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Biography


 

By Howard Mellet

Little Miss 79

Get a bunch of bike racers together and sooner or later the talk turns to the crashes they’ve had. As the biker’s philosophy says, it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ you’re going to crash.

Most bike racers tell tales of broken wrists, legs, arms, lost fingers and worse. Their war stories will be told and retold in the years to come - just as the legend of Barry Sheen, with his broken legs rebuilt after his massive Silverstone crash with metal plates which used to set off the alarms at airports, has entered bike racing folklore.

Most riders wear their battle scars with pride and readily show off their war wounds. It’s surprising and not a little chilling to have this conversation with a pretty, vivacious 22-year-old blond biker who, on her CV, lists an entry in the Miss South Africa pageant and an appearance in the ‘Beauties of Sports 2009’ feature in Sports Illustrated magazine.

Yes, lady racer Janine Mitchell, daughter of former Western Province rugby player John Mitchell, tells of the day in 2007 when she crashed her ex-Allann Jon Venter Yamaha R6 at over 180 km/h and landed up in the intensive care ward in hospital with a broken neck, sternum, ribs, hand and fingers. Her injuries were complicated by internal bleeding. She was fighting for her life.

The crash happened at the tight and challenging Zwartkops race track near Pretoria. She fell at the exit of the fast Turn 3 and slammed into the unforgiving tyre barriers with terrifying force which, back then, were not protected by air fences as they are today.

That Janine survived and returned to the track is a huge testament to her determination, strength of character and ultimate passion for motorsport.

It was an attraction that first came into bud for her at age 14, bloomed in 50cc racing and finally blossomed in the Derbi development series of 2004. It all began with a trip to the races at the Midvaal circuit to watch motorcycle racing. After petitioning her parents incessantly for a race bike they capitulated and decided to fully support the sporting choice of their single-minded, adrenaline-junkie daughter.

With her father’s help, she soon lined up on the grid at Phakisa for her first Derbi race alongside the likes of Greg Gildenhuys, Dylan White and other future stars. She was in good company. A fast learner, she overcame an ignominious first race crash to become the first lady racer to win in the series.

Her speed and competitiveness weren’t in doubt and she placed third overall in the Derbi championship in 2005. By then she was doing double duty, racing a production-based Aprilia RS 125 in the GP 125 series too.

“It gave me an opportunity to measure myself against the fastest junior riders at that time, but unfortunately my bike was no match for the out-and-out grand prix machines I was up against and I usually found myself bringing up the rear,” she smiles.

Despite the following year (2006) being her matric year, Janine fitted in a full racing schedule in between studies and exams. “It was an up-and-down year,” she admits. “I had a lot going on.” Her family team had decided to move up to the production-based 400cc class in the regional series and a Honda VFR was bought for the purpose.

Good results were few and far between, thanks to chronic unreliability. The decision was taken to replace the VFR with a more modern CBR 400, but Janine fared little better as mechanical reliability again eluded her.

Keen to progress, Janine lobbied for a 600cc machine for the 2007 season. Having done the deal with Allann Jon, she entered the first race of the season at Zwartkops......and crashed spectacularly and dangerously in practice.

Her recovery was long and painful. “There were many times when I cried and nearly gave up the struggle to regain my fitness. But I never lost the will to get back on the track. I had the support of so many riders – including guys like [MX rider] Roderic van der Westhuizen and [road racer] Peter Gouvaris – who gave me inner strength. They remain my role models. Sadly Peter is no longer with us. We made many great plans for racing.....”

Janine made her come-back on her birthday in 2007 on the repaired Yamaha R6. While no outward scars are visible, she has two titanium plates in her hand and her little finger is crooked. Her message is that no matter what the difficulties and challenges you face in life, they can be overcome with inner strength and resolve.

She was soon making plans for the following season. “I was pushing hard in all my races,” says Janine. “My lap times were falling steadily and I was getting on the pace. I felt I was really making progress – mixing it with the guys and toughing it out with them on the track.

Towards the end of the year, in October, she decided to switch to a Honda CBR 600 and entered her first national race in Port Elizabeth in preparation for the following season when she planned to complete in regional races as well as follow the national WesBank Series, giving her nearly 40 races to contest in the season.

But lady luck decided to desert her once again and at the last race of the year – at Kyalami – she had another big shunt. It was high speed get-off at the fast 160 km/r Sunset Bend right-hander. This time a badly broken foot was the result – and a six-week layoff followed.

“Honda was keeping an eye on me and I was invited to do the 8-Hour in Cape Town as part of the team at the end of the year. I had to cut the plaster cast off to complete.”

Janine’s Honda connections brought her into Brad Anassis’ ‘works’ team as a development rider for 2009. It was a significant step up for her.

“For the first time I found myself in a professional team, able to compare notes with the best riders in the country. I learned a lot about set-up, communication with the technicians and race preparation. Brad is a great teacher too.... I learned about analysing my performances and adapting my style. My times improved dramatically as a result. I got down to a one-minute-49 [seconds] at Kyalami for example.”

A highlight of 2009 was a tenth place in one of the World Superbike support races at Kyalami which saw 35 riders take the start of the local 600cc event.

Janine is putting the experience gained in the Honda team to good use in 2010 where she and her father are once again running their own outfit in both regional and national races. The start to the season was difficult as a sponsorship deal fell through at the last minute. While Honda stepped in and came up with some support, the delay caused her to miss early season testing.

Her links to the ‘works’ team are strong. At the Zwartkops round of the national series she was able to take over Jacques Peskens’ spare bike for the second race of the day after hers blew up in the first. “I managed my fastest lap ever at Zwartkops on this bike – one minute, six seconds,” she enthuses.

Janine is proud of her status as the fastest lady racer at three tracks – Kyalami, Zwartkops and Killarney but believes her true test is against the men with whom she wants to compete on equal terms.