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Porsche pays $19.5 million for South African race track that once hosted F1 champions

A partial view of the Kyalami race track is pictured Thursday July 24, 2014 north of Johannesburg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Denis Farrell

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A partial view of the Kyalami race track is pictured Thursday July 24, 2014 north of Johannesburg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Denis Farrell

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's most famous motor racing track just got an extension.

The South African unit of sports car maker Porsche bought the Kyalami race track for $19.5 million at an auction Thursday, easing concerns among racing enthusiasts that the winning bidder would tear up the track and build office or commercial buildings in its place.

"It's going to stay in the industry, which is the most important thing," said Lance Chalwin-Milton, the auction director.

Kyalami, on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, hosted 20 Formula One races between 1967 and 1993. It was dropped from the circuit in 1985 when South Africa came under an international sports ban because of white minority rule, and rejoined near the end of apartheid.

Alain Prost won the last F1 race there in 1993, and Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart also won at Kyalami. South Africa's Jody Scheckter was the champion in 1975. During the race two years later, driver Tom Pryce's car struck a marshal who was crossing the track with a fire extinguisher to assist a car that had stopped, and both men died.

Kyalami has since hosted international car and motorbike races, but efforts to get it back on the F1 circuit faltered.

The home of South African motor racing is unlikely to regain its former stature, partly because upgrading the circuit would cost too much, said Dieter Rencken, a Formula One journalist who was born in South Africa.

"I'm not convinced it has a Grand Prix future," Rencken said by telephone from Budapest ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday. However, he said there is a market in South Africa for one or two international motor racing events a year.

Hundreds of people attended the auction at a Johannesburg conference centre with manicured gardens and a fountain with a classical-style sculpture of the ancient deity Apollo, a dragon, horses and maidens.

Auctioneer Joff van Reenen talked up the "historical and iconic legacy" of Kyalami, which was the last of 25 lots for sale. Bidding opened at $19 million and closed a couple of minutes later with far less drama than some of the earlier auctions, which included former bank buildings and "The Rusty Lady," a restaurant.

"Sold, sold, sold," van Reenen said, pounding the lectern with his auction hammer. Then he announced the next order of business:

"The bar is open. Lunch is served."

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