Words by Justus Visagie. Pictures by Martin de Kock.
Does the reigning Class T off-road racing champ have a secret weapon? Does he have bionic strength and vision like Die man van Staal? Or was he just born with a carbon-fibre spoon in his mouth? SA4x4 catches up with Jason Venter as he ponders his next move
At the ripe old age of 23, Jason Venter became the youngest ever national off-road champion when he won Class T in his 4×4 Megaworld racing Hilux last year. As with any conquest by a particularly young athlete, the formula of his success begs analysis.
Asked if Jason has a secret weapon of some kind, off-road driving specialist and TV presenter Bernie Williams says simply, “His secret weapon is Anthony Taylor”.
Anthony is a well-known and battlehardened member of the Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa team with an overstocked trophy cabinet. Naturally, Anthony didn’t drive on Jason’s behalf, or sit next to him as co-pilot. Rather, he became Jason’s mentor.
This came about when Team 4×4 Megaworld acquired its Racing Hilux from the Aladdin’s cave that is Hallspeed – legendary car builder Glyn Hall’s workshop. This Hilux, which used to have Giniel de Villiers at the helm, doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. Anthony, who was the reigning Class T champion, agreed to show Jason, who was just out of his teens, how to pilot the ultra-sophisticated race machine.
“The most valuable skill I learnt from Anthony was left-foot braking,” says Jason. He admits that it took him about three years to master this skill.
Deon Venter, 4×4 Megaworld team manager and Jason’s father, confesses to teaching his son a few bad habits, which Anthony had to uninstall. “I’m a self-taught driver and Jason learnt from me, so it was always gung-ho: into a corner as fast as possible, sideways Sam… and out the other end,” he admits.
This was to be no more. “Anthony taught me to go into a corner fast, brake, and when my foot touched the accelerator again, it had to be flat,” Jason explains. Deon adds: “He taught Jason patience, too; to slowly work through the cars in front.” After some time under Anthony’s tutelage, Jason’s cornering and driving grew calm and smooth.
Anthony wasn’t the only one who encouraged Jason to slow down in order to be faster. Jason’s co-pilot, Vincent van Alleman (33), also had to rein the young man in, especially in slow corners, when Jason was new to the Hallspeed Hilux.
It quickly becomes clear that Vincent, Jason’s navigator in Class E from day one, is another weapon in Team 4×4 Megaworld’s arsenal. “He’s mechanically gifted,” says Deon. “Jason wouldn’t have been as successful if it hadn’t been for Vincent. And he’s like a son to me.”
So, Jason also has a co-pilot who can almost overhaul an engine in the field, with a Leatherman and a roll of duct tape. Of course, this doesn’t mean he can post selfies while Vincent works. Changing a wheel or digging a car out of deep sand is a two-man job, and requires a high level of fitness. “It’s about immediately regaining a state of full concentration when getting back into the car,” Jason explains.
To stay strong and focused, he does Cross-Fit training and rides his mountain bike. A little-known fact is that Jason has represented his country in both rugby and karate and almost left these shores for a rugby scholarship in Australia. But the family is a close-knit one, which is why Jason is reluctant to race overseas – although he might have to.
Fact is, 4×4 Megaworld and the current co-sponsors can’t field the Hilux indefinitely, at a cost of about R2.3m a year. Deon is concerned that – as good a racing driver as his son might be – it won’t guarantee him a seat in a local factory team. If he can go to the US and work his way into the top 20, he can make a living there, Deon remarks. Another option is for Jason to emigrate to Botswana, where he’ll most likely receive different kinds of government- and private sector support.
Like any talented off-road racer, Jason dreams of competing in the Dakar; and he had already qualified in 2015. “I’ll be able to get myself ready, but the financial part is the challenge,” Jason says. “At the time we felt he hadn’t matured enough,” Deon explains. “Also, it’s not affordable for a private company to compete. If we do go, it will be to finish in the top 10. We won’t go just to finish.”
So, is it kick-butt as usual for Team 4×4 Megaworld in 2017? Yes and no. Jason and the team will compete, but there’s another ‘secret weapon’ in the mix: air-conditioning. “The temperature in the cabin goes up to 52 degrees Celsius − enough to melt the sole of a racing boot right off,” Deon says. “Adding air-con can make a two-minute difference over 500km,” he adds. “It helps to prevent dehydration and diminished concentration, plus time and focus lost on sliding the window open and shut, and grabbing the water tube. The weight of the system is not a factor either, because we’ve had to add weight to the car in the past,” Deon elaborates.
While speaking to Anthony and to other off-road racing professionals, a picture emerges of a young Venter who doesn’t realise how good he is. Which is a nice characteristic if you want to charm the bluerinse brigade on bingo night, but unlikely to help you beat the drivers at the very top. So, as his awareness of his abilities increases, the better he’ll become.
“He’s got the speed and he has a very good team behind him – it’s run as well as any factory team,” Anthony says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by off-road ace and Gazoo driver Leeroy Poulter: “It looks like [Jason] is willing to try harder [than the rest]. He has the right level of enthusiasm and he has his family behind him.” About Jason leaving South Africa, Leeroy says, “He has to keep his head down and do well. His time in a factory team will come. It will be better for him to stay in South Africa and push. Seats in local factory teams do become available and drivers retire. That’s how I got in. It does happen.”
Meanwhile, it’s not as if the off-road racing scene is staying static, and 2017 is not going to be any kind of picnic as former rally drivers head over to try their hands at off-road racing.