Motorsport competitors and enthusiasts will fervently tell you that once the racing bug has bitten, it is firmly in your blood. It's certainly hard to beat the adrenaline-fuelled passion for speed, exhilaration, competition and - hopefully - success at the highest level, and explains the legacy of generations of motorsport families intimately involved at every level of the sport. This is certainly true of South African cross country racing, and of the Woolridge family in particular.
Neil Woolridge (60) is a stalwart of the motorsport fraternity in South Africa with an accomplished career spanning more than four decades as a competitor and team owner. His sons Lance (29) and Gareth (26) have both enthusiastically followed in his tyre tracks and are not only integral to the family business, but the two youngsters are multiple race and championship winners in their own rights - they are among the leading drivers in the premier class of the highly competitive South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).
As with many of the biggest and most successful names in motor racing, Neil started on two wheels, having joined the regional motocross circuit in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) in 1977 at the age of 17, winning his first title in the 1981 Natal Enduro Championship after completing his national military service. His first international race was the arduous Roof of Africa in Lesotho, where he finished ninth overall and won his class on a 200 cc machine - a remarkable feat considering most of his competitors were on 500 cc motorcycles.
Despite regularly competing as a self-funded privateer against factory-backed riders, Neil won his second Natal championship in 1982 and took the national enduro title that year and again in 1983. His success continued in 1984, winning the SA Off Road Championship with four wins from six events, including his second victory in the Roof of Africa and taking the honours at the Toyota 1000 International Race in which he defeated international ace Gaston Rahier. He was awarded Springbok Colours and nominated for the State President's Award that year.
Onto the international stage
Neil's talent on two wheels soon became evident overseas too. In 1984 he and fellow South African, Mark Davies, competed together in the Baja 500 in California, finishing fourth overall, as the top-placed foreign competitors and first privateer team. Thereafter Neil went to the Welsh International Two-Day Trial, considered one of the world's premier enduro events. Competing against over 300 top-level competitors, he earned a gold medal and received the award for Most Outstanding Achievement by a foreigner.
In 1985, Neil returned to the Baja 500, this time held in Mexico, with SA rider Roland Geiger. Despite relying on a shoestring budget, the South African pair astonished the Americans by running at the front of the field from the start and they received remarkable support from rival teams and manufacturers. They eventually finished second in the Premier class and were fourth overall.
"During this period I completed my motor technician apprenticeship, and then moved on to work with my father Peter in his Alfa Romeo dealership in Pietermaritzburg for three years," Neil says. "This experience was instrumental in developing my passion for cars. With my dad racing an Austin 7 and later running various teams which included one of Basil Green's iconic Ford Capri Perana V8s, I spent a large part of my youth at the Roy Hesketh circuit in Pietermaritzburg with many of my motorsport heroes, including motorcycle legend Rodney Gray."
A family business
"Working at the dealership I learned all about spares, sales and accounting, and was determined to open my own business," he adds. "In 1991 I purchased a rundown fuel and service station with two workshop bays. I slowly built up the business and was one of the pioneers in Natal to start a 4x4 accessory outlet. We grew so much that I had to buy new premises in the Pietermaritzburg CBD which we own and operate from today."
As a closely-knit family business headed by Neil and supported by his two sons, the facility incorporates a BP fuel station, Neil Woolridge Motors 4x4 Centre for off-road accessories and fitments, and a workshop for servicing and repairs to all makes of vehicles. However, in racing circles locally and internationally, most people will be more familiar with the Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) brand which has been at the front line of cross country racing for nearly three decades.
NWM is the only company in the world authorised by Ford Motor Company's global Ford Performance division to produce the cross country racing Ford Ranger pickup - and it is the team's championship-winning exploits in this arena for which it is internationally renowned. It is also a fully accredited Ford Performance Centre for aftermarket conversions on Ford vehicles. In total, the business employs 45 people across the various divisions.
Turning to four wheels
Neil has enjoyed a long and successful association with cross country racing, moving from motorcycles to cars in the late 1980s. He started by self-funding and building his own vehicles from his garage at home to compete in the regional championship - and he has since received an honorary membership from the Natal Off Road Motor Club.
The big break came in 1997 when he secured a deal with Mitsubishi, which was distributed locally by SAMCOR at the time - the predecessor to Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa (FMCSA). This saw Neil driving a diesel-powered Pajero along with co-driver Paul Vermaak in the national championship, and then fulfilling a lifelong dream of competing in the legendary Dakar Rally in the 1998 Paris-Granada-Dakar edition, with Buks Carolin as co-driver.
"It was my dream to compete in the Dakar Rally, and while I tried to enter the motorcycle category in the 1980s with support from Gaston Rahier, the world motocross champion and winner of the 1984 and 1985 Paris-Dakar Rally, I was barred from doing so due to the Apartheid-era sanctions," Neil explains. The dream eventually came true in 1998, and although a mechanical failure saw the team retire, Woolridge returned home more determined than ever to compete at the pinnacle of the sport.
A new deal the following year saw the team upgrade to the Pajero Evo for the national series, and Neil returned to the Granada-Dakar Rally in 1999 with Kenny Skjoldhammer in the navigator's seat. They finished the 1999 Dakar on the Class T1 podium (the second-tier category) with a superb third place, and became the first South Africans to finish this gruelling event in the car category.
They also went on to claim the South African Production Vehicle championship in 2000 - for which Woolridge was awarded Protea Colours, making him the only person in SA to receive national colours on two and four wheels for cross country racing. Woolridge and Skjoldhammer are both also part of an exclusive club of only three people to have won the Roof of Africa on two and four wheels. Their exceptional results saw a deal being put in place for the pair to join the Japanese manufacturer's factory team that year alongside subsequent Dakar Rally winners Hiroshi Masuoka (2002 and 2003) and Luc Alphand (2006).
Joining the Ford family
This amazing opportunity never came to fruition as the local distribution of the Mitsubishi brand moved to another manufacturer with the establishment of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa, but 2001 was the beginning of a long and successful partnership between NWM and Ford. It started with Neil taking a Ranger straight from the factory floor of Ford's Silverton plant, driving it to Pietermaritzburg to equip it with the obligatory safety equipment and competing in Class E for standard vehicles.
Over the ensuing years Ford and NWM cemented their places in the championship, with Woolridge and Skjoldhammer taking the Super Production (SP) Vehicle title in 2006 and proudly carrying the SP1 race number the following season.
In 2010, NWM pioneered the first diesel vehicle to compete in the top-level SP class of the South African series, continuing with the existing Ford Ranger platform at the time - but powered by a modified version of the Ranger's new 3.2-litre five-cylinder Duratorq TDCi engine. With a customised twin-turbocharged configuration, it churned out over 750Nm of torque and achieved immediate success with Neil and Kenny scoring wins in their final season before hanging up their racing boots in order for Neil to concentrate on the exciting new global Ford Ranger project.
Having already produced 15 Ford Ranger race vehicles up to that point, the launch of the all-new Ranger in 2011 was noteworthy by not only completely shifting the goalposts for the pickup segment, but it signalled a new era for Ford and NWM, as it initiated a contract with Ford Global Product Development in the US.
"We were tasked with designing and building a vehicle capable of competing and winning anywhere in the world, which was an amazing accolade for our small business in Pietermaritzburg," Neil says. "We produced a purpose-built vehicle with tubular chassis and the Mustang 5.0-litre V8 engine to compete in the FIA T1 class, and this set the benchmark for the South African Production Vehicle Championship and cross country racing in general."
Such was the leap in design, technology and capability that in its first race in South Africa in 2013, the new Ranger finished first and second overall - with none other than 21-year-old Lance Woolridge and long-time navigator Ward Huxtable claiming the victory ahead of team-mates Chris Visser and Japie Badenhorst. At the age of 21, this made Lance the youngest driver in SA history to win a national championship cross country race.
Buoyed by the success of the new vehicle, and with assistance from FMCSA, the Ford dealer network and the team's sponsors, NWM set its sights on the 2014 Dakar Rally in Argentina and Chile with a two-car team comprising South Africans Visser and Badenhorst, along with the Argentine pairing of Lucio Alvarez and Ronnie Graue. Unfortunately, Visser and Badenhorst crashed out while tackling their first dune stage, and Alvarez and Graue damaged their suspension early on in the race - but the Argentinians fought back hard and posted a string of top 10 stage times, eventually finishing the punishing 9 300km event in 22nd place overall.
"Running a team in the 2014 Dakar Rally was a real eye-opener for me," Neil explains. "It was extremely expensive. I put in everything I had to go to Dakar, and it very nearly left me bankrupt. In hindsight, we weren't sufficiently prepared and mistakes cost us dearly, but we showed some good pace with the top 10 stage results, which was ultimately a great marketing platform for our vehicle. However, competing at this level requires long-term commitment, plenty of experience over several consecutive years and, of course, a massive budget."
Although the dream of returning to Dakar remains as vibrant as ever, the team has focused its efforts on the domestic series, and building the Ranger for customers around the world. The team's commitment paid off in 2018 when Lance and Ward were crowned Class T Production Vehicle champions. They went on to repeat the feat in 2019 with the Ford Castrol Cross Country Team claiming six of the seven race wins for the year - including overall victory in the second heat of the Botswana 1000 Desert Race - beating the faster full FIA-class entries in the process.
To date, 25 V8-powered Rangers have been built, and compete successfully in the hands of privateer teams around the world. They have racked up race victories and national titles in South Africa, Brazil, Poland, Portugal, Australia, Hungary, Spain and Czech Republic, along with the South American and Central Europe regional championships.
"Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport have a long and proud association spanning 23 years, and the team has done us proud with multiple championships and race wins over the years," says Neale Hill, MD of FMCSA. "Neil, Lance and Gareth, as well as the rest of the NWM team, have become fantastic ambassadors for the Ford and Ford Performance brands, always displaying outstanding professionalism and dedication in everything they do.
"Their innovative spirit clearly embodies Ford's 'Go Further' brand promise, and we look forward to continuing this relationship as partners in the next phase of our motorsport journey together," Hill adds.
A new EcoBoost-powered era
Ford and NWM are pioneering a new era in cross country racing in 2020, having helped guide the formulation of new regulations with the FIA, the world governing body for motorsport, for the introduction of turbocharged petrol engines for the top tier of 4x4 cross country racing.
Ford and NWM will be the first in the world to race a modern turbo-petrol cross country racing vehicle, with the first all-new Ranger currently being built at the team's Pietermaritzburg workshop. Designed in-house with input from Ford Performance in the US and the team's drivetrain, suspension and component partners, it is powered by Ford's exceptional 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6 engine. The new Ranger was due to have already made its debut in the SACCS, but with the build and the 2020 race calendar put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans will have to wait a little longer to see this impressive machine in action. Three examples are scheduled to compete this year, crewed by Lance Woolridge and new co-driver Elvéne Vonk, Gareth Woolridge and Boyd Dreyer, along with reigning Brazilian and South American champions Marcos Baumgart and Kleber Cincea.
"This is an exciting new chapter for the team, as we once again rewrite the rule books for cross country racing," Neil enthuses. "We have combined our years of experience in the successful V8-powered Ranger with the latest technologies to develop a completely new and revolutionary vehicle.
"Our objective is to expand our sales worldwide with the new 3.5 EcoBoost V6 Ranger, and to see it win even more races and championships. Ultimately, our goal is to win the Dakar Rally and the FIA Cross Country World Cup. I believe this is possible thanks to our small but hard-working and extremely dedicated team with its never-say-die attitude, our young and talented drivers, as well as our established supporters, sponsors and partners in South Africa and around the world."