Kings of Spin
Squealing rubber, locked in a violent battle with tarmac, sends thick plumes of potent, throat-burning smoke into the cool Highveld air. At first, it’s nigh-on impossible to see what’s causing the ferocious noise. The growling V8 – an engine upgrade – beneath the hood is accompanied by wolf-whistles and loud cheers, adding to the raw energy of the moment. It’s a visceral, pungent, dizzying explosion of speed and sound. Welcome to South Africa’s spinning scene, bra…
As the smoke lifts, the spinning BMW 3-Series – the box-shaped kind, as made in the ’80s and early ’90s – becomes visible again. In and around the car are four occupants: Bradleigh “Skopas” McGregor is behind the wheel, and Mckeenan “Troubles” du Plessis hangs out of the rear window, while Riaaz “Rizzo” Davies hangs out the back window, his fist clenched and pumping the air, psyching the crowd. The fourth member of this motley crew, Anele “Muzi” Mbuqe, sits on the roof of the car, his long dreadlocks matching the vehicle’s movements.
Next thing, three of them, including Skopas, are hanging out of the windows on the driver’s side by their legs, the tops of their heads mere centimetres from the ground. In fact, they’re so close that the thick gold chain Skopas wears around his neck is throwing bright yellow sparks as it drags along the tarmac. This trick is known as a “suicide slide” – a fitting name, for sure.
Skopas, Troubles, Rizzo and Muzi are members of a spinning crew named Bad Company, who show their skills at events all over the country. Tonight, they’re burning rubber at Wheelz N Smoke, a bespoke spinning arena in the south of Johannesburg. The crew, who – quite rightly – consider themselves athletes, are fighting a stigma against their sport that has endured for more than 30 years.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, thugs would steal these cars and take them into the townships,” explains Skopas. “From ’83 onwards, that’s when the box-shaped BMW came out. They would spin, spin, spin. And if someone died, they would line these cars up and burn them all. As time went on, people would say, ‘Hey, man, we like this thing, this spinning.’ It was primarily out of Soweto, especially in the early days. It was a trend.”
In the townships of South Africa, pre-1993 3-Series BMWs became known as gusheshes, and those who drove and spun them were celebrity heroes. Gusheshes became notorious over the decades, having been used as the getaway car of choice in many a heist and robbery.
Often, before these illegally used vehicles got destroyed, they would first be spun to within an inch of their lives on the dusty streets, with people streaming out of their homes to cheer on the commotion.
“Even today, if you go to the township and start spinning, within minutes there will be hundreds, even thousands of people coming out to see what’s happening,” says Skopas.
The cult of the gusheshe has infiltrated all aspects of South African popular culture and featured in movies, TV shows and music videos; rappers AKA, Cassper Nyovest and Sheen Skaiz have all had hit tunes referencing the sport.
Today, this cultural phenomenon is so much more than a gangster’s pastime, and venues like Wheelz N Smoke are fighting for spinning to be recognised, sponsored and regulated. Its owner is Monde Hashe, a land surveyor by profession, and a spinner himself. He’s not here at Wheelz N Smoke tonight; instead, marketing man Nduzo Ngwenya is keeping an eye on things.
“This is just the beginning,” he explains. “We want to develop the sport, bring in sponsors, have bigger events. We don’t always get the exposure we deserve, especially from the local media. The foreign guys come here and are amazed – they’re out there, telling our stories.”
Wheelz N Smoke is one of around a dozen spinning arenas in Gauteng, South Africa’s most densely populated province. Speaking to those involved with the sport, one gets the impression that currently there’s more jostling for domination than any kind of co-operation.
“It’s true,” says Ngwenya. “But it’s so small, still a fringe sport. That’s just the way it often is with these kinds of things in the beginning.” While it’s now recognised by Motorsport South Africa, spinning is still battling for a proper, unified identity. “But I don’t see us all coming together and having a governing body,” muses Skopas. “There’s just too much politics,” Rizzo adds.
As the sun sets over the Highveld, the crowd rock up in their thousands; some arrived hours earlier to ensure they got a good viewing spot. The excitement is palpable: there hasn’t been any spinning for a few weeks, due to flash floods. The smell of dagga fills the air. A kid of around three years old plays with his draadkar (wire car) on the arena tarmac, his dad egging him on. A guy is doing a dance as the crowd eagerly clap along to the beat of the music. The DJ drops a fat bassline as another BMW, bearing the name “Sparky” and filled with its own bunch of tricksters, starts tearing it up – literally – on the tarmac. The pile of totally shredded tyres grows ever bigger – over a hundred, easily.
Wheelz N Smoke provides the spinners with free fuel and second-hand tyres that they can drive to absolute ruin – and they do. Tyres get completely burnt out, and no car leaves the tarmac without its back wheels spinning on their rims. And the whole thing is lapped up by the crowd, which comprises a huge cross-section of South African society. Black, white, coloured and Indian, young and old, male and female: they’re all here, getting into a frenzy; all unmistakably petrolheads.
There are close to 15 cars on display tonight; some only make the occasional appearance on the tarmac, while others perform numerous runs. Informal pit crews are scattered around the open car park, peering under hoods and hoping their magic touch will bring the engine back to life for another dizzying run.
Earlier in the day, at his suburban home in Edenvale in the east of Johannesburg, Skopas changes his shirt, revealing some nasty scarring on his back. “This is what spinning does,” he says. “I landed under the car five years ago.” He started spinning with a Golf in 2007 and then began “properly”, as he puts it, with BMWs in 2010. His is a tale of finding your identity in this madcap sport.
“I learned how to spin on street corners, being chased by cops,” Skopas explains. “Getting arrested by cops. I learned to spin in a place called Vosloorus [a large township in the south-east of Johannesburg],” he explains.
He moved to Joburg from the small coastal city of East London in the Eastern Cape to live with his father. He didn’t know anyone up in the big city and didn’t have any friends. Unusually for a white kid, he started hanging out at the minibus taxi ranks and making friends there.
“Because of that, I grew up in Soweto. I was driving taxis as a teenager. I speak Zulu, I speak Sotho, I speak everything. I grew up in the townships and made it my decision to learn the language.”
More than 20 years after the end of apartheid and South Africa’s subsequent transition into a multiracial democracy, it’s still relatively unusual for whites to speak the indigenous African languages: English is the lingua franca; the language in which virtually all business is conducted.
Skopas’ heroes were people like the late Sibusiso “Terminator” Mthimunye – known as the “King of Spin” – who he cites as his role model, and fellow spinning pioneer Eric Maswaya. These guys, along with others like them, are household names in these communities, where the sport has long reached cult status. Skopas vividly remembers the first time he saw them spin on street corners in the townships.
Terminator passed away in 2012.
“He taught me everything I know; he’s the reason that I got a grip on spinning,” says Skopas. “He died in an accident on the way back from a spinning event in Nelspruit. We were coming back when he had a blowout, went onto the grass and got flung 100m from the car.”
“He’s a legend, the greatest spinner ever,” continues Skopas, pointing to the poster of his fallen friend that hangs on his wall. “To this day, his is the biggest funeral I’ve ever seen. Townships were shut down, and there was 15 kays of traffic heading into Kwa-Temba, which is where he was from.”
Behind the bar at Wheelz N Smoke later that day, I spot a guy whose shirt pays homage to another spinner who has passed away. It seems that this sport has had its share of fallen heroes.“I’ve been to Swaziland for at least a hundred shows so far,” Skopas reveals. “I’ve been to Botswana, Namibia, Dundee, Madadeni, Vryheid, Durban, Kimberley, Kuruman, Bloemfontein…”
The ultimate goal for Skopas and his fellow spinners is to be able to do these kinds of exhibitions all over the world. But, to do that, the sport will first have to decide exactly what it is. There’s no scoring system and no race against the clock: this is freestyle drifting, plain and simple, although it actually pre-dates drifting. It’s about doing the wildest tricks at the highest possible speed.
There are distinct types of drivers, too. On one side, there are the guys who get out there purely to spin and drift the car; those who are trying to get as tight to the safety barricades as is humanely possible with their out-of-control tails.
These guys aren’t satisfied unless the spectators, who are sitting with their legs dangling over those barricades, have to rapidly lift them out of the way in order for the back end of the Beemer to sear past without them losing a limb. On the other side are those who are more into doing their tricks outside the confines of the car. These are the drivers, co-pilots and tricksters who, like Bad Company, leap out of and onto the car while it’s spinning.
In Skopas’ opinion, these are the entertainers. “There are forms of what we do all over the world – there are burnouts in America and various forms of drifting all over – but nothing is quite like we do it. What person in their right mind is going to jump out of a car window and do tricks while it’s spinning?”
Another of these entertainers is Stacey-Lee May, a seemingly timid 20-year-old student in corporate law and finance from Eldorado Park, near Soweto. She’s one of the very few women in spinning – the only one at Wheelz N Smoke this evening – and her pink Beemer stands out from the other cars.
Her support crew are her family: mum, dad, brother, brother’s friend, sister, sister’s boyfriend and her own boyfriend – they’re all here. They run around getting and changing tyres, and loading the vehicle on and off her trailer.
“They swear a lot here,” May giggles innocently. “It’s my hobby and my sport, and there aren’t a lot of females involved. I want to be involved in something that’s unique, and spinning is unique.“
“About two years ago, my dad’s friend asked him if they could borrow me to come and spin,” May recalls. Luckily for the young girl, her father said yes. “It was like a bug that bit me, and I’ve been spinning ever since,” she adds. “I love it – it’s different, it gives me a different feeling, it’s an adrenalin rush.”
Like Skopas, May considers the stunts to be a big part of the sport, helping to keep up the interest level. “It keeps the crowd on their toes,” she says. “They don’t know what’s going to happen next – it’s just amazing. “I enjoy interacting with the crowd,” she adds, “though I’m also a very shy person and I don’t really see the crowd when I’m spinning; I’m just being myself. But when I get out of the car and people are coming up to me and taking pictures, I actually enjoy that. I’m definitely becoming more open as a person.”
The sport has had a more profound effect on her confidence, too, she says. “When I was in high school, I was a nerd, and people used to walk all over me and push me around. Now people don’t get that chance. If you tell me something wrong, I’m going to tell you back. That’s how I am now.
There’s a theme among all these young daredevils: the need for acceptance. Spinning has become an outlet for these youngsters – kids who have lived tough lives, who couldn’t make friends, or who were previously too meek to stand up for themselves.
“This sport used to be associated with gangsterism,” says May, “and people would say that spinners steal people’s cars, but look at me: I’m not even capable of stealing a car. I’m here to help people see that spinning isn’t about gangsterism; it’s just a sport, and we’re trying to make a name for ourselves.”