Top drivers came to inaugural race

Bruce McLaren winning the New Zealand International Grand Prix.
Bruce McLaren winning the New Zealand International Grand Prix.

Fifty years ago New Zealander Bruce McLaren launched McLaren Motor Racing Ltd. Before becoming a major force in international motor racing, McLaren competed in Dunedin. Gavin Bertram talks to the man behind the legendary Dunedin Road Races.

The year that he launched a stellar career as a Formula One driver, Bruce McLaren raced on Dunedin's wharfs.

In February 1958, the 20-year-old Aucklander travelled south to drive his Cooper T43 in the Sixth Dunedin Road Race on the Wharf Circuit.

NZ motorsport legend Bruce McLaren at home in the cockpit.
NZ motorsport legend Bruce McLaren at home in the cockpit.

Months later he was driving for the Cooper-Climax team in the Formula One World Championship, becoming the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix the following year.

This year marks 50 years since McLaren founded his own team, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd.

It also marks 60 years since the first Dunedin Road Race, on 1 June 1953. Bob Oakley was the man who devised that event, and made it a reality.

He joined the Otago Sports Car Club in 1951, and was soon on the organisation's committee.
''I had this idea that we could run a street race here,'' Mr Oakley remembers.

''Dunedin was unique because behind the Railway Station there was the industrial area from the Steamer Basin through to the Leith, and there were only two points of entry.''

That meant the area was isolated and wouldn't require busy streets to be closed to the public.

Having got the okay from manufacturing businesses on the wharf, and decided on Queen's Birthday, Oakley contacted motor sport officials in Christchurch.

They agreed to confer New Zealand Championship status on the race if it was a 75-mile event with prize money of £150.

Mr Oakley and fellow motor racing enthusiast Tommy Thompson then approached Dunedin Mayor Len Wright.

''It seemed an outrageous proposal, to run a street race around Dunedin streets,'' Mr Oakley says.

''His answer was 'what a great idea; if it works I'll take the credit, and if it doesn't you take the blame' - a typical Len Wright response.''

With the help of many in the community, including the Territorials, the traffic police, business people, and MP Jim Barnes, arrangements for the First Dunedin Road Race fell into place.

Mr Oakley designed the 1.8 mile circuit, which started on Fryatt St, headed north to Wickliffe St, back along Ward and Thomas Burn streets before turning left back into Fryatt St at the Steamer Basin.

 New Zealand's best drivers, including Ron Roycroft, Syd Jensen, Pat Hoare, and Bob Gibbons entered, with Roycroft winning with a time of 1hr 18min and 28sec over the 43 laps.

The following year the track was modified slightly, and again in 1957 and 1958.

Motor racing in New Zealand was becoming popular, with Formula One drivers visiting to race during the Northern Hemisphere off season. Amongst them were future Formula One champion Jack Brabham, who was beaten by English driver Reg Parnell in the Fifth Dunedin Road Race in 1957.

Bruce McLaren was also in that race, and later purchased the Cooper Brabham had brought to New Zealand. That was when his racing career really began, as a handful of good results (including second in Dunedin in 1958) earned him the inaugural "Driver to Europe" selection.

From there, McLaren became a huge force in international motor sport, before his untimely death at England's Goodwood Circuit in 1970.

In Dunedin, road races were held until 1965 on the Wharf and Oval Circuits. Mr Oakley wasn't involved in the later races.

''I was convinced it could be done and had set out to prove it,'' he says.

''After about three years other businessmen had come to the fore, and you could say the professionals had taken over from the amateurs a bit.''

He'd love to see road racing back in Dunedin, and is convinced in the right hands it could happen again.

''Somebody would have to grab it by the scruff of the neck,'' Oakley considers. ''It would have to be a person and not a committee. If you want to do something outrageous do not have a committee.''

D Scene