual sincerity. Yes, he’s still building not just his own cars, but cars for others, too. He recently completed a crazy-fast V8 Ford Capri and Chevy Can-Am that both raced at the Passion For Speed festival, and he’s currently busy restoring a very special Ford Capri Perana V8.
If Willie had to write a book about his endless knowledge, racing experience and many spectacular stories, it would surely be a best seller amongst petrol-heads. But I’m not sure even a book has enough pages to contain more than 50 years of racing.
Willie has definitely had a life well lived.Cutting Room Floor