Sorting the wheat from the chaff!

| Photographer Credit: Terry Marshall/Euan Cameron Photography

Usually, when I head to Kuaotunu on the Coromandel Peninsula for a couple of days R’n R, wild horses couldn’t drag me back to Auckland even half a day earlier than absolutely necessary.

Therefore, there had to be a very good reason why I swapped togs, rash top and boogie board for socks, shoes and a clean Fast Company work shirt and headed off back ‘over the hill’ early last Saturday morning.

That reason was the combined Castrol Toyota Racing Series/Valvoline D1NZ motor racing series round at Pukekohe.

Having been impressed by the mix from the first televised round from Teretonga a fortnight ago I decided – despite my wife having booked a Bach over the Waitangi Day ‘long weekend’ so that we could have some – rare – quality holiday time together – that I’d spend the second last day of the break at Pukekohe.

The reason?

Because if I hadn’t my work commitments to other classes and categories meant it was the only round I was going to be able to see the new FT-60 TRS car ‘in the flesh.’

Igor Fraga (FT60) at Teretonga Park, Rnd 2, 2020 TRS. Photo: Terry Marshall

Bizarre but true, and – as it turns out – one of the subjects, I want to raise for discussion in this column this week.

That subject is the annual ‘summer’ series motorsport calendar – or rather ‘calendars.’

I would have thought, for instance, that Motorsport New Zealand, as the ‘governing body of ‘motorsport in this country, would have some sort of mandate to protect the mana of its long-running premier series.

You’d think, too, that they would be working actively both with the promotor – Speedworks – and with the company – Toyota – whose two series are effectively anchoring it, to polish it to the point where it positively glistened.

So how come – for instance – the calendar is such a dog’s breakfast. And how come the support slots are so – there’s no other word for it – ‘random.’

Actually, I don’t really care whose ‘fault’ it is. And I’d much rather be patting someone’s head for a job well done that kicking some hapless schmuck’s arse for a problem not of his or her making; or well above his or her pay grade.

But, hell, something’s got to be done. And quickly too. Otherwise we run the very real risk of our premier series becoming irrelevant to competitor and spectator alike.

And that – in a word – would be a tragedy, albeit, one which – in my humble opinion, could be relatively easily sorted with a little leadership – rather than acquiescence – from the top.

It’s not as if you have to start with a clean sheet of paper – or Excel spreadsheet either. It has, after-all, been done before.

Traditionally, our ‘National calendar’ (you know, the club-based one that the Formula Firsts, Pro7, Pre65s, HQ Holdens/Super Sixes etc have run on since Adam was a cowboy started at Labour Weekend and ended at Easter with a longish ‘summer’ break in the middle). Sure, there might be the odd meeting in January or February, but those two months were generally ‘ring-fenced’ for the long-running (i.e. the first ‘Tasman Series, for instance, ran way back in 1964) summer motor racing championship series.

I know that New Zealand was ‘a very different place’ back in the day, without the mass participation motorsport enjoys today.

I also know that having current F1 stars – the likes of Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart etc plus local up-and-comers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon – must have been a hell of a strong drawcard back then when the shops were shut from 9.00pm on Friday until 9.00am on Monday and when magazines like UK weekly Autosport took three months (via sea freight) to get here.

But let’s get real. The grids were often little more than half the size of the current Castrol TRS one. And I defy any old codger telling me that the ‘racing was better’ back then.

If you bothered to turn up – as I did – at Pukekohe last Saturday, for instance, the buzz, the frisson, the sheer pent-up excitement that was unleashed each time the Castrol TRS cars were wheeled out into pit lane, had the exact same effect on my stomach (think butterflies!) as the same artfully choreographed scenario at the Australian F1 GP at Melbourne, or any Virgin Australia Supercar Series round, here or across the Tasman.

I can also remember sitting in the media room at Hampton Downs last year as the final Castrol TRS qualifying session played out on the track below me and in the timing screen in front of me.

With Johnathan Green’s excitable commentary keeping me up to speed, I truly felt part of something special….as one of the young Kiwi karters whose early career I had covered, Marcus Armstrong, traded fastest times with Lucas Auer, and eventually prevailed – albeit by a margin of just 0.073 of a second!

This year it was another young bloke who I got to know through my involvement with karts. Liam Lawson, who provided all the fireworks, getting quicker and quicker – as is his way, apparently – as the day and weekend went on, adding his name to the NZ Motor Cup trophy with a performance which saw him the only driver to dip below the ‘magic minute mark’ (59.995) – a truly remarkable achievement…. In the feature race.

By and large the blokes in charge of getting the news out are doing a fairly decent sort of job of getting the news out too.

Series TV partner VoltMedia (Dave Hedge) provides a service the equal of any other professional around the world, ably aided and abetted by J. Green Esq. and Sky Sport’s Stephen McIvor.

Richard Gee is also doing an excellent job in his role as Speed Works’ media guy, producing timely ‘who-won-what-when-how’ press releases before, during and after each round, as well as feeding relevant media story ideas for them to chase.

Toyota themselves deserve a solid pat on the back for committing to the new ‘halo ‘n turbo’ FT-60 as well.

It certainly looks – and bar the odd teething glitch – seems to go like the pukka F3-esque car it was touted as and bar what looked at Pukekohe like a predilection to understeer, you – or at least Liam Lawson – seem/s to be able to wring its neck and it just goes faster and faster.

The ‘product’ therefore is sound, as is its presentation. So where were the spectators? You know, the reason you have a ‘show’ in the first place?

A large crowd gathered at Timaru International Raceway, the same weekend as the Speed Works meeting down the road at Teretonga in Invercargill

A fortnight ago, those in the South Island were at Timaru watching Trucks, Muscle Cars and the Archibald’s Historic Touring Cars rather than at Teretonga watching the Castrol TRSs.

They were back (at Levels) apparently this last weekend too, in impressive numbers, at the South Canterbury Car Club’s annual ‘Classic’ meeting.

This time though, that would have had zero effect on the ‘gate’ at Pukekohe.

I’m sure some fans who might otherwise have ‘popped out to Puke’ on either day had already decided to take advantage of Waitangi Day falling on a Thursday to head to Bach or bush, and those who ventured – as I did – to the Coromandel would no doubt have swelled the ‘gate’ at the Leadfoot Festival.

Any of those not involved – as I was – at the Skope Classic in Christchurch, the weekend before, could simply have headed down SH1 another 20-or-so kms too, to Hampton Downs , and checked out the new FT-60 – and new crop of future motor racing stars – there.

Which begs the obvious ‘calendar’ question……….who was the Brainiac/rocket scientist etc who thought putting on two – virtually – identical meetings at circuits within (as the crow flies) probably less than 20 kms apart, on consecutive weekends, was a good idea?

When I was a kid, for instance, the annual summer motor racing series started ‘up north’ with a non-championship or rather, independently promoted, New Year’s meeting at the Bay Park circuit at ‘the Mount, then moved to Pukekohe or Levin on the first weekend in January, Levin or Pukekohe on the second, then Wigram (ChCh) the third and finally my ‘home’ track, Teretonga, on the fourth.

This was a recipe you buggered round with at your peril, as I remember former MotorSport NZ boss Kerry Cooper lamenting what be considered low crowd numbers at Teretonga at the height of the NZV8 series in the early 2000s.

The problem was the date – MotorSport NZ moving the Teretonga one back to the first or second weekend in January when, as a Uni mate laughingly told me… ‘Invers is a ghost town for the first two or three weeks in January, even the cockies are up at Wanaka or Hawea then.’

Give the locals a weekend date that works for them – as the Southland Sports Car Club has of late with its successful Classic Speedfest meeting in February (where I will be this coming weekend!!!) and they will turn up in droves.

Sure, a caveat to that is give them something familiar and exiting to watch as well. But – and I’m deadly serious here – I think that the Castrol TRS is exactly that.

All it – and the rest of New Zealand’s booming motorsport scene – needs is a little active calendar management.

What I would like to see, for instance, is.

1/ An ironclad commitment from MotorSport NZ to rebuild the annual (what’s it called now? That’s right….) BP MotorSport NZ Championship to its rightful place as the jewel in the crown of the local motorsport scene.

2/ As part of that commitment ring-fence some key dates based on local nuance from the first weekend in January until the second in February

3/ Forget any idea of fairness or looking after your mate/s and sort out a support class schedule which complements, supports and actively entertains spectators and – arguably just as importantly – looks good on TV.

BNT V8s at Pukekohe on Saturday with empty grandstands in the background

4/ Conduct a ruthless ‘Night of the Long Knives’ purge of all classes which are struggling to produce the numbers and/or are obviously past their use-by date.…starting with the BNT V8s and NZ Formula Ford championship (both frankly appalling at Pukekohe) and including whatever the V8 Ute class is called these days.

5/ Spread your net wide when looking for replacements…. i.e. I’m assuming an NZ TCR series is on its way. But right now, some of the coolest cars and closest, most entertaining racing is taking place at ‘Classic’ meetings in classes as diverse as the one-make E30 BMW one to Central Muscle Cars. It might also be worth thinking ‘well’ outside the square, and shoulder-tapping Targa boss Peter Martin…or SAS Autoparts MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series coordinator Tony Jack. Again, you are after numbers and entertaining racing and both categories can provide that.

6/ Finally, and this is where I think Toyota needs to be invited to ‘step up.’ The company has long been the dominant player in the New Zealand car market. And I know, wherever you go in this wonderful little country of ours you see more Toyotas old and new on – and off – our roads than any other marque. I can only imagine the amount of money the company has spent on getting the Castrol TRS Series where it is today. Yet the way I see it it’s time the company – in partnership with its dealers – completed the promo circle. Imagine the boost to crowd numbers, at each and every Castrol TRS meeting, if for instance, instead of just receiving a txt telling me it’s time to get a WoF for one or other of the kids’ Camrys, I also received an offer of a free family pass (they could even add the caveat that the pass was only valid if we turned up in a Toyota!!) to a round of the 2021 Castrol TRS! It’s called marketing, and – again oddly enough despite my choosing a career in journalism – it was the only subject I got an ‘A’ in when I was at Uni!

As always, of course, these are just my thoughts. You might think I am so right it’s scary. Or so wrong you want to punch me. Either way I’d love to know what your opinion on our over-packed summer motor racing calendar and how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

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. Wylie

    Agree should go back to going from North to South. Support classes should be classes that can produce a decent field (minimum 20 cars). Of course the costs shouldn’t be prohibitive to the competitors entering. (old adage bums on seats goes for both competitors and spectators, if no bums on seats drop the price). Biggest problem to now and when we attended in the 60’s & 70’s is 24/7 shopping, lets follow the Germans and at least drop Sunday shopping get back to people enjoying sport either as a participant, spectator or administrator.

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  2. Mark Baker

    Broadly agree. One point though, the final one, isn’t quite on the money. Toyota DID try the tix to the racing thing through its dealers for about three years, you could get them by booking a WOF or service or taking an 86 for a test drive – in other words interact with your local dealer. You could also get tickets if you just went into your dealer and asked nicely. The results were in the five-ten-fifteen ticket range. I don’t think I sheet that home to Toyota, since as a category they do SO much more than the V8s or the F1600s or Ssangyongs to get punters to the circuits. I think it’s more about the pressure on leisure time and our assumption that people would just love to come spend a whole day sitting eating artery-hardening deep fried crap and getting sunburn watching some good racing and a lot of filler.
    I wonder what the criteria is to be a support class these days – pay money? Where we had a clearly defined Tier structure, and racing that included the Swift and MINI one make series, the Porsche GT3s, TRS and more, we now have weirdness.
    One last question: while the slow demise of the V8 and V8 ute categories is becoming apparent, are we going to see TCR? Really?
    I get more of a sense that one was a gun fired too early and am wondering if the organisation has over-extended itself into the strange old/modern S5000 grid for the Aussie GP meet this year?

    Mark Baker

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