Willie Nel, the drag racing legend, has more trophies than an actual trophy store, even though he recently gave about a hundred or so to a charity that was looking for some. He first hit the track in 1984 in a Camaro, and this Can-Am is the fourth that he’s owned. When he isn’t drag racing, he spends his time renovating cars and is currently working on an F100, a Chevrolet Apache and a 1968 Ford Mustang.

One look at the inside of this car and you realise that no potential crook in his right mind would attempt to steal it. It is peppered with an array of switches and dials that have the potential to cause some serious malfunction, should the wrong switch be chosen. Even the gearbox has been modified to assist its drag racing capabilities, acting in the reverse sequence of usual transmissions.

Besides, to get back into first gear the car has come to a complete stop. It looks like the sort of vehicle that would require a pilot’s licence to operate, or at least understand. Willie bought his ’73 Can-Am (number 61 of 100 produced) back in 1987. It had a few dents at the time and he had these sorted at Italian Panel Beaters in Johannesburg using lead. Willie says that few people nowadays are able to offer this particular method of dent repair, but it has a distinct advantage over filler, in that it doesn’t bubble up like conventional body putty.

He uses Afgas, (an 80 litre fuel mix instead of the usual 200 litres, otherwise it’ll “pink”) and uses the 2-stage Nitro from the start. At full throttle a switch goes on which sends a signal to the ignition and keeps it there until he reaches 4 200 rpm. He launches at 4 000 rpm with the first stage at 4 200 rpm; the second stage is at 4 600 rpm and after that he says you just have to hold on. Willie said there was no way he could give me a display in the street as it would just go up in smoke. I was relieved, although I did experience a tiny fraction of fully legal acceleration later on and if I could’ve looked in the rear-view mirror I’m sure I would have seen my stomach sitting on the back seat. The motorsport rules are very strict, governing behaviour both on and off the track and thankfully (for me) Willie is very careful about adhering to them.

He has built a car that is easy to work on, where he can remove the engine without removing the gearbox and vice versa. The engine still sits in its original position; he simply straightened its angle and knocked the firewall in by about 10mm. He says he can take the motor out with his eyes closed in the middle of the night. The engine that powers this beast is a Chevy 6.6 litre 400 bored to 408 cubic inches with Hurricane intake, Carrillo rods, steel crank, roller cam, JE pistons, Speed-Pro rings, Crane cam (full roller), roller lifters, Rev kit, AFR head and Competition cam. The diff is a Strange 3rd member unit with Richmond gears and Moser side shafts and a full spool. During a quarter mile run, including the burnout and return trip (just over a kilometre) it goes through an unbelievable 2.5 litres of fuel. It is so thirsty that the carburettor has no air filter – it needs to suck in as much air as it can. The branches and 77mm stainless steel exhaust system were made by TNT Exhausts in Johannesburg.

The Can-Am was sprayed calypso red in 1990. Willie saw the colour on a BMW and immediately phoned the workshop where his Can-Am was about to be sprayed and told them to hold off until he found out about the colour. An hour later he let them know what colour it was, but after three days they couldn’t find any. They had to approach the BMW factory in Pretoria where they mixed seven litres for him. Willie’s favourite race experience was in October 2000 when he again had a chance to race against a Smith Wheels rail driven by Stan Hubsch. They had previously encountered one another back in 1992 when Stan dialled in at 9.5 with Willie 0.7 of a second behind at 10.2. He said that Stan should wait, that he would beat him one day.

That opportunity came around eight years later when Willie outdid him in a bracket race, achieving a personal best of 9.941 seconds for the quarter mile, while Hubsch achieved his own personal best of 8.9 seconds. In December last year Willie bettered his own PB with a 9.8. I asked Willie if he would ever sell it, and he said he’s been offered quite a sum of money for it before. A lady at the track wanted to buy it and he said no, it’s going to his grandchildren.

She insisted and Willie gave a price which he thought would put her off. He had been through this scene many times, so he was surprised to see her again the following week. She had the cash in an attaché case, but it still didn’t change his mind. Willie wants to say thanks to his wife Louise, Darryl (pit man), Marlize (daughter), Gavin (son-in-law), Shaun (grandson) and Michelle (daughter-in-law) for all their support. And he wants to extend a special thanks to his mascot, his eightyear- old granddaughter Eva, who has already laid claim to the Can-Am and is getting a head start with her own collection of Willie’s trophies.