Basil van Rooyen, born on April 19, 1939, was a multifaceted South African racing driver, inventor, and engineer who left an indelible mark on the world of motorsports. His illustrious career spanned various racing disciplines, from motorcycles to Formula 1, and he was also known for his innovative contributions to the automotive industry.
A Passion for Racing Begins
Van Rooyen’s journey into the world of motorsports began in 1957 when, at the age of 18, he started racing motorcycles at the Grand Central track near Johannesburg. His natural talent and passion for racing quickly became evident, setting the stage for a remarkable career.
Sprint Racing Success
His early success came in the form of sprint racing, where he modified homegrown vehicles like the Ford Anglia 105E and achieved numerous class wins and overall victories on the newly inaugurated Kyalami Racetrack in the early 1960s. He later upgraded to a Cortina 1200cc in 1963.
In 1964, Ford Motor Company SA recognized his talent and donated two Lotus Cortinas to the most successful SA Ford racers. This gesture propelled van Rooyen into the national spotlight. Initially, he faced tough competition from Koos Swanepoel, but in 1965, van Rooyen’s development skills and racing prowess began to shine, and he consistently dominated the races.
Transition to Saloon Car Championship
The SA Saloon Car Championship became immensely popular among race fans, and in 1966, Ford SA took notice and presented both van Rooyen and Willie Meissner with Ford Mustang V8s. Van Rooyen’s exceptional skills behind the wheel allowed him to secure victory in the 1966 and 1967 SA Saloon car championships.
Venturing into Single Seaters and Formula 1
In 1968, van Rooyen made a bold move by participating in the South African Grand Prix, where he raced against world champions in the Cooper Climax. His performance impressed many, and he subsequently imported a Brabham for the remainder of the 1968 season, followed by a McLaren in 1969. During this time, he achieved three F1 wins.
However, a serious accident during tire testing on the Kyalami straight in 1969 led to the destruction of his car and a need for recuperation. Despite his impressive performance in F1, a potential engagement with Ken Tyrrell’s team was no longer feasible due to his injuries.
Continued Success in Other Racing Disciplines
Van Rooyen’s racing career continued to flourish in various categories. In 1970, he won the Onyx Production Car Championship in an Alfa GTV, showcasing his adaptability and skill in different vehicles.
In 1971, he ventured into Formula 5000 racing, finishing third in his first outing and proving that his passion for racing remained undiminished.
Innovation Beyond the Racetrack
Van Rooyen’s contributions weren’t limited to racing; he was also an inventive engineer. He developed several innovations, including an automatic swimming pool cleaner called the Twister, which was patented and highly successful. He also devised a safety device for Formula 1 cars to prevent throttle jams by cutting power to the ignition during excessive brake pressure.
One of his most promising innovations was the CITS two-stroke power unit, designed to reduce fuel consumption, meet emissions regulations, and improve torque and power in internal combustion engines.
Personal Life and Legacy
In later life, Basil van Rooyen faced health challenges, including a diagnosis of mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure. He passed away on September 14, 2023, in New South Wales, Australia, at the age of 84.
Basil van Rooyen’s legacy extends beyond his remarkable racing career. He was a pioneer, both on the racetrack and in the realm of automotive innovation. His versatility, determination, and enduring passion for motorsports continue to inspire racing enthusiasts and engineers alike, ensuring his place in the annals of motorsport history.