Speedway thrills

Desire for speed and thrills strong in Taranaki.

GRAEME DUCKETT
Last updated 08:19 04/01/2014
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Bruce Ovenden and Dave Reader were New Plymouth's only entrants at the 1960 Grand Prix at Bell Block Aerodrome.

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Kiwis have long been obsessed with the thrill of speed and making things go faster by any means possible.

Burt Munro was a prime example. Despite frequent blow-ups and breakages, he took on the world at the Salt Flats in Utah, America, with his outdated but very fast home-modified Indian twin motorcycle and claimed the land speed record for the engine size he ran.

That Kiwi determination and ingenuity coupled with a give-it-a-go attitude were showcased again with the Kiwi-made Britten motorcycle. It was truly a masterpiece and years ahead of its time, with its use of carbon fibre.

With its hand-built quality, performance and handling to match, the Britten wowed the international audience.

That desire for speed and thrills was just as strong in Taranaki.

Speedway has long been associated with this region but, in its infancy, it was little more than the endeavours of few friends, looking for thrills and excitement, who eagerly followed the scene in America through magazines and books and wanted to have it here for all to enjoy.

Motorcycle racing was also popular, and events from the early 1920s were held at the New Plymouth racecourse and drew large crowds. These events included road racing at Tikorangi, Bell Block Aerodrome, the Paritutu circuit and Patea, and scramble events.

From 1937, midget car racing was introduced into New Zealand. By 1950, only two places were holding race meetings regularly - Auckland's Western Springs, where it all started, and at Blanford Park after World War II. Later on, it would be held at the Olympic stadium at Newmarket.

Locally, a small racetrack was built on the corner of Mahoetahi and Devon roads in 1949, and was used until 1950. It was known as the Bell Block Speedway track and used for motorcycle racing and midgets.

In 1950, Waiwhakaiho Show Grounds were chosen as the most suitable venue for speedway events and, after much opposition from the A&P Society, permission was granted and an agreement drawn up with the newly formed Taranaki Midget Car Racing Club.

John Arthur was voted in as president by the new committee. A huge community effort to build the track and safety barriers helped shape the new raceway.

Admission could not be charged on Sundays, traditionally a family day for church and taking the kids to the beach, but it was said that a donation could be asked for.

So it was decided Saturday night would be the ideal night for speedway racing, and that lights would need to be installed. After a lot of hard work, the track was ready for opening night on January 27, 1951.

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Only three midgets were built locally for the first meeting, which were cars No 1, Jack Lambie with his Rugby- powered car; Theo Dodunski with his Chrysler-powered No 13; and Roy Low, with his Jeep-powered No 99.

Of course, other cars were hurriedly being built. The club produced nine cars of its own, while a further nine arrived on the night from the Manawatu area, and 19 from the Auckland garage of Bob Leikis.

Speeches were made by the club president Mr Arthur, Bill Okey from the A&P Society, the track manager Eric Bisset, and by the deputy mayor G H Fry.

The night was a huge success with both drivers and spectators relishing the atmosphere of burning rubber, flying clay and the roar of engines. By the third race meeting, a crowd of more than 9000 gathered to watch the racing. They were beginning to pick their favourites of the night, and George Amor and Theo Dodunski were certainly popular stars, as they clocked six wins and three seconds between them, against some very stiff opposition. It was to become a favourite spot on Saturday night for all ages for many years.

The second season started on December 1, 1951, and big names in the club were Lambie, Bob George, Arthur and Johnny Callander, among others.

Sherlock Holmes, with his V8-60-powered car, was a firm favourite at many events here.

Outside of Western Springs, Waiwhakaiho was for many years the only track to run midgets.

Three-quarter midgets were added in 1953 and solo speedway motorcycles in 1954, while sidecars appeared in the early 1960s.

Some big names in the racing circles raced at Waiwhakaiho, including Frank "Satan" Brewer, Bob Tattersall, Fay Taylor, and Ray Revell.

Those who raced motorcycles would ride to the track on what was their daily rider to work, make modifications in the pits to be ready for action. After the racing, it was back to making them legal again to ride home.

Solo speedway motorcycles, known as dirt-trackers then, were always my favourites, and Ash King and Gary Petersen were our local stars in the early to mid-1960s.

To see Ivan Mauger on the track was like watching the holy grail of solo racing. The smell of leather and Castrol R in the pits was simply heaven.

A-grade solo riders for the 1963-64 season included King, Ernie Stockman, Dave Gifford, Graham Coombes and Bryce Subritzky. Sidecar riders for the season included Wayne Paul-Phil Bretherton, Arthur Roper-Dave Schwass, Ivan Turnbull-John Henderson.

For the 1965-66 season, dirt trackers here were Phil Stokes, Gerald James, King, Jake Pulman, Petersen, Bruce Ovenden and Gifford. Sidecars were Peter Neilson-John Brophy, Jim Allen- Stokes, Ray Wills-Ken Rutherford.

TQs included Duncan Harrison, Ray Charteris, Doug Pullman, Kev Christiansen, Dennis Goble, Neil Bulmer, Bill Corbett, Les Patten, Jim Wood, Ray Christiansen, and Herb Marshall. Midgets included Nev Carter, Les Rusling, Laurie Brooker, Albert Gordge, Trev Gray, Doug McCabe, Ray Carter, Happy Hirano, and Brian Woodward.

Sadly the land was needed for development and, after many years of fun and excitement, the Waiwhakaiho track was gone by 1971.

Stratford Speedway had been well patronised from 1964, with predominantly stock and saloon cars, with the three-quarter midgets and solo speedway bikes appearing in 1975.

Still a popular venue, it enjoys continued support from the crowds who flock to see their favourite drivers roar at top speed to gain the chequered flag and prizemoney amid the heat, the smell of burning rubber, high-octane fuel, the smoke and often flying debris.

- Taranaki Daily News

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