Basil Van Rooyen
Basil van Rooyen, the former Grand Prix racing driver, recently contacted OldRacingCars.com about his entry in “Where Are They Now”. (http://www.oldracingcars.com/driver/Basil_Van_Rooyen)
He kindly agreed to an email interview about his racing career & more specifically, his life post-racing & the interview follows below.
(RJ= Richard Jenkins, BvR=Basil van Rooyen)
RJ: Basil, firstly, please tell me about one of your more current and successful projects, The Twister pool cleaning device.
BvR: In my post-Superformance career, I became involved in plastic moulding, gaining 30 years of polymer selection, design and manufacturing experience, 17 years of that in Australia. When I retired, I became frustrated with lots of time at home watching my pool cleaner leaving a large floor area untouched, and occasionally jiggling uselessly, stuck in a corner.
I studied the problem, because I now had the time to, and came up with a solution –IF I could get a device to what was needed and which would not affect the filtration rate, nor get stuck on debris coming past the cleaner, then I was on to something!
I made a prototype which needed an 8000:1 ratio to provide the torque to rotate the hose, without reducing the flow to the filter. It also needed to be robust and small. It worked a treat – in spite of several devices which had been patented around the world to solve the same problem, happily I had cracked it.
These had appeared on the market in the previous years, only to fade away with various shortcomings. It was fortunate that I could combine my racing engineering background in transmissions and fluid dynamics and the later plastics manufacturing experience, as both were needed to solve the problem.
RJ: Excellent. How did it develop from there?
BvR: Overjoyed at the results of my prototype, I applied for a patent and later sold this to AquaQuip of Australia on a royalty basis. They manufacture a top range of pool pumps and lights etc and distribute nationwide.
The unique “Twin Track” Twister system I then configured, to give over 330 degrees of counter-rotation of the hose every 15 minutes or so, reversing automatically, was enthusiastically received by Mr Roy Halle, proprietor of AquaQuip. This eliminates cumulative rotations, and any possibility of it causing hose wind-up. As it rotates, the hose is no longer subject to UV or abrasion damage on one side, but is spread evenly all round.
But the major goal, to power-steer pool cleaners out of stuck situations and give greatly increased pool floor coverage, was achieved. The Twister was recently tested by one of the largest US pool equipment distributors, and they placed their first order in March, for two container loads of them. So the genie is out of the lamp on this one. But it comes after some 30 years of patent and invention persistence…
Basil with his Twister Device
3 Twister prototype developments.
RJ: You’ve also been behind a number of other inventions in the last 30 years. Can you tell me a bit more about them?
BvR: In addition to my motor racing and business career, I had often been involved in an invention and on the fringe of breakthough. One was a tennis racket strung to create a concave surface on both sides. Derek Schroeder (former South African tennis player) signed a secrecy agreement with me, to enable him to pass judgement before my patenting it. He was very excited and we were proceeding with patent attorneys when he called to say he had just read one of the clauses in the WTC (World Tennis Championship) book of rules, which stated the strings had to be in a single plane ! So that was the end of that.
The next was a bicycle with long pedal cranks from a twin coaxial rear axle. Their length was appropriately geared to give the same pedal stroke to speed, but one got nearly full torque from top to bottom of the stroke, whereas on the normal cranks you get nearly nothing near the top or bottom.
The RAU engineering department got very excited and offered to build the prototype to my design and I filed a patent application. On dyno tests, disappointingly, it performed very similarly under competition pedalling rates, though at slower impedences it did give the predicted gains.
The reason was discovered to be a physiological one – in that the muscle chemistry at full speed only allows the cyclist to push for only about 20% of the stroke. A picture of the bike, and the rear axle detail, is shown.
Note it has a chain drive on both sides. Although it did allow more power at slower pedalling, as on Asian trike-taxis, it was thought the extra cost could only be viable in the competition world, where it did not give any gain.
My next invention came when the late John Love had a stuck throttle, in his Surtees F1. The car ended up between the upper and lower Armco rails at Clubhouse corner, his head against the top one! I had heard of many similar incidents – aggravated by the throttle slides used on F1 type engines.
When one brakes at the last moment in an F1 and the throttle sticks open, in the single second before you can switch off the ignition switch on the dash, the car has travelled up to 100 mph!!
So I came up with The Racers Guardian – a device in the brake line, which is adjustable, to switch the ignition off for 5 seconds, if the brake-line pressure reaches a pre-determined amount above that required to lock the wheels – which is more than a driver ever reaches in normal racing circumstances. What a driver does do in this frightening situation, is push instictively harder on the brake pedal, thus reaching these super pressures.
Luckily, before filing for patent, I called Ken Tyrrell, for whom Jackie Stewart was racing and he said what a great idea – but unfortunately, he explained, he would not have to buy them from any patent holder, as he would simply copy the idea ! He explained further that patent protection is only against commercial sale for profit and not for self use ! So as they were cheap and easy enough to make one or two of, that’s what the race teams would do. That saved me from wasting time and money on a patent.
Years would pass before my next invention and patent – a vibrating head massager, called HeeBeeGeeBee. I shared the patent with Don Riddell (Formula Vee champ in about 1973, living near-by in Sydney) and later sold my share to him for royalties. Over 400,000 have now been sold.
RJ: What are you also working on currently?
BvR: For the past 2 years I have been busy on my most ambitious invention – the CITS (Crankcase Independent Two Stroke) engine for future cars and motor cycles.
This has been successful in prototype single cylinder bench tests and I am trying to raise funding for a twin-cylinder water cooled version, for road testing as well as bench testing, with justified expectations that it will be the lightest, most economical, smooth, and powerful engine over a wide RPM and meet current emission requirements – and far cheaper to produce! The CITS engine shows potential to be the best from every angle – manufacturing cost, fuel consumption, package size, emissions, and weight.
RJ: Looking away from inventions now, and looking at your careers overall, What do you consider your greatest success, either in racing or non-racing & why?
BvR: I think it was getting my Chev V8 CanAm project through from an idea to fruition with GM, who had a no-racing charter. I had to get a toe in the door of the MD Bob Scott, and then to sell him not only on the concept of a Chev Dealer Team to circumvent that hurdle, but also to overcome his doubts that the Vauxhall Firenza I planned could topple the mighty Capri Perana.
That was as much the challenge as completing the prototype. This had to pass the GM safety, serviceability and durability guidelines. It did and went on to be the fastest production sedan in the world at the time. My only 3 regrets were: “The commitee decision” name CanAm/Lil Chev/Firenza V8. (I wanted Mamba),the fact that the works’ Perana withdrew, and that the oil-crisis and banning of motor-sport aborted the Team after only one year.
RJ: What inspired you to become a designer in the first place?
BvR: No one event – just born with a love, or burden, of form and function and ergonomics.
RJ: Are there any regrets regards your career? Anything you would’ve perhaps liked to have tried, but never did?
BvR: I have had a wonderful, rich and rewarding life. I could say it was often stressful, and that my F1 career was curtailed by a cruel design flaw, but now I realise how everything that happens can be for the best, without our knowing it. My favourite quote is from the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling - “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same, you’ll be a man, my son.”That says it all for me.
RJ: How do you view South Africa’s motorsport future, both short-term & long-term?
BvR: I imagine it will be inextricably linked to its political and commercial future. Short term that continues to grow at breathtaking pace. Long term, other than the example set by most African countries, I can see no reason for that not to continue. South Africa has always punched above its weight, and surprised crystal-ball gazers.
RJ: Although it is a different sport altogether, how do you think the Football World Cup will impact on South Africa?
BvR: If SA pulls it off as it did the IPL cricket, sent there at the last minute from India for security reasons !, the million or so new tourists will return to their countries with fresh views of it, very different from that of a crime-ridden zone.
RJ: I believe your son James trained to be a race car engineer? How did this go?
BvR: He was appalled at the spoilt rich/kids aspects in F 3 which he spannered for whilst learning the ropes. He never wanted to be a race driver, sensing his limitations in kart racing in his late teens, but instead aspired to be in marketing and management.
RJ: Did you encourage or discourage any of your children to follow in motorsport?
BvR: Neither – wanting both to follow their hearts. Both did a business degree, and the older one, John, has just decided to leave his excellent corporate job, to do civil engineering, starting at 30 ! Only now are both of them appreciating my career. They only heard bits about it as it all happened before they were born. And in Australia my motor racing was very much in the back-ground.
RJ: I know you still watch motorsport – what are you enjoying most of all watching at the moment & why? Do you think the potential new rules for Formula 1 will improve the racing?
BvR: Some decisions have had me seething. Like whilst trying to reduce the cost of F1, and after the fuel-cooling drama with BMW cooling it below the regulated level, they fiddled with the regulation instead of simply allowing only ambient fuel storage. What could be more obvious ?
But it remains my passion, watching every GP studiously. The greatest thing about it might well be the TV coverage. Fantastic. Nothing like that to bring home the experience to the public in my day ! I think it is providing the best F1 racing ever this year, and will continue to evolve and improve.
But it may become ecologically irrelevant. The solution I suggest is the following F1 rule for 2012. Note rule is singular. The rule is ……….. 50 L of issued fuel. Petrol or diesel. No other regulations. Yes – any engine, any tyres, any weight, any size, any aero – then you’ll see the engineers challenged. And the the team leadership changing from race to race as new discoveries and trends are uncovered. This would appeal to the greenies AND the technocrats. And the delicate touch drivers.
RJ: What inspired you to start racing? Obviously you trained as an engineer – was that with the intention of going into racing, or was it something you followed once you had started that career?
BvR: Never heard about a motor race or driver in our home, nor saw one. Something fascinated me about motorcycles (girls I think) and the seed was sown with my powered model plane building and flying. So I got one and found myself dicing with anyone game. I am embarassed now to think of how crazy I was, and oblivious of road safety. That James 200 upgraded to a Puch 250, and that to a work’s Puch ride, in a 24 hour race at Grand Central, and my first taste of victory. But the hammering on my kidneys, with no kidney belt, caused serious problems and my retirement form motor cycle racing at 17 ! Whilst doing engineering at Wits, I did a Formula Junior Ford Anglia engine and that led to me fitting that to an Anglia and going racing.
RJ: What was your honest reaction when you finished fourth fastest at the end of the first official practice day of the Kyalami F1 GP, despite having an engine with much less horse power than most of your competitors? Were you surprised, felt it was too easy, disappointed etc…?
BvR: None of the above. I was totally pre-occupied with the wheel-tyre problem and how I was going to get around it in time for the race in two days time.
RJ: In the end, you decided against F1 in 1970 after the deaths of McLaren & Courage. Had that gone ahead, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you think that would’ve gone? Do you feel that you could’ve achieved some decent results?
BvR: I do know now that the March F1 I was to get, proved unsuccessful, so perhaps that would have been my last chance. Or, just maybe if I was quick enough and/or able to improve the handling, I might have got noticed by another team.
RJ: You raced in a whole range of different machinery – what car or series, if any, stands out as your particular favourite?
BvR: I really loved driving the Porsche 906 and then the Ferrari Dino Racing, of Tony Dean, in the 9 hours. It was my first drives in a non saloon car, and as a non entrant/owner/designer, and loved that experience, and the fact that they were successful drives amongst international competition.
RJ: How did you get into the packaging industry? What did you find as the biggest challenges in your CEO role?
BvR: Ah. At the start of the oil crisis, a great event in SA with its strategic implications, I decided the car would no longer be seen as a macho toy and sex symbol. How wrong would I be proven to be ! However, it was this miscalculation that would later create the opening I received to go to Australia.
I sold out of Superformance and through a head hunter, I was suggested to the board. They offered me the position with the recommendation of the departing CEO, who was emigrating to Canada, under some pressure from his wife. The head hunter had said that a previous 5 excellent candidates had been rejected by the CEO. On reflection, I realised that he had given me the thumbs up, because he wanted to keep his options open, should he not like Canada, and need to come back. So the less successful I was, the better from his point of view.
Fortunately I was able to turn a difficult business around, and was invited to the main board within 5 years. The biggest challenge was changing some ingrained attitudes of management and the usual resistance to change.
Basil has also kindly produced a brief biography of his racing career, which include extracts or variations from several authors and journalists, and has been merged to provide a thumb-nail sketch of career. If anyone would like a copy of it, please do let me know, although I have also provided a link below.
Also, if anyone would like to get in touch with Basil regarding any of the interview content, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be more than happy to pass anything on to Basil himself.
Thanks again to Basil for his time, refreshing honesty & help with this interview.