Springs Speedway – no more?

This week, it was revealed that the promoters of Auckland’s historic Western Springs Speedway face an end to the sport’s 90 year history at the venue when Auckland Council CCO Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) pulls the pin on the current contract at the end of the month.

After almost a century at its spiritual home, speedway will no longer be heard at Western Springs – eliciting howls from its loyal fan base, still capable of turning out in numbers exceeding 30,000 for the big international meets.

The news will no doubt delight some of the local folk who have complained loudly about the noise over the last couple of decades.

It’s a tragedy for speedway and continues a trend of marginalisation of motorsport in New Zealand. Speedway’s run at Western Springs has been under assault by regular campaigns from well-heeled residents atop the hill seeking to have it shut down and moved on.

But it’s not just about speedway, or even just about motorsport. The problem is broader and deeper-seated than that and relates to some pretty sharp dealings over stadium use in the Auckland region.


Ailing and failing

Ever since Auckland’s councils were amalgamated in November 2010, there has been a concerted effort to shunt various sporting codes into new venues, mostly unsuited to the needs of the codes. Pre-dating amalgamation there has been the wider issue of ‘deferred’ maintenance, causing safety issues at stadia and sports grounds alike. The region’s ailing and failing stadia are increasingly becoming unavailable due to safety concerns that see up to 30 per cent of all events and bookings being rejected or cancelled.

Some scary numbers: though Auckland Council has added $200 million to its latest 10-year renewals and maintenance budget, facilities experts outside Council say this is unlikely to be enough to fix the known issues. In the past three years, Auckland Council has closed 10 structures at sporting venues on safety grounds including toilet blocks, clubrooms and grandstands. Onehunga’s Waikaraka Park grandstand, Birkenhead War Memorial Park grandstand and the Barracudas clubrooms in Browns Bay have been closed indefinitely after the council found the structures to be unsafe.

In a super-secret report to elected members in February, the dire position was set out in graphic detail and examined a month later by Stuff’s Nick Truebridge, who has assiduously followed the issue as it develops.

The report showed the region’s venue problems stretch beyond Eden Park and Western Springs, with the likes of Mt Smart Stadium and QBE Stadium in need of substantial upgrades.

To maintain the status quo when it comes to Auckland’s major sports grounds would commit the council to a capital spend of more than $600 million over the next 20 years versus just over $300m if it implements a new venue development strategy.


Don’t get comfortable

The push to move the big codes around wilfully ignores global sporting trends away from mega-stadia to smaller, more intimate venues.

At a time when big stadiums are failing around the world for want of big walk-up audiences, Auckland Council’s semi-autonomous RFA offshoot is dedicated to helping the region’s biggest stadium survive by engaging in a game of musical chairs that pushes sporting organisations into facilities that offer little advantage and will cost millions of dollars to modify.

That leaves aside Eden Park’s own woes which see it asking Council (and thus ratepayers) to underwrite debt it can’t pay down. Eden Park, could run up losses of nearly $80 million in the next decade and it can’t afford an estimated $62m of maintenance and upgrades needed over the next 10 years.

There’s a significant drop in major events – and thus revenue – at Eden Park: the stadium will host only one All Blacks test this year instead of two due to the Rugby World Cup in Japan, losing an estimated $1.4m in revenue. Only two cricket internationals will be hosted instead of the usual four, and there will be one fewer Super Rugby match. Management think up to half of the venue’s corporate boxes will be empty this season after their leases become due.

What’s next at the Park? Watch for management to ask Council to ‘forgive’ (ie write off) rates debt and pick up the $50 million sum total of that under-written loan aloing with interest payments that Ernst and Young say the venue is unlikely to be able to meet this year.


When the music stops

The original proposal was like a game of dominoes: it would have shunted cricket off to Western Springs (still on the cards), Speedway out of its traditional home at Western Springs (as most people know, the Springs has been home to speedway since the 1930s) and into Mt Smart (no room for pit and paddock and slightly too small for a proper oval), the Warriors out of Mt Smart and off to Eden Park (despised by the Warriors as too big and too remote compared to the Mt Smart stadium which fits them perfectly), retaining Eden Park’s test match and top level game function for rugby.

The response from the various codes ran a full spectrum from cautious interest to outrage. A series of modified proposals have since bounced back and forth, getting no closer to a resolution.

Then the Warriors started looking at stadia in other parts of New Zealand, saying Mt Smart was the perfect size for the crowds they attract and implying the less than intimate nature of Eden Park would destroy the organisation’s loyal following. That gave the Warriors a ‘reprieve’; they were allowed to stay.

Cricket has gone from opposition to fatalistic acceptance, even though the cost of making Western Springs cricket-friendly is enormous.

Auckland Rugby, aware of the political nuances of the high level game of musical chairs, remained tight-lipped, as did Rugby NZ.

Speedway, meanwhile, was slowly being badgered into submission by a revised proposal to move the sport to a new facility in south Auckland.


Private funding sought for public venue

Bill Buckley, 2011 New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year, and widely acknowledged as the ‘father’ of speedway at the Springs, has told the Council he will not pay out of his own pocket for the cost of moving speedway to an unproven venue at Colin Dale Park near Auckland Airport.

The Council had asked him to tip more than $5million into the move – a sum that equals Mr Buckley’s investment in revitalising the Springs and keeping it viable in its traditional home. And I’m not at all sure there is any reason why he should throw his money at the Council’s proposal. After all, he’s not the rights holder,

So that leaves speedway preparing to pack up and move out of Western Springs by March 31, and with no new venue as yet confirmed.

Worse still was a recent letter from Council Chief Executive Stephen Towns to Bill Buckley saying if Mr Buckley was to refuse to stump up the $5million then Council would examine putting the rights to promotion of speedway out to tender at the March 16 deadline. Some in the sport see that as simple blackmail, and question why the Council feels it owns the promotional rights to the sport.

One of those interested in tendering, though has his own viewpoint on the absence of transparency around the right to speedway at the Springs. Wendy’s Restaurants boss Dan Lendich, who also owns earthworks firm Lendich Construction, says he would be one of many who would line up to place a tender for the rights, though he was not interested in running a consortium based approach. Former Springs promoter Willie Kay, now based at Baypark Speedway in Tauranga has also expressed an interest.

Mr Lendich told the Stuff website he predicted any move to Colin Dale would see a huge drop in attendance and also face issues due to being so close to the airport. Sports already in place at Colin Dale include offroad racing, junior motocross and radio controlled boats; there are also plans for a world-class kart track there.

Often this process of blow and counter-blow, threat and bluster is simply the smoke that arises before a deal is struck that suits all parties. Hopefully that is the case for speedway and that the resolution keeps in mind the needs and interests of the fans of the sport, whose support is often lost from view when multi-million dollar developments are at stake.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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