As an automotive journalist, I’ve learnt to play it cool. I take even the most impressive things right in my stride, outwardly doing little more than cocking an eyebrow, never mind what’s going on around me at the time. As such I can comfortably slide behind the wheel of, let’s say, a Nissan GT-R on Suzuka, and make it look like nothing more exciting than sitting down for Sunday lunch in my own home.
I could probably ride the space shuttle into outer space, with nothing more than a beatific smile on my face – not because I don’t feel anything inside. But because us motoring journalists would like the world to believe that we’ve seen it all, driven it all and done it all. We are apex motorists, after all, the great white sharks of the automotive industry.
But the other day, something happened that shook my cool right to its core. For the briefest moment, my game face slipped. My mask cracked and my true emotions were bared for all to see. Before I could stop myself, an involuntary ‘oh good lord’ escaped from my lips, and my cheeks flushed bright red. Not so much because it was murderously cold outside the Race! workshop in Barbeque Downs near Kyalami, but because of the three beasts parked there – ready for me to drive them on the iconic new race track around the corner. Me. Drive. Them. Madness.
But before we get to the driving, let’s backtrack just a bit. To the early days of Race! – back when the company’s slightly flamboyant owner, Marco Casciani, realised there was a need for specialised motorcycle parts and modifications in South Africa. ‘In those days, there simply weren’t any options for proper modifications available to the South African motorbike community,’ says Marco. And he should know: As a former racer, he was exposed to global trends, and quickly realised that South Africa was lagging behind international trends.
The result was an exciting new venture, initially aimed solely at an all-new market: The affluent bike owner who felt that his or her blade needed that little something extra. Marco used his extensive global network to source some of the most exclusive parts on the planet, and opened up a whole new world to South African bikers.
‘The plan wasn’t really to do car mods in the beginning,’ continues Marco. ‘We were aiming at bikes – mods, accessories, clothing and so on – but then I realised that the motoring community could benefit from the same type of service.’
And so Race! grew into a different beast entirely. Oh, it still caters for the bikers, but these days the workshop and showroom is a veritable candy store for petrol heads. If you’re ever in the area, just pop in, have a coffee, say hello and pick your jaw up from the floor. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches… And not in standard trim either. At Race! almost nothing is as it seems. Call it the Diagon Alley of South African motoring, where Marco and his crew weave their magic.
And what magic they weaved in the three mad machines set aside for me to sample! In actual fact, there were four cars to drive, but one of them was so fresh that it was still being completed when I arrived – it joined us at Kyalami a bit later in the morning.
All four vehicles were heavily modded. From the outside, the most obvious change was the addition of a Liberty Walk package on each. Liberty Walk. A name that has become synonymous with madness – in a good way. The designs and body panels come, quite unsurprisingly really, from Japan, home of some of the most extreme vehicle modifications on the face of the planet. And Liberty Walk fits right in.
The name is a direct translation of ‘being free’ or freedom, and Liberty cars are generally made for posing, much more than driving. They are the catwalk models of the motoring world: Lovely to look at, but actually enjoying one? No chance. The reason is that Liberty Walk’s focus is purely on aesthetics, with drivability taking a backseat.
‘Traditionally, Liberty Walk and other, similar mods, drop the cars so low to the ground that they need suspension systems than can be raised and lowered, just to get around. These systems aren’t conducive to proper handling,’ explains Marco.
At Race! the emphasis has shifted: ‘We build performance cars first and foremost – cars that look like this need to not only be fast, but they also need to handle like proper race cars.’
Marco talks passionately about his creations. Each of them is an entirely unique car, built to a customer’s specifications, with Marco’s magic touch. The Italian-South African is fiery when it comes to the details, and no punches were pulled when he specced the cars I was about to experience. As a matter of fact, one of them – the Ferrari 458 – belongs to Marco himself, and he’s been absolutely meticulous with its construction.
And so, with my breathing turning the early Highveld air into miniature clouds, I started circling the cars. Closest to me was the Nissan GT-R R35 LB – LB for Liberty – an intimidating machine even in standard trim, this monster was clearly from a different planet. Scoops, wings, pipes… Everything screamed power, and despite my practiced cool, I have to admit that I was slightly intimidated. Intimidated, that is, until Marco threw its keys at me and casually said: ‘Will you drive this one to the track for us please?’
And so I unlocked someone else’s multi-million-rand vehicle and slid behind its wheel. First impression? There had clearly been an accident in its interior, because it looked like someone had flung a carbonfibre hand grenade inside and closed the doors. The rear seats, centre speaker panel, centre gauge panel, steering column surround, gearshift trim, door sills and even the door handles are all Seibon carbon. Not carbon covered – actual, lightweight, beautifully woven carbonfibre. Simply gorgeous.
Then, as I prepared to shuttle the GT-R to the track, Marco leaned in through the open window and gave me some warnings: ‘Firstly, don’t boost it. This thing has way more than 1000bhp (746kW) so if you goose it at the wrong moment, things might go a bit pear-shaped. Also, please raise the body when you get to the section under Kyalami’s new bridge.’
The lift kit on this machine comes from KW and it is completely customized by Race!. Not only can it lift the entire vehicle at the press of a button, but it retains unbelievably fine control and suspension, making the GT-R not only practical in terms of speed bumps and other obstacles, but also a true beast on the track.
And so on to Kyalami. No boost. Not even a slight goose of the throttle. Just a surprisingly soft and supple ride, all the way to the track. At normal speeds, the GT-R drives just like a GT-R. And despite the carbon, everything feels familiar – indicator stalk, gear lever, pedals. Nothing weird.
At the track the first hour or two belongs to photographer Henrie Snyman. He has us position the cars for his shots, while his assistant runs around with a portable flash, strobing away at the cars. Next to ‘my’ GT-R in the line-up is Marco’s Ferrari 458. The car’s colour has been changed to pure white, with a black roof. The Liberty Walk kit is slightly subtler on the Italian stallion, but the overall picture is just as striking. Wheels by Forgiato, tyres by Pirelli… The interior features custom Alcantara, together with a dab of paint to match the exterior. It is a thing of beauty, and maybe the purest of the three cars on the track.
The last car is a Porsche 997 Turbo S, in striking Miami Blue. It sports a big wing Liberty Walk body kit, wheels by HRE, Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, carbon door mirrors and a custom sticker set. And it looks mean as cat shit. Ready to tackle a Porsche Cup race, especially with the roll cage that has also been fitted. This mad thing has been fitted with Evolution Motor Sports Turbos, an EVOMS intercooler, a custom plenum chamber and Y-pipe, new software and an eye-catching custom titanium Armytrix exhaust pipe with remote-controlled valvetronic.
‘But the Porsche’s suspension needs more work,’ explains Marco. ‘It isn’t fully sorted yet, so let’s keep it parked if you don’t mind.’ Luckily I have that game face, so I didn’t let my disappointment show. Instead, I rubbed my hands in glee, at the prospect of giving the GT-R the berries around Kyalami.
Unlike my pedestrian drive to the track, I was given free reign once the shots were done. Or almost free reign, anyway; Marco didn’t let the car out of his sight – he installed himself in the passenger seat and talked me through every corner, every gearshift, every turn of the wheel. And it was just as well.
The GT-R in question runs on either unleaded petrol or ethanol, and there was ethanol sloshing about in the car’s tank that morning. I lined up at the end of the new straight, not for any reason other than that was our final shooting location for the morning, and all the cars were parked there anyway. First gear came and went without incident since I short-shifted into the first, gentle right-hander. Then it was time to crank the wheel over for the left-hander onto the old main straight, before planting my boot in the corner.
Beelzebub was unleashed under the bonnet, while I tried to keep up with the revs and the banshee riding shotgun. Marco egged me on with Italian passion: ‘Third, go for third!’ and then ‘Watch the numbers, look at the numbers!’
I glanced down at the speedo and saw the needle shoot up towards 200kph just metres from the entry into Sunset. That long right-hander that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Too fast. Way too fast. I clamp on some brakes, but then I’m forced to turn in. I goose the throttle to keep the machine pointing in the right direction, but then we’re at the top of the bend and it’s time to hit the brakes again for the 90-degree left. The short straight has never felt so short, and I’m hard on the brakes again before snaking into the esses. On the power up the hill to the old Wesbank corner, and then back on the big brakes again before taking on the mineshaft.
To be accurate, the entire lap was a bit of a blur. Corner after corner, the big Nissan – if you can still call it that – never ceased to amaze me. It had so much power that it was a bastard to drive, no doubt about that. But at the same time the suspension was sorted to the point where the car never felt like it was going out of control – even though my heart rate wasn’t ever near comfortable levels. Scary but rewarding, and that in a car that looks even better than it goes. And that’s saying something in this case.
After the madness of the GT-R, it was time to sample Marco’s Ferrari 458. Still shaking from the experience of the Nissan, I slid behind the wheel of the stunning 458, with its owner settling in beside me. Before we even set off, he talks me through the car: ‘This is very different. Compared to the GT-R, this is a slow machine. It doesn’t have even half the power, but give it a whirl and you’ll see why I love it so much.’
And so I do. This time it feels like I’m a surgeon, wielding a scalpel around a supermodel’s body. The Ferrari is glued to the track, it’s Armytrix exhaust and BMC filters doing just enough to make it feel and sound special – but without the manic thrust of the GT-R. This is a supremely balanced machine, capable of exciting and rewarding its driver in equal amounts. There’s none of the fireworks from the GT-R, but if I had to choose, I’d probably rather have the slower, tamer, but much more purist 458, thanks.
Not that I’m given a choice. As soon as I complete my laps in the Ferrari, it is time to head back to Race!. Marco marshals the troops, and we convoy back to the workshop at a crawl – a rather boring way to end one of the most exciting days of my long motoring career.
Back at the workshop we all shake hands, and smack each other on the back. A job well done, and no exclusive machinery dented or bent in the process, despite my lack of skill behind the wheel. And then it was back to the mundane as I stepped into my long-term Kia Sorento and headed for my next appointment…
But before I left Race! I had one more look around the place. By now it was bustling with activity, as I strolled past wonder after wonder, shaking my head at the magic that lives just around the corner from Kyalami. As I joined the N1 at Allandale, I was left with an overriding impression that I had experienced the zenith that morning. The absolute peak of modern modified road cars.
Sure, the Liberty Walk kits are incredible. And the thought of someone slicing away at a supercar in order to fit a body kit is the stuff of nightmares. But then the reality is that the LB kits make these machines even more special. More exclusive than they already are. And if you’re going to go that far, you might as well go the entire hog, and modify the crap out of it all.
The results that Marco and his team achieve are simply astounding. These cars look like a million bucks (US dollars, I mean) and they go like the clappers. What more could you possibly want, especially if you have a bit of spare cash to play with, and you drink high octane unleaded rather than wine…
Need to know
LW Ferrari 458
Engine 4.5-litre V8, 438kW, 590Nm, Performance 3.4sec 0-100kph, 11.3sec 0-400m
LW Nissan GT-R
Engine 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6, 782kW, 1288Nm, Performance 2.6sec 0-100kph, 9sec 0-400m
LW Porsche 911 Turbo S
Engine 3.8-litre twin-turbo flar six, 523kW, 965Nm, Performance 206sec 0-100kph, 10.7sec 0-400m