Of the future: The future of NZ motorsport – plus ca change!!

This week Talkmotorsport runs a series of articles on the future (post-Covid-19 lockdown) of motorsport…. Ross MacKay gives us his point of view

Future, schmuture….I’ve been successfully predicting ‘the future’ of both the local and – to some degree anyway – the global motor racing scene since I started writing about karts, karting and karters in the mid-to-late 1990s.

‘Kids’ who have gone on to forge successful motorsport careers on my watch (and with a little bit of a publicity push via my consultancy, Fast Company)  have included the likes of Scott Dixon, Earl Bamber, Wade and Mitch Cunningham and Shane Van Gisbergen. Others whose progress I have admired through the same period include Nick Cassidy, Mitch and Simon Evans and most recently, Marcus Armstrong & Liam Lawson.

So my predictions of what the motorsport scene is going to look like in a post-COVID-19 world are going to be predicated by the fact that no matter how bad things get on the economic front there will always be ambitious Dads and talented Lads (and Lasses) turning up at tracks around the country and thinking ‘hell, this a bit of us!’

Sure the local economy is – literally – in shit street. But hey, we’ve been there before, and – no doubt – at some point in the future – we will be back there again. Which is where the French saying ‘plus ca change’ comes in.

Regular readers of this column will probably have cottoned on to fact already, but I am also a bit of a ‘student of history,’ and through writing my book ‘Racing – A History of Motorsport in New Zealand (Whitcoulls 2007) I got to appreciate first hand how the sport has grown and prospered here, despite some truly monumental odds.

And so, rather than run around like Chicken Little going ‘woe is me, woe is me,’ the world of motorsport as we know it is rooted, I’m going to look back to the very beginnings of our wonderful sport here in the ‘best little country in the world’ and see how it coped with similar global-scale dramas in and of the past.

They called it the ‘Great War,’ for instance, yet WW1 (1914-18) didn’t kill off motorsport here, or anywhere else for that matter, despite an estimated 22 million global deaths. Nor did the COVID-19-like Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which infected as many as 500 million people (a third of the world’s population at the time) and killed over 20 million.

Just three years later, in fact, Riverhead man Harold Nattrass won the very first ever NZ Motor Cup race on Auckland’s Muriwai Beach, kicking off the first real ‘golden age’ of motorsport here.

The Wall Street stock market crash of October 1929 sent economies around the world into The Great Depression of the early 1930s with unemployment here peaking at around 12% and wages (for those who still had work) cut by at least 20%.

The fact that the Great Depression lingered on for so long should also have had a serious effect on the local motor racing scene. Yet in 1929 a man made wealthy by early – and obviously vert canny – investment in the fledgling car retail game in Auckland, George Henning, opening the country’s first purpose-built circuit (an oval around the circumference of the Pukaki Lagoon near what is now Auckland’s International Airport).

Then, just five years late (in 1934) a second purpose-built oval was opened at Gloucester Park, just down the road in Onehunga.

It was there that the first ‘Midget’ cars were raced though the epicentre of that particular sea-change quickly became Western Springs Speedway (which also opened in 1929 but was initially a venue for two wheels) after a Christmas evening meeting in 1937 which pitted local stars Ron Roycroft and George Smith against a travelling troupe of US and Australian drivers and their ‘Midgets.’

World War 2 cast another pall over motorised sport in this country, but again the sport bounced back – despite the six year conflict claiming 85 million lives across the world.

Speedway returned in 1945 but the big story post-war were the moves to take circuit racing to new heights, first at Christchurch’s Wigram Airforce Base from 1949 for what became the Lady Wigram Trophy event then to Ohakea in 1950 for the very first New Zealand Grand Prix and Ardmore from 1954 for subsequent NZGP events.

Since then there have been other major local and international events which have had an effect. Each time, however, the sport might have come back looking different but stronger and more resilient because of the need to change.

COVID-19 might well have come at  a time when – let’s see, we ‘were’ going to see media megastar Ken Block return to compete on what he has gone on record as saying  are ‘the worlds’ best rally roads. And we ‘were’ finally going to wrest back ‘our’ WRC round from Australia.

Yet perhaps of even greater Post-COVID-19 significance is the EV Rally Car Haydon Paddon and a small but totally dedicated team is building in their industrial unit in Cromwell. I might be no great fan of the whole cynical global push to electric-powered racing car categories.

But hey, with someone like Haydon leading the ‘charge’ (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) that could well be one of the new directions for our sport in the brave new Post-Covet-19 world.

Certainly, my beloved go-karts could go ‘all-electric’ within a year – if absolutely necessary – and the racing would be just as close, just as cut-throat and just as fulfilling – without the noise of  a highly-tuned expansion chamber-equipped 2 stroke engine.

The Formula D drift series in the US has also hosted its first EV drifter – a mean-as Chevrolet Camaro – and right now the only thing stopping it fronting at meetings this year is, as ironic as it might sound,  a budget to run it.

Which in a nutshell is the only thing that is really going to hold motorsport back in the short – money, dollars, mullah. So on one level everything has changed. But on another, nothing has.

Or, as the French would say with a theatrical shrug of the shoulders ‘plus ca change!’ Which in English translates simply to ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same!’

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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