Because the night……is made for driving!

I’ve been travelling to and from motorsport meetings for (gulp!) close to 50 years now yet – in all that time – I can’t once remember reading about the process.

I’ve heard – indeed shared – many a ‘tall-tale-and-true’ of narrow escapes, epic adventures and general daring do. But – and please, I’m happy to be proved wrong here – I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or even heard about) a column or editorial devoted to the subject.

Which suits me, because if you read last week’s column on Winch Challenges, I said towards the end of it that this week’s would be about a couple of Kiwi businesses doing as well as Kiwi drivers Liam Lawson and Marcus Armstrong on the world stage….

Which I WILL get around to writing when I have all the info, I need in front of me…. but that as it turned out, was never going to happen in a week!

So.

To kick off this one about epic trips home from race meetings I’ll outline two of my most memorable from years racing in, spectating and reporting on two- and four-wheel events then expect a comment section full of YOUR best ones over the next week or so.

The first involved a road crash scene at the base of the Edendale Hill (between Invercargill and Gore) in the early 1970s.Thinking about it, it was probably the first real road accident I had ever been driven past, bearing in mind I must have been only 11 or 12 at the time.

The reason the image has stuck around for so long in my mind’s eye, however, is that it involved one of the F5000 cars that had left such an indelible impression on my young eyes, ears and internal body organs at the Teretonga round of the Tasman Series earlier that day.

For those with better memories than mine it was the year it rained…….(yes I know, that really helps to narrow it down when, sorry Lindsay, we’re talking about Teretonga here!!!) but also the year that Graham McRae spun right in front of where I was standing at Castrol……and it might have been the year that Chris Amon won in the bright fluro pink March 701.

But back to the trip home. The Edendale Hill was a well-known local landmark, one – again, which I have the vaguest of vague memory of – had recently been realigned, widened, straightened up and re-sealed.

At the speeds my mother used to drive her MkII Cortina Deluxe not even sheets of black ice running diagonally across it would have sent us into the lazy series of yings and yangs that I have since discovered are always the precursors to ‘a big spin off into the salad.’

But I’ve followed enough single axle trailers since to realise that a combination of speed, poor load distribution and – perhaps – a slowly deflating tyre can be a potent combination of spin precursors when one is heading down a fairly steep hill.

Which is what must have happened here.

Southland was slumbering under a thick layer of lazy summer rain cloud that day and there were still lurid marks across both lanes of the rain slicked road and thick mud-brown duvets dug into the lush roadside cocksfoot as we carefully sidled by.

The trailer, as I remember was an enclosed white jobbie, and it must have had some ‘Matich Racing’ ID on it because I remember (not quite sure how) that it was ‘Frank Matich’s car’ inside.

Then we were past and my fat little 10 or 11-year-old face was pressed to the slanted back window of the Anglebox rather than the side one.

So that’s my first epic ‘on the way home’ story I am happy to share. And, please, if you have some more (or perhaps that should read) more ‘reliable’ info on what I will call ‘The Great Edendale Hill Incident’ I’d love to hear it.

Fast forward – literally – 10 to so years and after being introduced to the wonderful world of dirt bikes by my good friend (and sadly now the late) Donald Johnston, and the South Island Enduro Championship series by gregarious Gore bike shop owner Allistair Meikle, I helped set up Team Endo so that Donald (DJ) and our other bike riding mate, (Mac) Donald Allan and myself could enter the team’s as well as the individual sections of the (then thriving) Enduro series.

Because I went on to live and study at Uni in Dunedin I missed the best  bits of the Team Endo story, though in my last year living at home in Gore (which would have been 1977) we topped the team’s section in the tough-as Switzers Enduro on Argyle Station between Waikaia and Piano Flat.

That prompted us to decide to travel and do all the South Island Series rounds in 1978…a year in which the fuel crisis was having a real impact on people’s lives, including people like us who – thanks to our mentor and ‘sort-of manager’ Allistair – wanted to travel to all the rounds in a weekend, so he could be home to time to open the door of Cycle World Yamaha at 9.00am sharp on Monday morning.

That first year I travelled to Nelson and back to Dunedin with some guys I had met through the Mosgiel & District Motorcycle Club.

The year after (1979) I focused on doing the National Series (Including a trip to Hamilton and return in the back of one of those old fat, round Commer vans) but was offered a seat in exchange for driving duties to and from the Nelson round of the South Island series in Allistair’s flash new Toyota Corona liftback.

As per usual I can’t remember much about the trip up to Nelson, bar the fact that when the lads turned up late on the Friday afternoon to collect me from my flat deep within Dunedin’s student ghetto, strapped (somewhat precariously) between the tow ball and the bikes on the trailer was a huge drum (OK not a 40 gallon one but at least 20) which, Allistair chuckled , was our ‘secret weapon.’

This was the year the Government finally ‘got tough’ on the use of petrol with Carless Days introduced to limit private car use during the week and no petrol stations open (I think I am right there, but perhaps someone who knows the system better than me, can correct me if I am wrong!) over the weekend.

“So,” Allistair enthused, “we’ll fill the drum, the car and the bikes plus our spare jerry cans for the event before the last station up the road closes today and have enough to get us home again on Sunday night, easy.”

Nowadays Health and Safety would have a fit if you rocked up to a service station and tried to do what we did but this was the 70s remember and no one seemed to bat an eyelid.

Though there’s very little use asking me ‘how we did’ at the Nelson Enduro that year I do remember staying on for prizegiving (which may or may not have been held deep in the Golden Downs Forest) and finally dragging ourselves reluctantly away just after 9.00pm.

It being not only his pretty much brand-new car, but also THE first new car Allistair had ever owned, it should come as no surprise that – despite completing two tough days in his IT175 Yamaha – Allistair did most of the driving early on in the trip.

However, I remember he started to flag just north of Christchurch, and – after our final roadside refuel – handed me the keys and said something like ‘drive safely, I need some shuteye.’

Which I swear I would have had boredom and what I now know of as an extraordinary ability I seem to have to focus on driving long past a point where most of my peers would be curled up, snoring, in the foetal position.

Because I too had a hard deadline to meet (I had to start work at my May Uni holiday job at the Mataura tannery at 7.00am that morning) I knew we had to be passing through Ashburton at or around 1.00am, Timaru by 2.00am and Dunedin by 4.00am.

Challenge set I then proceeded to slowly up the cruising rate from an indicated 110-120km/h to 125/130km’h and eventually as we got into the ‘meat-and-potatoes’ part of the Canterbury Plains a steady 145/150km/h.

For a while Allistair tried hard to stay just awake enough to chide me with a sleepy ‘going-a-bit-quick-there-Ross’ but eventually even he nodded off, leaving me in a blissful state of late-night tunnel vision.

To say we made good time would be an understatement, despite the odd scare – having to swerve to avoid a lightless Mini pootling along at a heady 40 or so km/h near Chertsey, was one, catching and whistling past some dirty old hippy’s (again, unlit) house truck like it was standing still somewhere south of Timaru, was another.

Otherwise our trip south passed remarkably smoothly; considering I was able to sit on 150km/h for what felt like hours at a stretch.  I could have sat on 160km/h, in fact, had we not had that bloody – still probably a third full – drum of petrol strapped to the trailer.

Up to 150-155km/h the Corona breezed along. Somewhere north of 150 and south of 160km/h, however, the combination of load, weight and road surface set off some sort of longitudinal harmonic…. which rocked Allistair awake every time.

“Bit fast there Ross,” he’d mumble, before returning to sleep as I settled back to a steady 150km/h.”

Needless to say, we arrived back in Gore about an hour-and-a-half before we were originally scheduled to, a fact I attributed to “a good run with bugger-all traffic!”

I’ve since done that trip many times by car and motorcycle, but no trip comes close to the one which for me neatly bookmarked the end of one era (childhood I guess) and beginning of another (adulthood).

The other good thing for me was that it was the beginning of a lifelong love of big, long, late night trips, on roads – in most cases – clear of the usual cast of idiots, slowpokes, ditherers, dickheads and txters who make driving during daylight hours these days such a fraught and soulless affair.

Give me a place to go, a reason to go there and suitable car, bike, ute or even van and I’ll pack it the night before, set the alarm for 3.00am and be in bed by 7.00pm.

Like this weekend just passed, when I borrowed one of Mitsubishi’s (very good they are too!) new Triton 4×4 utes to tow my old Skyline down to the big CAR-nival car enthusiast gathering at Taupo’s Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park on Sunday.

While my wife suggested I go down late Saturday to get ‘a good sleep’ before a full day of activity at the track on Sunday, I knew better.

Driving from Auckland to Taupo during the day is an exercise in frustration towing a race car. Yet doing the same trip between 3.00 and 6.30-7.00am on Sunday morning can be (and in this case was) an absolute joy!

Because?

Because (to paraphrase a classic Patti Smith song) the night is made for driving……because the night is made for us!

But these are only my thoughts and my opinion. Am I right, here? Or wrong? And if you’ve got a classic/funny/scary ‘on the way home from a motorsport event drop me a line in the Comments section!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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2 comments
  1. AllanC

    I concur with Ross that night driving has considerable attraction. Ask a certain person from a Christchurch car club about a non stop drive from Christchurch to Invercargill, up the west coast to Nelson and back home within an obscenely fast time.
    One early morning incident that springs to mind is the 5am leaving of the 2016 Clubsport Champs from Teretonga to get back to Christchurch at a reasonable time. Steve Hall (multiple winner of the National Motorkhana Championship and best driver I have had the pleasure to travel with) was at the helm of his trusty Toyota Corona with my Barina racecar on a borrowed trailer in tow.
    Around Edendale we were hearing a peculiar noise. We stopped and checked for a suspected flat tyre but all was well. Within 10kms there was a sudden lurch and trailer dropped onto it’s left hub as the wheel disappeared off the side of the road having sheared the studs.
    Suggesting to Steve, who is a genius handyman/mechanic, that we call the AA was not a wise thing. Within 10 minutes the wheel had been recovered, trailer jacked up with the unmoved Barina still in place and the studs had been hammered from the Hub. My job was to stand guard as Steve headed to Mataura in search of replacement studs.
    About an hour later Steve returned, having been further up the road to Gore to find the right parts, and within another 30 minutes the trailer had been restudded, panelbeated and reshod.
    We still made it back to Christchurch in reasonable time.
    Allan C

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  2. admin

    I remember a competitor’s Toyota Racing Series car in a trailer going off the road heading to the North Island in the 2005/06 season. Both sustained a certain amount of damage. The story goes that their major sponsor was asked to help with repairs but there was nothing forthcoming. Turned out that the sponsor never fronted with any money for the whole time his livery was on the car (and in the end that wasn’t very long), just promises. He soon ‘Got-out-of -Dodge’ and headed back overseas.

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