- Lance Woolridge, since his first race aged 16, has become a leading contender for the SA Cross-Country Series
- He took consecutive Class T titles in 2018 and 2019 so now races in the top-tier FIA against SA’s best drivers
- He also manages day-to-day operations at Neil Woolridge Motorsport with an eye on winning the Dakar Rally
PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa – A top-level career in motorsport is the dream for many youngsters though few will ever make it real so Youth Month 2020 is the perfect to profile double cross-country racing champion Lance Woolridge – a youth who made it.
He’s one of the stars of the South African Cross-Country Series.
At only 29 he has 12 years of racing under his belt. His involvement in motorsport was virtually assured given that he grew up watching and supporting his very own hero – his father Neil Woolridge – a multiple cross-country champion on two and four wheels and a Dakar contender in 1998 and 1999.
Lance’s first competitive outing was in 2008, aged 16, in a Cricket single-seat buggy powered by a 250cc engine in the kwaZulu-Natal Regional championship. He moved up to a Class E Ford Ranger bakkie the following year and, although the only entry in the class, he was up against the heavyweight Class A vehicles.
BUILDING NEW CARS
Having completed his schooling at Maritzburg College in 2009 as one of the top 10 students he was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of kwaZulu-Natal and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree (majoring in economics and marketing).
Since then he’s become integral in Neil Woolridge Motorsport – an accredited Ford Performance centre exclusively responsible for the design and assembly of Ford Rangers for cross-country racing – globally.
INSPIRED BY RACING
Being operations manager, he’s responsible for managing the build of new race cars, maintaining stock of parts and spares from suppliers around the world, South African customer relations, and the maintenance of the team’s South African championship vehicles.
But it’s the thrill of racing that gets him really inspired…
“My goal has always been to win the SA cross-country championship,” he said, ”and then to participate in the Dakar Rally – something I will one day achieve, and win. It’s the world’s toughest event… the pinnacle of the sport.”
There’s no denying his talent and determination. For his first year of National championship racing in 2010 aged 18 he and two mechanics rebuilt an old Ford Ranger during the off-season to compete in Class E for near-standard vehicles. Success soon followed: he became the youngest driver to win a South African Class E race, and youngest to win his class and finish the 1000km Botswana Desert Race.
THREE MONTHS IN A BACK BRACE
Although a crash fractured and compressed a vertebra so he wasn’t able to complete the season he still made second in the championship with navigator Ward Huxtable – taking the co-driver’s title that year.
After three months in a back brace he was back in action in 2011, moving up to the premier Super Production category and became the youngest person to reach the SP podium.
In the opening race of 2012 he was runner-up to team-mate Chris Visser in a locally developed diesel Ranger, making it the first 1-2 for diesel vehicles in the top class of the SA championship. He finished sixth overall that year against the country’s top drivers.
2013 season saw the debut of the ground-breaking five-litre,V8 FIA T1-spec Ranger, designed and built by NWM in partnership with Ford’s Performance Vehicle division in the US to compete around the world and was again in the limelight through dominating the season-opening Magalies 400 with overall victory in the all-new Ranger.
…AND ANOTHER BACK PROBLEM
That made him, at 21, the youngest overall winner. He finished fourth in the championship.
The following year the Ford-backed NWM team officially competed in the Dakar Rally in Argentina and Chile, with Woolridge taking on the logistics role for the team for the two race vehicles but also again damaging his spine and so missing the season during recovery.
He returned to the hot seat in 2015, scoring two podium finishes for the season.
His promotion to operations manager at NWM in 2016 saw him give up his race seat to younger brother Gareth to focus on growing the business’s global customer base – including an expanded partnership with X Rally Team Brazil – a team dominated its domestic series with the NWM Ford Ranger since 2014.
After being part of the NWM service crew supporting the X Rally Team’s two Ford Rangers in Brazil’s arduous Rally dos Sertões over the previous two years, this event presented Lance with his first chance to compete on the international stage.
LONG, HOT – BUT LOVED
The 2016 Rally dos Sertões covered 3200km over seven days and Lance took a stage win to finish second overall behind the X Rally Team’s experienced Cristian Baumgart and Beco Andreotti in an identical vehicle – the first of a record-breaking four consecutive victories for the NWM-built Ford Ranger.
Woolridge said: “The Rally dos Sertões was long, hot, rough, but I absolutely loved it. It was a great result for me and a big boost for the NWM team as a whole. The fact that our vehicles dominated this race over the next three years was equally rewarding, especially as our involvement has significantly raised the level of competition in that region.”
It certainly seemed to give Lance new motivation on the home front, too. With a focus on mental and physical fitness, Lance and long-time co-driver Huxtable were embroiled in a season-long battle for the SACCS Class T title in 2017. Although they lost narrowly to rivals Johan and Werner Horn they made it all their own in 2018 and were crowned Class T champions in a V8 NWM Ford Ranger.
Their momentum didn’t slow there: the Woolridge/Huxtable combination proved almost unbeatable in 2019 with five wins and two second-place finishes from seven races to secure their second consecutive Class T title.
The Ford NWM team claimed an exceptional six wins for the season, with the final event going to team-mates Marcos Baumgart and Kleber Cincea who scored their first victory on South African soil, which complemented their back-to-back Brazilian championships as well as the overall South American title for 2019.
“After coming so close to victory in 2017, it was fantastic to finally take the title in 2018 with three wins for the season,” Woolridge said. “Winning the championship again in 2019 was amazing. Our overall victory in the second heat of last year’s Botswana Desert Race is one of my career highlights, as we beat the faster FIA-class vehicles in our Class T Ranger on the toughest event on the calendar.
”It was also extremely satisfying finishing second overall in the 2019 SACCS Production Vehicle championship.”
NEXT CHALLENGE – THE DAKAR
For 2020 Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport have set their sights on what is now the top-tier category of the sport – the FIA-class for full Dakar Rally-specification vehicles. Despite competing in an upgraded version of the existing Class T Ranger, Lance and new co-driver Elvéne Vonk finished the opening race third overall – an impressive result considering the exceptionally competitive FIA-class field.
Covid-19 has put the championship on hold but the team is currently building an all-new FIA-class Ranger to be powered by Ford’s high-tech 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6, as used in the F-150 Raptor and Ford GT supercar.
As it did in 2013, NWM is once again setting benchmarks for the SA championship and for cross-country racing internationally. The all-new Ranger will be the first in the world to compete under the FIA’s new cross-country regulations for vehicles with turbocharged petrol engines.
“This is a very exciting project. It’s enabled us to redesign the Ranger from the ground up using all of our experience and success with the V8 Ranger,” Woolridge said. “We’ve nearly finished the first vehicle and will begin testing soon – with the chassis for the second vehicle already in production.
”I can’t wait to start driving this machine then racing it in the SA championship when the season resumes.
“Our goal is to have the new FIA Ranger competing internationally once we’ve completed our final development work on the prototype. The Dakar is the ultimate prize, of course, both for me and for the NWM team,” he adds.
“That dream hasn’t changed – I believe the new vehicle we be a winning package.
“Competing in the Dakar Rally is very expensive, particularly when it comes to South African budgets, but with the right partners and sponsors and a long-term commitment I’m confident we’ll be able to beat the best teams in the world.”
- Ford and Neil Woolridge Motorsport are proud to be supported by sponsors and partners Castrol, Ford Credit, BF Goodrich Tyres, Vedacit, Wurth, Bosch, Mastercraft, Sign Solutions, Tiger Wheel & Tyre, Ironman 4×4 and Shatterprufe.