By The Spotter
Having a whinge in the media never goes down terribly well in these shaky isles, but in the case of rising motorsport ace Mitch Evans recently doing so in bemoaning a lack of exposure for motorsport in NZ, it may have done some good- there has been some quite decent coverage lately in publications such as the Sunday-Star Times.
However, one of the issues the sport’s administrators might consider doing more about is the lack of an exciting profile at national level. Take the ‘Toyota Racing Series’, for example. Under that moniker, this event has been the premier annual competition for single-seaters in this country since 2006, but who, apart from motorsport diehards, would know (or possibly really care in the slightest, in all brutal honesty).
The lack of publicity for this series is one sticking point. Another is that, although it is obviously a series for emerging drivers, the competitors are a host of no-names to Joe Sportsfan, and I would say probably unfamiliar in the main also to Joe Motorsportfan (aside from perhaps knowing that Pedro Piquet is the son of three-times World Champion, Nelson).
A quick scan through the field reveals another problem- there are almost no New Zealanders. The point being that the series is hardly likely to attract huge crowds or new fans to the sport if there isn’t at least one reasonably high profile Kiwi to cheer on and for kids to aspire to be.
Logistically, the status of the Toyota Racing Series and the associated level of talent it is able to attract is probably about as good as can be hoped for, with established single-seater drivers engaged in other teams or forms of racing around the globe. Putting aside contractual obligations, other events and the like; it is somewhat tragic a national hero like Scott Dixon has never been able to race here since becoming an Indy Car star.
It seems to ring true across sport that if the national shop window is bare, the general populace won’t much be bothered to take a look, let alone become a regular consumer, be it at the grounds or watching on TV.
The national football league here is a prime example of this. It should be known as the Rover League; it is a complete dog whichever way you dress it up, and the All Whites take the field so infrequently that the players practically have to re-introduce themselves upon meeting. Little wonder the public stay away in droves.
Motorsport appears to be in a similar boat, save for the ever-popular V8s. It should be riding high and attracting greater interest due to the efforts of Dixon, Evans, Richie Stanaway, Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Haydon Paddon and more; not to mention our guys in the V8s in Oz. However you wouldn’t know it from watching highlights over the past few summers of the Toyota Series. The embankments and stands have hardly looked packed out. And it was a surprise to discover that Pukekohe is not even up for a round. Surely with the population of greater Auckland and the Waikato area and the burgeoning profile of the sport at the minute, getting reasonable numbers in shouldn’t be too problematic (or is there a lot more to this?)
Even worse, for a person like myself, who first went along to Western Springs speedway as a nine year-old (and still do now at forty-six) and was first taken to Pukekohe raceway at age four, a once highly-prestigious event has for a while now lain buried in anonymity at Manfeild Autocourse in Feilding, in a round of that totally uninspiring-sounding Toyota Racing Series. This event’s sixty-first running will be held on the weekend of 13-14 February.
It is in fact the New Zealand Grand Prix, and it is still the only current national Grand Prix (apart from the Macau event) to have never been included as a round of the World Championship. Although, in its heyday the race would certainly not have been out of place as a part of the Championship.
Once upon a time, the world greats of Formula One raced this event on the Ardmore Airfield track and in later times Pukekohe, to compete as a part of the Australasian circuit known as the Tasman Series. It was the zenith of motorsport here as some of the greats took on our world-famous locals; Denny Hulme, Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren.
A quick look back at the race winners through the years reads like a World Motorsport Hall of Fame. It is a salivating selection: Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Graham Hill, Chris Amon, Jackie Stewart, Keke Rosberg. And for a brilliantly retro moment, try our own ageless wonder Kenny Smith scorching to victory in 1976 in the grunty old power machine, the Formula 5000.
1982 was one of the last great years of the event at Pukekohe and I was lucky enough to be there at as a young Brazilian hotshot named Roberto Moreno had a memorable duel with Kiwi Steve Millen, driving his ‘Smash Palace’ Ralt (the exact same car from the movie). Millen is the brother of Rod Millen and together the two of them were to become huge names in the world of off-road racing, rallying and sports car racing in the United States and Steve also in Europe. At the line Moreno just edged the hometown hero to add another great name to the trophy. (Moreno incidentally was busy forging a promising career in the Benetton F1 team in 1991, when he was mercilessly dumped from the set-up to accommodate an exciting talent who had moved there from the Jordan team after only one race in F1. The man’s name? The one and only Michael Schumacher).
In 1980 on the same track, Millen was lucky to survive what is perhaps the most notorious and most likely spectacular race accident ever recorded on film in New Zealand. And it happened at the first corner, right off the grid. Millen sent his Chardon-sponsored Ralt RT-1 into a terrifying somersault and ended up hospitalised for a lengthy stay. View it here:
The back story to this carnage being that Millen’s main sponsor bigwigs reportedly didn’t even bother checking up on him in hospital as they were ropable with him for what they thought was undue risk at trying to lead into the first turn. Callous in the extreme if absolutely true.
The issue for motorsport is that although it has a reasonably wide following here, it can’t just expect to rest on its laurels and expect the public at large to become interested in unexciting promotions like the ‘Toyota Racing Series’. If the organisers cannot attract a bit more established talent to events like this, then at least rebrand the name. Something like: ‘The NZ Grand Prix Series’, with Toyota’s name prominent in the advertising, but not within the actual title. I guarantee that would sound a bit more appealing. Really, with Formula One currently redefining the word ‘turgid’, administrators of all forms of single-seater racing need to be doing all they can to engender more public excitement in their events.
There exists a strong motorsport following in the Manawatu with families like the Lesters being involved for so long. A big turnout at Manfeild on 13-14 February would do some justice to a once-great race.
In the future however, please Motorsport NZ, bring the Grand Prix back to its spiritual home, Pukekohe (and please find a way to give it a special entity of its own so that the public are able to re-identify with it once again).
*An update on a previous story: My interview with a top sports CEO as a follow-up to the piece ‘Breaking Fixing’ is now on hold for at least a month. Looking forward to hopefully bringing it to you in the coming time.
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