Hamil­ton

2008-2012

Australian Muscle Car - - Back in the Day -

Many folk for­get, in this part of the world, the tem­po­rary race­track phe­nom­e­non ac­tu­ally be­gan in New Zealand. It kicked off in early 1985 with Welling­ton’s ‘round the docks’ Nis­san Sport 500. The windy city’s street cir­cuit lived on for an­other 11 years as NZ’s high­est pro le mo­tor race of the era.

The ‘whar­fare’ ceased in late 1996, just as Aus­tralia’s Group A cat­e­gory was re­branded and re­or­gan­ised into V8 Su­per­cars. Con­trol­ling body AVESCO, later known as V8 Su­per­cars Aus­tralia, spent the next decade hell-bent on get­ting a street race up in Ki­wi­land.

Auck­land was ini­tially an­nounced as the venue, with a me­dia event held in CBD in­volv­ing driv­ers, pro­mo­tional cars and a track map handed out. How­ever, the coun­try’s Re­source Man­age­ment Act, help­ing Ki­wis man­age (and mis­man­age) en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, killed the pro­posed track and still­born event stone cold. Strike one.

Plan B saw Welling­ton thrust back into the lime­light, with a cir­cuit skirt­ing West­pac sta­dium and har­bour touted. De­spite over­whelm­ing sup­port for the race (85 per­cent of the 12,000 pub­lic sub­mis­sions were pro-race), the RMA again sank hopes of a re­ju­ve­nated dock­side event. Strike two.

Next to step up to the plate was Hamil­ton, NZ’s fourth big­gest city, pop­u­la­tion 165,000. Now, we’re sure that Hamil­ton has plenty of things go­ing for it, but the Frank­ton busi­ness dis­trict is not ex­actly a pic­ture-post­card lo­ca­tion. Yes, the 3.31km lay­out ran along­side Waikato Sta­dium – home of Su­per 14 rugby team the Chiefs – and also past the in­ter­na­tional cricket venue at Sed­don Park. But it also took in ‘land­marks’ as di­verse as plumb­ing sup­ply busi­nesses, op shops, me­chan­i­cal work­shops and rail­way sid­ings. Think street cir­cuits and im­ages of har­bours, beaches or park­lands spring to mind. Ae­rial shots of Hamil­ton’s roofs – ad­mit­tedly in an im­pres­sive range of build­ing ma­te­ri­als and shades of grey – fell a long way short of other glam­our lo­ca­tions. It lacked the piz­zazz needed to get pay­ing pun­ters back for more.

The whole thing smacked of V8 Su­per­cars Aus­tralia’s des­per­a­tion to get a New Zealand street race hap­pen­ing and ac­cept­ing the only deal that came its way. Un­der­writ­ing it all was a pro­moter named Caleta Stree­trace Man­age­ment Lim­ited, which had a deal to run the event with Hamil­ton City Coun­cil.

If his­tory tells us any­thing, it’s that get­ting things right in year one is vi­tal. To be fair, the 2008 Hamil­ton 400 was a solid first-up ef­fort. Well or­gan­ised and well pa­tro­n­ised. Yet a com­mon com­plaint from those with grand­stand tick­ets was poor vis­i­bil­ity of the ac­tion from their seats.

Driv­ers and team own­ers com­mented on the cir­cuit’s un­for­giv­ing na­ture, with con­stant changes of di­rec­tions and ever present kerbs and walls. “When you hit the kerbs it was like be­ing punched in the head,” driver Paul Mor­ris said. Team owner Ross Stone de­scribed it as “a hard street race. Hard on the driv­ers, crews and car – es­pe­cially on brakes.”

In­ter­est­ingly enough, Hamil­ton had the fastest av­er­age lap speed, 146km/h, of the five street cir­cuits on the 2010 sched­ule.

The most mem­o­rable mo­ment in year one was Jamie Whin­cup crash­ing out of the meet­ing dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing in his Voda­fone Falcon. Other cars took flight over a dou­ble-chi­cane that punc­tu­ated the main straight. The chi­cane – a right-left-right flick – was the lay­out’s most no­table feature. As Tony D’Al­berto ex­plained, “You have to be very ag­gres­sive with it. If you don’t take the cor­rect ap­proach for the fi­nal bit then it will fire you into the wall.”

Many ex­pe­ri­enced just that. But not Garth Tan­der, who went down in the his­tory books as the first over­all win­ner of the event.

Re­vi­sions were made to both the chi­cane and the grand­stands for year two to make it more user-friendly. Crowds were capped pre-event to en­sure a more com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence for all, while Whin­cup re­turned in 2009 to win both 200km legs. As he did in 2010, although now aboard a VE Com­modore.

Or­gan­is­ers dropped ticket prices for year three “in re­sponse to tougher eco­nomic times” post-GFC, but it wasn’t enough to en­sure the event’s vi­a­bil­ity and the pro­moter, Caleta Stree­trace Man­age­ment Lim­ited, went broke and pulled out.

V8 Su­per­cars Aus­tralia’s own event arm stepped in as the new pro­moter, en­ter­ing a new agree­ment with the Coun­cil. But af­ter two more run­nings, the cat­e­gory de­ter­mined that it could not make a go of it and a seven-year con­tract was cut short.

“While I am sorry to see such a high pro­file event go,” the lo­cal mayor ex­plained at the time, “there has been a cost to the ratepay­ers which is not sus­tain­able.”

The mayor also cited “on­go­ing chal­lenges”’ in­clud­ing mod­est ho­tel in­fras­truc­ture, the Can­ter­bury earth­quake, Rugby World Cup and eco­nomic down­turn eat­ing into at­ten­dance and cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship given Hamil­ton’s dis­tance from a ma­jor cor­po­rate cen­tre. Strike three.

For the record, those fi­nal two events in Hamil­ton were won by Rick Kelly and Will Dav­i­son.

Thus, the V8s re­turned to their orig­i­nal NZ venue, Pukekohe Park there­after, mean­ing things turned full cir­cle and a Kiwi tour­ing car street race is now con­signed to his­tory. Will Aus­tralia fol­low a sim­i­lar path to trend­set­ting New Zealand re­gard­ing such events?

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