South Africa is the only place spinning could have started. Home to 850,000 people and a history bathed in the blood of the 1976 youth uprisings, Soweto is a town accustomed to danger, to violence, to the kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude that can only come through finding liberation from decades of oppression. And sometimes, that liberation comes through even more danger.
Spinning found its roots in the early 1980s, a pastime of gangsters and criminals who would steal cars to spin at the funerals of dead friends. It was—and still is—illegal, a way to spit in the face of authority and the kind of society that turns people to crime as a way of life in the first place. Slowly, it began to evolve into an actual street sport. Still illegal, but more accepted.
This isn’t drifting. Cars aren’t being thrown around a circuit or even around the road; instead, drivers will stick the car to do donuts and then climb out and do some wild stunts. Sometimes it’s just sticking your head out the window. Other times, it involves hooking your legs in the window and leaning back until your head almost brushes the ground. There’s no track, no prize at the end (minus the nice ego stroke you’ll get for doing something absolutely wild). Spinning is all about finding that fine line between life and death and riding it out for as long as you possibly can in the most extravagant way possible.
In the 1990s, South Africa looked like it was destined to fall to a racial civil war. With so much tension in the air, it’s understandable that people would need to find a way to shred it out of their system. That’s when things started getting more organized. Groups of kids in their 20s would get together and practice. And these weren’t criminals; just kids trying to let off a little steam.
Nowadays, it’s blossomed into something pseudo-official. You can make a name for yourself in spinning. You can make a little money at it. People will pay to see it, and if you work your name just right, you might be able to nail some automotive connections that’ll keep your tire stock replenished and your car in working order. Spinning isn’t exactly, y’know, a walk in the park. It’s gonna do some damage. And people have found that it’s easier to milk connections than it is to try to scrounge up that money yourself.
Not that it pays well. It’s not a sanctioned series. The events don’t have monetary prizes. You’re just hoping someone will sponsor your endeavors and that you’ll find a little extra something to take home. According to Vice, most spinners have day jobs. There are plenty of taxi drivers who finally find a way to lose control behind the wheel.
It’s become such a cultural staple in the area that, despite its illegality, even the cops are fans. It’s hard not to be, honestly; the deft maneuvers of the spinners is awe inspiring, and it attracts people of all backgrounds. Expensive as it might be, anyone who scrounges up the money for a car and some expendable tires can take part, regardless of age, class, politics, and gender—which is a pretty rare thing to find in a country like South Africa.
The car of choice is a BMW 325i. It’s more of a stunt show than a speed trial, so cars don’t usually exceed 60 mph, but that doesn’t stop hundreds of people from gathering around the intersection of choice to see what happens.
Interestingly, there’s been talk of actually opening a venue in Soweto where people can take part in spinning more safely than they are now. There’s some backlash toward the idea of regulating a sport whose whole intention is subverting the law; it feels like both an end and a beginning.
But for now, let’s just enjoy this incredibly South African sport. I mean, who doesn’t want to see people (safely) throwing themselves out of moving cars?