It was always going to come – the day the leaseholders (an Auckland City Council trading entity) pulled the plug on Auckland’s Mt Wellington Kart Track (or to give it its current ‘official’ name, Mansons TCLM Raceway).
The track was built on a pocket handkerchief of land tucked in between Tainui Rd and the main rail corridor in Auckland’s increasingly busy ‘inner-east,’ and has been operating under a cloud since before I joined (in the late 1980s). That said, the fact that its (at one stage week-by-week) lease kept being renewed meant a letter to members from current KartSport Mt Wellington President Brent Robb at the end of May outlining ‘the beginning of the end,’ still came as a bit of a shock.
Actually it came as a lot more than that because for all sorts of us – drivers obviously, but also dads, mums, grandads & grandmothers, mates, cousins, neighbours, family friends and people in the trade, ‘Mt Wellie’ has never been just a kart track. Like some sort of latter-day, suburban Colosseum for the greater Auckland motorsport community it has been all sorts of other things, from meeting place to crucible to that wonderfully descriptive Te Reo Maori word, turangawaewae (defined both as ‘a place to stand,’ and ‘a place where we feel especially empowered and connected’).
My own relationship with Mt Wellie started way back when – in 1987 – I was the Motoring Editor and reporter who covered the motorsport beat for the Auckland Sun newspaper. One morning the paper’s Sports Editor Andrew Sanders passed on the contact details of ‘some guy whose boy is the local kart champ and is off to Australia to race….’
As a kid I had done a lot of reading about karts and karting but ended up following my other passion, motorcycles, through my teens and into my 20s. So, while I knew enough about the sport (you needed lots of ‘general knowledge’ when you were a reporter in those days because there was no Google and/or Wikipedia to fill in the gaps) to get to Mt Wellie for an interview and afterwards put together a decent sort of daily news story, I failed dismally when the Dad (Ian Verrall of Auckland’s first ‘proper’ kart shop, Roundabout Karts, offered me a go in the kart they has brought along as a prop for the photo.
In my defence, the kart was son Dale’s pukka ICA-class title winner, and like the highly-strung thoroughbred racing machine it was, it barely put up with Dale let alone a ham-fisted first-timer who up until that day had never even sat in a kart, er, me!
Long story short Ian, Dale and the photographer all enjoyed a good old laugh at my expense as I struggled to keep the kicking, bucking, snorting bitch of a thing in a straight line, let alone try and wrestle it around the first corner. .
That could well have been it as far as karts and I were concerned had – several years later – I not been invited indoor karting with members of the Waitemata Motorcycle Club. Never mind that these good old boys were more into riding dirt bikes in the Riverhead Forest, they adapted amazingly quickly to four wheels and slick tyres, resulting in the Indoor Karting world’s version of ‘last man standing……’
I’ve no idea who ‘won’ the night. What I do know is that I immediately resolved to ‘find out a bit more about this whole karting business’….which led me to the door of Roundabout Kart Shop and Ian and Dale Verrall. Ian – of course – was happy to take me back to Mt Wellie and put me in an altogether more suitable, KT100 Yamaha-engined Kiwi Kart…if for no better reason to see if I could at least complete a lap without stalling, spinning or fouling another bloody spark plug.
And the rest, as they say, is history. I bought the EX – and fairly quickly updated to the new Uno model – and what followed was a roller-coaster few years of life as a Mt Wellie karter. I still have – and cherish – the trophies I earned from that period, though, what I realise now, is that the actual racing was only part of the attraction of belonging to such a storied club.
Though I started at the relatively advanced age of 32, every driver 16 years and over had to run in ‘Club Class’ with an ‘X’ rear numberplate until they satisfied club officials they could hold their own without doing anything silly. Because of that I got to race against all sorts, from young guns destined for greater things like Cliff Field (who went on to win the NZ Formula First championship) and Simon Gamble (NZ Grand Prix winner), to old hands like Paul (father of Gene, Royce and Kieron) Rollinson.
Each winter, the more serious Auckland-based racing and speedway drivers would also ‘acquire’ (‘buy’ being too strong a word!) cheap karts and join us at Mt Wellie club days. Meaning I can also say I have raced wheel to wheel – and yes, at times beaten fair and square – the likes of former New Zealand Formula Ford champion Andy McElrea, Western Springs speedway Midget legend Graham ‘Mr 100%’ Standring, and yes even the great Craig Baird!
In fact, it is the Saturday afternoon set-up sessions I seem to remember with most clarity and fondness. For instance, before I got to know him and work on his son’s burgeoning motor racing career, I used to wonder who the bloke constantly pacing the infield with one of the first (brick-style) mobile phones clamped to his ear was.
Next thing I know the very same fellow is clearing out an old basement opposite my office in Auckland’s East Street, and when one lunch time I wandered over to see what he was up to and introduce myself the reply I got was; “pleased to meet you Ross. The name’s Ron. Ron Dixon. And this,” I distinctly remember him saying with a theatrical sweep of his arm,” is going to be Auckland’s newest kart shop, Omega Karts!”
It was the same with other people who, as it turned out, would go on to play key parts in my own career as the local motorsport community’s ‘go-to’ guy for all things media.
“Hey,” I said to my young partner in mad and crazy motor racing media schemes at the time, Regan Morgan. “I think that guy over there with his kid is Ian Gamble (who at that point was running Motorsport NZ’s commercial and promotions arm). Let’s go and see what he’s doing here.”
And so we did and soon enough son Simon had the latest (Uno) Kiwi Kart and was competing with us in Club Class.
In a similar vein, when he arrived here to help former McLaren colleague Bob McMurray set up a motorsport promotions business, Peter Burns mentioned to me one day how frustrating it was trying to deal with New Zealand’s informal motorsport business network.
“You should bowl on down to Mt Wellie this Sunday, mate,’ I suggested. “Owen (Evans) will be there with Simon and Mitch and he knows everyone! I can introduce you and you can go from there.”
Sure enough, Peter turned up (albeit looking way too dressed up for a weekend let alone Mt Wellie Sunday morning) and within five minutes was swapping business cards and chatting away between heats and tuning runs with the great and good of the local circuit racing and speedway scene, who were there doing very much the same thing.
Arriving early was also a good way to stay ahead of the burgeoning international careers of the likes of Fabian Coulthard and later Tom Blomqvist. Fabian’s Dad Riki, you see, was one of the top kart engine builders in Auckland at the time, so he spent most weekends at the track looking after the engines of his clients…and chatting away about his son.
Like Fabian, young Tom Blomqvist has also gone on to enjoy the trappings of a professional career in cars. But back in the day I knew him as the older of two sons of Kiwi Mum Kim….and 1984 World Rally Champion Stig Blomqvist! Though Stig remained at ‘home’ in Sweden when Kim returned to NZ with the boys when they were still very young, he was a regular visitor as they grew up and would always turn up at the boys’ home track when he was ‘in town.’
And – of course – when he did I’d always take great pleasure in rolling up, saying Gidday, and trying to extract more than a one word answer from him………..
It was another ‘karting dad.’ However, who probably summed up the unique place ‘Mt Wellie’ had in the scheme of things, best.
It was at one of Bob Cunningham’s famous ‘Christmas meetings’ and on spying Earl and Willie Bamber’s Dad Paul on the clubroom terrace I wandered over for a yack between heat races.
“Good day, eh?” I shouted. “What do you reckon?’
“It’s like the bloody nationals here, ‘he laughed. “You’ve got what, 70 or 80 entered, and it’s a club day. Incredible……………? Or at least that’s what I think he said because the rest was drowned out by the roar of another capacity grid of 2-stroke racing karts bumping and grinding their way along the start-finish straight as their pilotes waited impatiently for the starting lights to go out and another frantic dash of a race to start.
So yeah, a lot of good memories, and these are just mine.
IndyCar great Scott Dixon got his start at Mt Wellie. So too did fellow club life member, World Karting Champion and Indy Lights race and championships series winner Wade Cunningham.
As befits a place of great mana the club has also used it to farewell brothers in arms, like kart shop impresario Jon Wright, who died of a heart attack while still in his mid-30s, and talented young karter and Mt Wellie alumni Michael McHugh, who died as a result of injuries suffered in a Formula Ford crash at Pukekohe.
In theory the new kart track at Colin Dale Park out by the Auckland Airport will give Auckland karters more than Mt Wellie ever did. In practice though I don’t think any venue could replace whatever Mt Wellie has……or in a couple of months, had.
Which is why, before it shuts for good I’m going to have to borrow or hire a kart and compete at one more meeting. As I write this, in fact, part of my brain is already running a lap. Not a perfect one, mind, but one which hopefully will stand me in good stead when the gate is finally shut for the last time and memories are all I have of Mt Wellie – my ‘special place to race.’