Gangster-style car stunts put South Africa in a spin

Deep in the Soweto badlands, between car scrap shops and evangelical churches, a diminutive teenage girl showcases her determination to become South Africa's greatest "spinning" star. 

With her engine revved to its deafening max and her pink 325 BMW spinning "doughnuts", Stacey-Lee May climbs out of the driver's window, hooks her legs on the door and hangs upside down, winning screams and cheers from the crowd.

The baby-faced 19-year-old is a far cry from traditional spinners - gangsters from apartheid's racially segregated townships who stole cars to make ends meet and showed off their bounty by performing wild stunts in the streets.

"When I'm about to jump out I get this feeling, this is my moment," said May, wearing her hair scraped back in a tight bun and black Converse shoes.

"This is my talent, I was born to do this," she told AFP after Saturday's show in Soweto.

May is part of a new generation pushing to take spinning out of South Africa's criminal underworld and make it a legitimate sport in the new democratic era launched when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994.

"I'd like to see spinning on the news, in the sports section," May said. "I want to take my spinning to New York and Paris to showcase the style of South Africa."

Unique for its longstanding popularity, spinning in South Africa is a celebrated motorsport where hustlers and dreamers of modest means become heroes - the more guts you have the greater the glory.

"It was something started by South Africans," said Sakhi Spirit, a 34-year-old spinner from Soweto who describes spinning cars as "Insimbi", the Zulu word for steel, because they can take the heat.

"It's not just a sport, it's a culture."

May is proficient at spinning (sliding the car in tight circles until the tyres pop), suicide slides (using a gadget to keep the car running then hanging out the window upside down) and crazy flips (driving in a snakelike motion then suddenly pushing the car up into second gear and doing a 360 degree spin).

An average spinning set lasts just three minutes, ending when both the back tires burst with an explosive bang, spewing hot tyre shards into the roaring crowd.

Following the racially demarcated boundaries set by the whites-only apartheid regime, spinning events are held across the country in hinterlands like Midway in Soweto, a neighborhood where people live in matchbox houses nestled between dusty yellow mountains of toxic gold tailings.

But today whites are getting involved in a culture that used to be exclusively practised in the townships.

Dylan Brough known by his moniker "Vaatjie" - Afrikaans for barrel - is a crowd favourite famous for planting one foot on the pavement and pumping it up and down while his car is spinning, making the car bounce as if powered by hydraulics.

On Saturday, the spinners rolled in one by one to the Soweto venue, a grassy lot with a paved rectangle the size of a basketball court ringed by a two-metre deep wall of tyres, which serve as a cushion shielding the crowd from the spinning cars.

Spectators stand under beach umbrellas, protecting themselves from the searing hot sun, sipping on quarts of beer, smoking hookah and bobbing their heads to the pulsing house music played by a DJ.

There are few rules, a legacy of the sport's illicit beginnings. At just 16 years old -- too young for a driving licence in South Africa -- Austin Kruger from Mafikeng is one of spinning's breakout stars.

Renowned for his audacious style, Kruger jumps out of his battered black 325 BMW while it is spinning, runs up the bonnet and jumps on the roof before scrambling back into the driver's seat and taking control of the wheel.

Later, he'll hand over the car to his 12-year-old brother, who will give it an equally experienced whirl.

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License to thrill

In the push to legalise spinning, organisers have started demanding that paramedic staff attend the events and that the spinners get a license issued by Motor Sport South Africa, the country's regulatory body.

"It's a license to thrill," May said, laughing.

"This is a professional sport and we're not using blood money," said May's 38-year-old mother Lizel. "People must not say we're stealing cars to spin, those days are long gone."

Far from stifling spinning, regulating the sport has helped bring it into the mainstream, with young spinners like May gaining celebrity status and drawing big crowds.

A spinning show costs around 100 rand (about $7.00) a ticket, with spinners taking home anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 rand a night.

"It's just the sound, the sound of the engine," said 30-year-old spectator Donald Mcithi, "it's that rush in my body."

Adding to her appeal, May is one of just a handful of female spinners.

"They said you can't do this, this is not for girls," said May. "I said 'oh really, let me show you'. Once I did it, they were shocked."

She has big dreams. "I want to be a presenter on Top Gear," said May, referring to a popular car show on BBC television. "I want to drive a Lamborghini and a Porsche, I'll drive it like I stole it."