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Pool cleaners and a racing hero

1 August 2016

In between travels, Jannie’s mind takes him back 32 years when the launch of a swimming pool cleaner in the United States played a large role in propelling a popular South African motorsportsman to stardom.

I was watching the Kreepy Krauly go to work after a Highveld storm when thought association kicked in. The automatic pool cleaner, I mused, is way up there with other South African inventions like the Dolosse concrete blocks, Pratley Putty and the CAT scan. That led to thoughts about Chris Barnard and other proudly South African celebrities like Charlize Theron and Elon Musk, and I recalled how the Kreepy Krauly helped propel another South African to international stardom.

The machine vacuuming my pool was the brainchild of a Belgian hydraulics engineer Ferdi Chauvier, who fled the Congo with his wife and son Danny, and settled in Springs. When he left school, Danny started selling swimming pool cleaning equipment, and mentioned to his father that whomever invented an automatic cleaner would make a fortune from grateful pool owners.

The first Kreepy Krauly was a wooden contraption with piping moulded into shape – much to Mrs Chauvier’s disgust – on the kitchen stove. Legend has it that Ferdi’s invention got its name when a visiting neighbour peered into the family pool and exclaimed: “What is that creepy crawly thing in your pool?”

The first Kreepy Kraulys went on the market in 1978 but in 1984, the marketing team needed something special to launch the product in the US. Sponsoring a racing car sounded like an excellent idea and so it happened that a trio of South Africans, Sarel van der Merwe, Graham Duxbury and Tony Martin, stunned the motorsport world by winning the Daytona 24-hour race in a Kreepy Krauly March Porsche.

The Kreepy Krauly Racing campaign in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) series in the United States, and the roles played by Van der Merwe and engineer par excellence Ken Howes are well documented. South African politics eventually caught up with Kreepy Krauly and the team was disbanded. Van der Merwe and Howes moved on to greener pastures with Hendrick Motorsports and the Chev Corvette programme in IMSA, and by the time Hendrick withdrew from the IMSA series, Van der Merwe was an established international star.

I was among a bunch of local motoring scribes who attended IMSA races courtesy of Chauvier and the late Arthur Abraham who, until his untimely death in 2005, was an influential figure in South African motorsport. Arthur was a central figure in the establishment of the Kreepy Krauly Race and Rally team with Van der Merwe and Geoff Mortimer. He guided the team’s public relations campaign and played a key role in steering Sarel’s international career.

I was a guest of Kreepy Krauly on one occasion and paid my own way to races on three other occasions. The R999 return fare between Johannesburg and New York was known as the ‘triple nine’ and sharing some unforgettable experiences with Van der Merwe was worth every cent.

The Americans had problems pronouncing his name, and Van der Merwe was soon resigned to being called Searle van der Meer. I once shared a room with him and looked on in fascination as he went through a set of exercises before getting into bed that would do credit to a contortionist. Sarel introduced me to margaritas (the drink) and one night in high spirits we found ourselves travelling the wrong way down a one-way street in Portland, Oregon. A handbrake turn (accompanied by the sound of screeching tyres) in the face of oncoming traffic had us pointing the right way, but also earned the wrath of the local constabulary.

Supervan turned on the charm and talked his way out of trouble, but it was an unhappy weekend. During the race, while in the lead, the Kreepy Krauly car caught fire and he had a lucky escape. One of Sarel’s other exploits was to discover a way of phoning home for free – which he delighted in sharing with fellow South Africans. You dialled a special code before adding the South African number, and bingo. Supervan, who will be 70 later this year, is still hugely popular in this country and Kreepy Krauly is now a global brand.  The paths of two great entities crossed at just the right time.

Text:  Jannie Herbst