Pounding music accompanies a practice session at Zwartkops raceway.
Smells of oil and fuel fill the air. Drivers with their names emblazoned on their jumpsuits prepare to race. One of them is a slim young woman with long brown hair.
Fabienne Lanz’s racing career started at this racetrack more than two decades ago when she was offered a chance to drive a kart.
“I think you could have walked faster than what I drove, I went that slow," she says now. "But somehow the bug bit and I was like, ‘No, I actually really like this.’ I was like 8 years old.”
That was 21 years ago. Lanz swapped ballet for motorsport, an unusual choice for a woman in Africa. Now 29 years old, Lanz is the best on the continent in her chosen discipline, having recently won the African Open Karting Championship. She's the first woman in the history of motorsport in Africa to hold the title.
That victory followed many years of intense competition against boys.
Fabienne Lanz on the winner's podium in Dubai, a few years ago. (Courtesy: Fabienne Lanz's collection)
“I got bullied a lot, not physically or anything like that, but on the track," she said. "They push you out, they bump you off. You’re isolated, by yourself, because in that time there were much less girls racing.”
Fabienne Lanz also trains young drivers and visits schools to share her journey in motorsport. (Photo courtesy: fabienneracing.com)
It was Lanz's father, a former saloon car racer, who forced her to “toughen up.”
“Eventually he said, ‘That’s it. If you don’t drive left of them, right of them, over them, under them, or whatever you need to do to get past, we’re going to stop racing.’ So I had to make a plan,” she said.
That plan was to drive much more aggressively.
Footage from a camera attached to Lanz’s 125 cc kart shows her racing on a Florida track at speeds reaching 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour).
Lanz is now known as "Iron Lady" on the international karting circuit. She's also been referred to as "the fast girl from the South."
"When they see me they’re like, ‘Yeah; she’s here. She’s the crazy one.'" Lanz said. "That’s cool.”
Despite Lanz’s take-no-prisoners driving style, she’s only had one major crash.
“I got bumped from behind and I rolled over the guy in front of me and I landed on my hand and damaged my finger,” she said.
Her recent Zwartkops victory over Africa’s top kart drivers, where she captured the African title, gives her a ticket to the World Kart Championships in Italy later this month.
Eager to give back to the sport, Lanz has opened an academy at Zwartkops where she trains youngsters to race karts. Some are so poor that they don’t even own bicycles.
Lanz with one of her learner drivers, 13 year old Nqaba Ntombela.
A few of her pupils roar around the track. At such speed it’s hard to imagine that they’re between the ages of five and seven.
Five-year-old K.C. Ensor-Smith says karting is amazing.
“You’re actually riding and you go quite fast," she said. "Sometimes you can get scared.”
Lanz says that everywhere she goes people ask how she feels about being a pioneer in motorsport. Her answer’s usually the same, and given with a cheeky smile: “I’m nothing special; just one of the boys.”