As someone with a foot in both camps (having been born and raised in the South Island but spent most of my adult life living in the North) I’ve always thought I had a reasonable perspective on subjects like ‘which is NZ’s best circuit?’ and ‘which city or region produces the best drivers?’
It would be impossible to overestimate the effect, for instance, the first ever visit to Invercargill’s Teretonga circuit had on my 11-year-old self. Yet as a rider, driver, and plain-old fan, I’d have to say that Pukekohe is my all-time favourite NZ circuit.
In much the same way, while it would be easy for me to say that if you are looking for the next Mitch Evans, Tom Blomqvist or Nick Cassidy the best place to go would be KartSport Mt Wellington’s Manson’s Raceway in Auckland’s inner-east, current – and equally talented contemporaries – Shane Van Gisbergen and Richie Stanaway didn’t get into karts until much later in their fledgling careers.
Van Gisbergen famously got his start on a Suzuki ATV before graduating to a Quarter Midget, Stanaway his in a Speedway Ministock.
As a publicist I’m constantly being drawn into conversations and (on the odd occasion) sit-down meetings about ‘the state of our sport,’ and what we can do to either ‘get more people involved’ or ‘stem the slow decline in competitor numbers.’ Unfortunately for the gung-ho ‘we’ve got to do something and do it now’ types drawn to projects like these I’m probably the last person they need.
For one thing I hate meetings (which in my humble opinion should always be held standing up and last no more than five minutes), and for another I think we worry too much about such things……………….
Take KartSport. The sport is in ridiculous good health and has been for years. Despite a population of just 4.7 million this fantastic little country of ours has 18 active clubs with their own purpose-built tracks from Whangarei in the north to Invercargill in the south plus a SuperKart drivers’ club which organises regular meetings at ‘car’ circuits like Hampton Downs and licenced promotors who run the multi-round Molecule ProKart Series and Giltrap Group New Zealand Rotax Max Challenge series.
No wonder we are one of the few countries outside Europe to produce a CIK-FIA World Karting Champion (Wade Cunningham, 2003).
While it is arguably easier to get your kids into Mini or Junior Motocross (because even the smallest of rural settlements seems to have an active Suzuki, Yamaha or Honda dealer) all anyone who is actually keen to get into karting has to do is jump onto the internet and Google ‘karts and NZ.’ There you will find KartSport NZ’s own site plus those of some of the bigger specialist kart shops.
Clubs around the country also run regular ‘Have-A-Go’ days. These are for adults as well as kids so don’t think you are ‘too old to start.’ I was 32 before I bought my first kart!
Back to cars though.
When I was mulling over what to write about this week my mind returned to a subject I’ve always thought had legs, but which I have never really had an outlet; to whit, which is New Zealand’s top motorsport town?
Objectively it would be all too easy to say ‘Auckland’ because of the sheer number and type of facilities the Queen City has to offer. Because I have an equal interest in motorcycles and cars, and have competed all over the country on or in both, however, I am arguably more attuned to the subjective side of things.
Like? Like how important to the city and environs the annual Cemetery Street race meeting is to Whanganui. Or the incredibly rich and varied history of motorsport (on two, three and four wheels) activity there has been in Christchurch.
To help narrow things down, however, I did what I find myself doing more and more these days, sat down in front of my laptop computer and created an Excel spreadsheet. I then split the country into 19 regions, created eight different ‘facilities,’ (circuit, speedway 4 wheel, speedway 2 wheel, kart, rally, targa, drift and ‘famous son,’ then allocated some points (absolutely arbitrarily) to each. Circuits got 50 points, speedways 30, (Nat level) rallies 40, drift venues 20 and a famous son 10.
And what did I find.
The first thing was that facilities-wise it is hard to go past Auckland as New Zealand’s ‘best place to race.’ True, both the city’s motor racing circuits (Pukekohe and Hampton Downs) are a ‘round hour’ south of the CBD but Auckland also has three active speedway tracks (Western Springs, Waikaraka Park and Rosebank Rd), two active kart tracks (Auckland and Mt Wellington), has hosted both Rally NZ and Targa NZ, now has a dedicated drift track (Evergreen Drift Park) as well as drag strip (Meremere Dragway) and has produced the likes of Bruce McLaren, the Millen brothers Rod and Steve, and (more recently) Mitch Evans, Nick Cassidy and Shane Van Gisbergen. So Auckland not surprisingly, top-scored with 245 points.
The fact that the Mike Pero Raceway complex at Ruapuna Park is a lot closer to downtown Christchurch (20 minutes max!) and can be configured in so many different ways gives the Garden City its own unique advantage in the ‘best place’ stakes, however, earning it a top score of 215 points. Also helping is the fact that Christchurch also has three different Speedway tracks (Ruapuna, Woodford Glen and Moore Park), plus a kart track (Carrs Rd) and continues to host both a Canterbury Rally as well as being the closest city to the infamous Ashley Forest Rallysprint.
If young Marcus Armstrong continues his meteoric rise and rise the city might one day also have a name to match those of motorcycle speedway’s famous trio-at-the-top, the Christchurch born-and-raised Ronnie Moore, Barry Briggs and Ivan Mauger. Not to mention the likes of inspirational motorcycle designer, engineer and builder the late, great John Britten.
Those who have never ventured that far south might be surprised with the place that tied for Christchurch on 215 points, Invercargill.
Anyone who has spent any time in the country’s southern-most province will know, however, what a jewel-in-the-crown the Sandy Point Domain ‘motorised recreational’ precinct is.
Teretonga remains the anchor and a better, more technical 1.6kms of driver and/rider test would be hard to find. However, between it and Oreti Beach are two separate speedway tracks (one for four wheels, the other two and three) plus one of the country’s best kart tracks. Rallying has also always been a popular pastime in Southland, while the annual Targa tarmac event passed through the city in 2014 and returns again as the starting point of this year’s event in October.
As famous sons go there would be few better than Burt Munro (though I think that contemporary and biographer George Begg should get a look in here too), the inspiration for both a famed motion picture, ‘The World’s Fastest Indian,’ and the annual Burt Munro Rally.
Had I added in an ‘other’ line to take into account things to do before or after the race meeting (Bill Richardson Transport Museum, Motorcycle World, even E. Hayes and Sons hardware store) the city could well have got within cooee of Auckland’s score with just a fraction of the population, as well.
Other regions have their own claims to motorsport fame of course. There’s nothing like a little brazen parochial partisanship to either kick start or spice up a debate, either, so if you think your own particular town, city or region is New Zealand’s best place to race, I’d love to hear from you.