Before I launch into Pt 2 of my ‘Best/Worst of 2019 column’ I would like to honour the memory of my boyhood friend and lifelong ‘bestie’ Donald Johnston……who succumbed to a dirty, evil, ugly, bastard form of Cancer at the beginning of the year.
I know I wrote in September this year of my ‘unease’ at turning 60. Yet when I think about Donald – as I still often do – I realise what a charmed ride I have had.
I’m sure that Donald, and others like him cut down in their prime by disease, accidents or simple happenstance, would have loved just to get to 60….yet he was cruelly taken at age 59, on Wednesday January 16.
His wife Sue phoned a couple of days later to tell me….but I was at a drift meet at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park in Taupo, so it was left to my wife Delia to ‘break the news’ to me when I got home finally on Sunday night.
What made getting the message that my best mate from school and – after that – easy-going, life-long friend had died, extra hard was the fact that I had just enjoyed two full days skidding up my old Skyline at Taupo and was on a real (very rare, believe me) high when I pulled into the driveway back in Auckland that night.
Looking back on it now, it was one of those euphoric ‘all is well with the world’ moments – which could well have lasted into Monday, even Tuesday, had Delia not had to sit me down and break the terrible news….
Instead I went through the usual ‘denial, tears, anger, more tears etc etc’ stages of grief that night and the next morning (and morning after that, morning after that etc etc) and was really only getting over it when just over four months later I found out – via a post from a mate on Facebook this time – that another guy I knew, liked and admired, Sam Smith (main picture), had also died…this time by his own hand.
Like Donald, Sam was both a truly lovely bloke (warm, sincere, and with a smile never far from his lips) and an absolute natural on a bike. I – a journeyman rider/driver whose passion for the activity always seemed (and still does!) to run ahead of my ability to deliver on or off the road on two or four wheels – was drawn to both by the ease with which they conducted themselves through life as much as through events.
Both wore their extraordinary abilities lightly and when, for instance, travelling the country contesting the New Zealand Enduro Championships for the local Husqvarna importer stopped being fun, Donald simply stopped racing. He continued to ride a bike around his farm, but that’s all it was to him, a farm bike.
Sadly, Sam, didn’t really have a choice about continuing his two-wheel career. A serious head injury saw him effectively retire from road racing just as he was getting into his stride on a Superbike. And it was only when he came up to me ….and reintroduced himself at a drift meeting at Taupo that our paths crossed again.
It was with great pleasure then that I had the opportunity (as PR Guy for the D1NZ National Drifting Championship at the time) to fill in anyone foolish enough to ask; ‘who’s this Sam Smith then?’ on his blue chip background and what I considered a gold-plated future in his new sport.
Again, though, Sam’s tenure in the sideways sport was fleeting….though this time, thanks to Instagram and Facebook I was able to at least keep in touch as he subsequently bought and raced a TQ Midget AND got back into bikes.
The latter was via a MX bike modded to US Flat Track style to run on a purpose-built oval Sam had built near his Pukekohe home.
Unfortunately, every time he seemed to pull on a helmet Sam would get a head knock and a resultant concussion…and, I guess it all got too much for him.
I’ve since done quite a bit of reading up on suicide, but really, I am none the wiser. Best I think to let time do its healing thing so that eventually, one day, when we think about friends and/or acquaintances taken (or who have chosen to sign-off early) before their allotted time, it will be with a smile rather than a tear.
Anyhoo, that’s two of my Worst Of 2019 moments out of the way. Let’s launch into some Best Ofs. And remember, this is my utterly arbitrary list which I’ll keep relatively short this time around, and go for quality rather than quantity. I’m sure there are others equally compelling and/or worthy ones which you are welcome to name-check – preferably with a reason why you rate it/them so highly – in the Comment section.
Best championships series of 2019
Virgin Australia Supercars championship
What can you say about a series which pits a field of 20-or-so purpose-built race cars piloted by our region’s best drivers and presented with a larrikin-professionalism by a crew who walk (and talk) the finest of lines between too much and not enough information with such practised and good humoured ease.
Best driver in the series
Castrol Toyota Racing Series
Best Bars Toyota 86 Series
SsangYong Rhino (Ute) Racing Series
NZ V8 Utes.
Best Kiwi drivers
For a kid from Whenuapai in West Auckland Nick Cassidy has gone a long way – to the very top of manufacturer-based tin-top (Super GT) and single-seater (Super Formula) racing in Japan. He has done it with talent, grace and modesty too.
Shane Van Gisbergen, Earl Bamber, Brendon Hartley, Michael Pickens, Darren Kelly, Matthew Hamilton etc, etc.
Marcus Armstrong, Liam Lawson, Willie Bamber, Simon Evans, Andre Heimgartner, Jaxon Evans, Hunter McElrea, Jordan Michels, etc, etc.
Scott Dixon, Mitch Evans, Hayden Paddon, Mad Mike Whiddett, Daniel ‘Fanga Dan’ Woolhouse, Tom Blomqvist, Fabian Coulthard etc, etc.
Whatever happened to?
Ben Harford, Jayint Singh & James Munro
Best single piece of news for motor racing fans in 2019?
That Rally New Zealand is back on the WRC calendar in 2020
The ‘Black Cat’ award for ‘luck so bad it’s hard to actually believe’
Best ‘under the radar’ motorsport event of 2019
MSC New Zealand Drift Challenge at Evergreen Drift Park on Dec 21 & 22
The Goodride Tyres’ Aoteoroa ‘Land of the Long White (smoke) Cloud’ award
Best scholarship programme to give you a leg up (if you’re a kid)
SpeedSport Formula First
Best scholarship programme for a bit of fun if you’re not (a kid)
Dunlop (BWW) E30
Still the best ‘Bucket list’ event
Best NZ events as viewed from afar?
Silver Fern International Historic Rally, Leadfoot Festival, Archibald’s Historic Touring Car Series
Still going strong after 17 years
SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
South Island Formula Ford Championship
Best contemporary circuit
Best gnarly old-skool South Island circuit
Timaru International Motor Raceway (Levels)
Shit we need to sort out, like, what the hell is a ‘classic’ racing car?
My idea of a classic NZ racing car (even if it is a replica) is a car from – say – the earliest days of motor racing in his country (the NZ Motor Cup-winning Stutz from Muriwai, say) in the 1920s to cars like the late Ian Munt’s V8 Capri, the Ron Sylvester Chev coupe, Inky Tulloch’s Z28 Camaro right through to any surviving cars from the Ford Escort Sport, or Laser Sport one-make series. In other words, if they are old and were raced here, they have a place on the programme whether they are a mega-buck Super Tourer or road-going club-spec Ford Anglia. My idea is NOT of a bunch of contemporary Mazda MX5s even if they now fulfil the rolling eligibility date cut-off, or garish modern-colour Pre-65 Series cars keen for an extra canter, or – worse still – a field of the latest ultra hi-tech aero/ground effects-aided, Superbike or Suzuki Hayabusa-engined Radical or Juno sports racing cars
By allowing this sort of ‘blurring of the boundaries’ the organisers of meetings like the MG Classic are, in my humble opinion, demeaning the true intent of ‘classic racing’ to the point where perhaps we need an all-new category of meeting for ‘Super Clubman’ cars and drivers of any age
Main picture: Sam Smith as I first knew him. A shining star on a road-race bike (if this case a Yamaha YZF-R1 Superbike)