Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport launch Development Team for 2021 SA Cross Country Series

Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport launch Development Team for 2021 SA Cross Country Series
  • Ford South Africa and Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM) have partnered to run a development and empowerment team in the SA Cross Country Series (SACCS) for 2021
  • Ford provided funding of R1-million for the season, with NWM supplying and maintaining the vehicle for the seven-round championship, along with official backing from Motorsport South Africa
  • Driver Wiseman Gumede will make his motorsport debut with the team, alongside KwaZulu-Natal regional rally champion navigator Fanifani Meyiwa
  • Ford NWM Development Team will compete in NWM-built and prepared Class T championship-winning Ford Ranger V8
  • Four-time SACCS co-drivers champion Ward Huxtable joins NWM as Development Team mentor

Ford South Africa and its long-standing motorsport partner, Neil Woolridge Motorsport (NWM), have joined forces for the 2021 season to run a new Development Team in Class T of the South African Cross Country Series (SACCS).

This pioneering new initiative will see Wiseman Gumede (42), a workshop delivery driver for NWM for more than a decade, making his motorsport debut in the driver’s seat of the Ford NWM Development Team entry. He will be joined by Fanifani Meyiwa (43) who has several years of experience as a rally navigator and claimed the 2018 KwaZulu-Natal regional championship. Together they will compete in all seven rounds that make up the 2021 SACCS calendar, commencing with the Dullstroom 400 in Mpumalanga on 26 and 27 March.

“Motorsport is an important component of our brand building for Ford and the locally produced ‘Built Ford Tough’ Ranger, and it also provides the ideal platform to promote diversity and inclusion in what is an expensive and exclusive sport that remains out of reach for most aspirant competitors,” says Neale Hill, MD of Ford South Africa.

“The Ford Neil Woolridge Motorsport Development Team addresses the need to empower a broader range of competitors to participate in motorsport at the highest level, while attracting a more diverse range of fans and spectators to the sport,” Hill adds. “It’s a great project that will generate significant interest as Wiseman and Fanifani embark on their exciting journey into the exciting world of cross country racing.”

The project has the full backing of Motorsport South Africa (MSA) – the country’s official motorsport organising body – which is the project’s fiduciary partner managing the funds.

“Motorsport South Africa is excited to partner with Ford South Africa and Neil Woolridge Motorsport in the initiative that will see a black crew participating in the prestigious South African Cross Country Racing Series,” says Adrian Scholtz, CEO of MSA. “Promoting diversity in motorsport is not only the right thing to do, but it is also essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of South African motorsport. 

“The SACCS is noteworthy for exposing motorsport to people in rural areas, and this particular initiative will undoubtedly create relatable heroes, with the accompanying effect of inspiring youngsters across the racial spectrum to become interested in motorsport,” Scholtz says. “This can only be a good thing for the sport generally, and MSA, therefore, commends Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport on this fantastic new program.”

Gumede and Meyiwa will compete in the SACCS Class T Production Vehicle championship in a 5.0-litre V8-powered Ford Ranger, which was designed and built by Neil Woolridge Motorsport at its facility in Pietermaritzburg. This Ranger V8 is identical to the vehicle that powered Lance Woolridge and co-driver Ward Huxtable to consecutive Class T titles in 2018 and 2019.

As part of its commitment to the Development Team project, NWM will supply, prepare and maintain the race vehicle throughout the year, while also coaching and developing the crew as the season progresses.

“We are excited to see our plan of bringing new competitors, and specifically black African drivers and co-drivers, into cross country racing finally come to fruition,” says Neil Woolridge, NWM team principal. “This is important for the future of the sport, as well as for NWM and Ford as manufacturers, to grow the level of participation and interest to new audiences.

“There has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make this happen, and we appreciate Ford South Africa coming on board as the overall sponsor for this project, which adds an exciting and much-needed new dimension to our motorsport programme with the Ford Ranger,” Woolridge says. “Several of our existing sponsors and partners have extended their involvement to the new Development Team, and we appreciate the support from BF Goodrich Tyres, Castrol, Sparco, Motorsport Technic, Sign Solutions, as well as Motorsport South Africa.

“We hope that this will be the start of a bigger empowerment and development program for the cross country series that will create the platform for more new teams to compete in the future,” he adds.

New challenge

As a newcomer to motorsport, Wiseman Gumede undoubtedly has a lot to learn, but he is over the moon about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I started as a driver at NWM, and now I’m going to be a racing driver,” an elated Gumede says. “I thought it was a joke when Neil Woolridge asked me at the end of last year if I would like to race, but it’s real and I can’t wait to spend more time in this amazing vehicle.

“I’m going to take it easy at the beginning as I have so much to learn about driving and racing the Ranger V8, so my plan is simply to finish the first race and get as much experience as possible,” he adds.

Meyiwa is no less enthusiastic: “I was very excited when Neil called me to discuss joining the team as the co-driver. I’ve always watched these amazing cross country cars racing on TV, and now to be part of the team is a dream come true. Cross country racing is new to me, but I think Wiseman and I will work well in the car together, and our objective will be to finish every race.

“It’s a very good thing to have more black drivers and navigators involved in the sport,” Meyiwa says. “This will create a better understanding of the cross country series and the vehicles competing in the championship, and I think a lot more people will follow the racing.”

To assist the Development Team on their adrenaline-fuelled journey, Neil Woolridge Motorsport has roped in multiple cross country champion Ward Huxtable as the team’s mentor for the season. Huxtable claimed the Class E co-drivers titles in 2006 and 2010, and navigated for Lance Woolridge from 2011 to 2019 – in the process claiming the 2018 and 2019 Class T co-drivers championships.

“We are under no illusions that Wiseman and Fanifani have a very steep learning curve ahead of them, and there are sure to be a couple of tears along the way, so we asked Ward to join us as the team’s mentor,” Woolridge says. “Ward has many years of experience navigating in cross country racing, which will be invaluable in assisting the Development Team through the season and helping them understand the rules and regulations, as well as the tools of the trade.

“Ward has an extremely calm and measured approach in communicating with people, and was a great asset to the team when he raced with us,” Woolridge adds. “An added benefit is that he talks Zulu perfectly and knows Wiseman very well, so we look forward to him playing an important role in guiding the development and progress of the team as the season evolves.”

2021 SACCS calendar

1 26-27 March Dullstroom 400 Dullstroom, Mpumalanga
2 21-22 May Sugarbelt 400 Eston, KwaZulu-Natal
3 18-20 June Toyota 1000 Desert Race Upington, Northern Cape
4 13 August Vryburg 400 Vryburg, North West
5 14 August Vryburg 400 Vryburg, North West
6 1-2 October Nampo 400 Bothaville, Free State
7 13 November Parys 400 Parys, Free State

Fans can follow all of the action and track the position of the crews throughout the each of the 2021 season’s seven races using the RallySafe app which can be downloaded free of charge for iOS and Android devices.