Tracks in Time Levin, NZ

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Levin Cir­cuit, NZ

The Levin Mo­tor Rac­ing cir­cuit, lo­cated 95km north of Welling­ton near Lake Horowhenua, in the North Is­land, was the first per­ma­nent rac­ing cir­cuit to be estab­lished in New Zea­land. Prior to that cir­cuits were con­fined to non-per­ma­nent, makeshift venues such as aero­dromes and “round-the-houses” in built-up ar­eas. This meant that for the first time, a cir­cuit was avail­able for test­ing at vir­tu­ally any­time and al­lowed mo­tor rac­ing to be held at a ded­i­cated cir­cuit.

The driv­ing force re­spon­si­ble for its de­vel­op­ment was an English­man, Ron Frost MBE who came to New Zea­land in the early 1950s. Ron, a keen mo­tor rac­ing en­thu­si­ast and com­peti­tor, was look­ing for a house in Levin and no­ticed a lit­tleused horse-rac­ing track in the town en­vi­rons. Ron fore­saw the po­ten­tial for a mo­tor rac­ing cir­cuit and en­tered into dis­cus­sions be­tween lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, landown­ers and the newly formed “Levin Mo­tor Rac­ing Cir­cuit Ltd.” These dis­cus­sions lasted for some 18 months un­til it was agreed that the de­vel­op­ment of the cir­cuit would pro­ceed. The nu­cleus of this newly-formed busi­ness group con­sisted of Ron, Syd Jensen, Arnold Stafford, Vic Hud­son, Les Burn­ham, Wel­wyn Wylde and Keith Wy­ness.

Con­struc­tion of the cir­cuit be­gan in Au­gust 1955 but the track was poorly built and de­te­ri­o­rated badly at the open­ing meet­ing. The orig­i­nal cir­cuit was quite short at 9/10 of a mile (1.45 km) but 1960 saw some al­ter­ations to the track which ex­tended the length to 1.1 miles. In 1966 the Pit straight was length­ened and cre­ated Wills Cor­ner (later re-named Roth­mans Cor­ner) and Cas­trol Curve. This boosted the cir­cuit to 1.2 miles (1.93Km). With the al­ter­ations in 1960 the track was also widened from a very nar­row 7.3 me­tres to a much more ac­cept­able 9.1 me­tres. Dur­ing the du­ra­tion of the mo­tor rac­ing cir­cuit’s short life, horse rac­ing con­tin­ued at Levin with mid-week and week­end meet­ings. There were gen­er­ally be­tween three and four mo­tor race meet­ings per year. There were some 15,000 spec­ta­tors at the first race meet­ing held on Jan­uary 14th 1956, with 60 mo­tor­cy­cles and 50 cars en­tered. Amongst the com­peti­tors were a num­ber of Cooper 500s driven by Len Gilbert, Ron Frost, Arnold Stafford and Syd Jensen. Rod Cole­man, a win­ner at the Ju­nior Isle of Man TT, was an ace at the early Levin meet­ings. Although the at­ten­dance at the first meet­ing was amaz­ing, much work was needed for the track sur­face and club fi­nances had to be sup­ple­mented through a bank draft to en­able the nec­es­sary up­grades and re­pairs to be done.

This cir­cuit, which op­er­ated for twenty years, hosted some 60 na­tional and in­ter­na­tional race meet­ings with nu­mer­ous other club level events in­ter­spersed through­out its life. The ma­jor­ity of the meet­ings were for cars – rang­ing from sa­loon cars to ex­otic rac­ing ma­chin­ery with the usual cou­ple of sup­port­ing bike races. Re­search has re­vealed that over the two decades of rac­ing there were only two driver fa­tal­i­ties (the first in 1961 when Dun­can McKen­zie crashed the exJack Brab­ham Cooper Cli­max that he bought just two days be­fore the meet­ing), with no re­ported mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers killed – although sev­eral rid­ers were in­jured, some se­ri­ously. Be­cause of the very tight­ness of the cir­cuit and the de­mand­ing lay­out, many cars left the track dur­ing the fierce com­pe­ti­tion and were se­verely dam­aged as a re­sult. At­tempts to ob­tain some ma­te­rial for this ar­ti­cle were un­til re­cently largely un­suc­cess­ful. How­ever, once I got pen to pa­per a cou­ple of kind souls have come to my aid: I must thank Mr Mark Hol­man and Mr Pe­ter Rus­sell both of whom have pro­vided me with pho­tos, pro­grammes and in­for­ma­tion on the Levin Cir­cuit. I would also like to ac­knowl­edge Mr Donn An­der­son whose ar­ti­cle in the New Zea­land “Mo­tor­man” mag­a­zine helped a great deal with use­ful back­ground on the Levin Race Track. A rum­mage through some boxes of my early pho­to­graphic at­tempts (and my brother Pete’s) of bike rac­ing from the ‘60s turned up ‚

a few pho­tos. There is a book writ­ten by Mr Mur­ray Car­keek (a Levin lo­cal and long-time of­fi­cial of the Levin Mo­tor Rac­ing Club Inc.) which I un­der­stand is an ex­cel­lent ref­er­ence as it doc­u­ments the his­tory of the track over its life­time. Un­for­tu­nately, this book is long out of print.

I first vis­ited the Levin Cir­cuit as a spec­ta­tor when I was about 15 years old, hav­ing re­cently got my mo­tor­bike li­cence – this was the le­gal age in NZ to hold a li­cence back in ‘67. I rode down to Levin that day on my first bike which was a 250cc BSA C15 Star, with my brother on his 600cc Nor­ton Dom­i­na­tor. I am not sure I was even wear­ing a hel­met back then as it was a le­gal re­quire­ment in NZ to wear one only if you trav­elled at over 30mph! In any case, the events of the Jan­uary 1968 meet­ing were pretty im­pres­sive to a young­ster, with the roar­ing of the cars and bikes and the smell of Cas­trol “R” oil, rac­ing fuel and hot rub­ber per­vad­ing the senses! This par­tic­u­lar meet­ing, of which Roth­mans was the ma­jor spon­sor, had a full pro­gramme of events with 12 car races and 3 mo­tor­cy­cle sup­port­ing races – typ­i­cal of mo­tor rac­ing be­fore bike-only events were con­vened. One thing par­tic­u­larly sticks in my mind; we were park­ing our bikes fairly close to the front straight of the cir­cuit and I looked up to see a rider tum­bling over and over down the track af­ter com­ing adrift from his ma­chine and I re­mem­ber think­ing “Oh dear, that’ll be the end of him!” But amaz­ingly he man­aged to sur­vive the fall and was able to get up and walk away from it. The three mo­tor­cy­cle events that day were Race 2 – Levin Ju­nior Grand Prix, Race 8 – Levin Se­nior Grand Prix and Race 12 which was the NZ Light­weight TT. The first race was 9 laps in length and the first six 350cc rid­ers home were awarded points to­wards the Roth­mans NZ Road Race Cham­pi­onship. Names such as Kevin McCleary, Trevor Dis­combe, Ge­off Perry and Bob Hal­dane were listed as en­trants in the first race. The race was won by L. May, with I. Nairn 2nd, Trevor Dis­combe in 3rd and a young and “up and com­ing” rider, Ge­off Perry, who fin­ished in 4th po­si­tion. All of the podium fin­ish­ers were

rid­ing AJS ma­chines while Ge­off was on a Bul­taco. The se­cond race, which was the Se­nior Grand Prix for ma­chines up to 500cc, in­cluded most of the field from the Ju­nior Grand Prix plus a few other prom­i­nent rid­ers such as Brian Sco­bie and Ray Dumple­ton who were in­volved in mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing at the top level for many years. This field made for very close and ex­cit­ing rac­ing on a very tight and de­mand­ing cir­cuit. In­deed, dur­ing the cou­ple of club events that I par­tic­i­pated in back in the mid­dle ‘70s, I found it dif­fi­cult to over­take due to the nar­row­ness of the track and was of­ten amazed at how car driv­ers could do so. The third and fi­nal race was the NZ Light­weight TT for up to 250cc ma­chines. This was also keenly con­tested with a large field of 25 rid­ers and again in­cluded a lot of the rid­ers from the first two races. There were quite a few dif­fer­ent types of bikes at this par­tic­u­lar meet­ing, not only on the track but in the park­ing ar­eas – lots of Tri­umphs, plus some of the lat­est Ja­panese bikes – Yamaha YDS3, Suzuki Su­per Six, Honda 305 and a few tasty Nor­ton Dom­i­na­tors and BSAs. By 1959, Jan­uary had estab­lished it­self as the tra­di­tional ‘In­ter­na­tional’ meet­ing for the car set, and a crowd of 12,000 packed in. Hugh An­der­son opened the pro­gramme with a win in the Club­men’s 500cc race on his BSA, while Bill Wet­zell won the 350cc Club­men’s. R. Philps (BSA) was the Side­car win­ner, while Rod Cole­man won both the 250cc and 350cc races on his NSU. In No­vem­ber 1960, the 500cc race went to Bill Wet­zell with John Hem­ple­man tak­ing out the 350cc. Gin­ger Mol­loy was a dou­ble win­ner in the Club­men’s races.

At the 1961 meet­ing, held on Jan­uary 14th, Auck­land’s For­rest Car­don scooped the pool on his BSA Gold Star, his main op­po­si­tion com­ing from Bill Wet­zell. A se­cond 1961 meet­ing, held in April, saw C Mee­han win the main 500cc race from Gin­ger Mol­loy and John Hem­ple­man. The 250cc race went to Pe­ter Stone on his ex­works Jawa, while R. Philips and J. King brought their BSA home first in the Side­car Scratch race. In No­vem­ber of the same year, a crowd of 10,000 saw Gin­ger Mol­loy de­feat Bill Wet­zell to win the 500cc race af­ter ear­lier win­ning the Club­man’s Race. Wezell had his re­venge by tak­ing out the 350cc race on his 7R AJS while D. Lowe won the 250cc race. The top car driv­ers were back for the Jan­uary 1962 In­ter­na­tional, won in pour­ing rain by Jack Brab­ham from Stir­ling Moss and John Sur­tees, while Hugh An­der­son took out the 500cc race on his Manx Nor­ton and E. Cul­ver brought his NSU home first in the 250cc event. From read­ing through the bunch of pro­grammes that Mark has loaned me, it is in­ter­est­ing to see which rid­ers at­tended meet­ings at Levin. Some of the more well-known rid­ers who raced there as well as those pre­vi­ously men­tioned were G. Spooner, Joe lett, Keith Turner, Don Cos­ford, Dale Wylie, Neville and Jim Lan­drebe. Also in the lat­ter years a smat­ter­ing of in­ter­na­tional rid­ers raced there on oc­ca­sion – one of these was Ron Grant from the USA who com­peted on the works Suzuki ma­chines; at the meet­ing held in Jan­uary 1970 he placed 3rd in the Ju­nior Grand Prix, edged out by Ge­off Perry and L. May who took 1st and 2nd places re­spec­tively. How­ever, Ron won the NZ Light­weight TT race ahead of Ge­off Perry and K Wil­liams. An­other well-known in­ter­na­tional listed in the Jan­uary 1964 pro­gramme was Er­rol Cowan from South Africa rid­ing an AJS 7R, who was the 350cc Road Rac­ing Cham­pion in that coun­try and was on a work­ing hol­i­day in New Zea­land. From the 1962 to 1971 pro­grammes that I have at hand, it is in­ter­est­ing to note that side­car rac­ing was only oc­ca­sion­ally held at Levin; per­haps prior to this it may have been more fre­quent? Rid­ers’ names such as Sk­il­ton, Rus­sel, Plum­mer, Cor­bett and Reynolds are listed amongst the side­car en­trants at the Levin meet­ings. This was of course in the days be­fore “kneel­ers” were de­signed and long be­fore the “fly­ing wedges” of to­day’s out­fits. In­deed, Paul Cor­bett and his long-time pas­sen­ger, Stu Forbes were at the top of the chair rac­ing scene for some time in the ’70s – hav­ing pro­gressed from the early style chairs (pow­ered largely by Bri­tish en­gines) to the later styled ma­chin­ery us­ing high­pow­ered two-stroke, then 4 stroke Ja­panese multi-cylin­dered en­gines. I made men­tion ear­lier of some “club rac­ing” events that were held at Levin over the life of the cir­cuit. These were mainly or­ga­nized by clubs such as the Hutt Val­ley Mo­tor­cy­cle Club (HVMCC) or the Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity Mo­tor Cy­cle Club (VUMCC.). These were usu­ally on a Sun­day and pro­vided for some pretty ful­lon com­pe­ti­tion as there were races for Yamaha RD-only and Kawasaki H2-only. This made for some ter­rific rac­ing but also led to some pretty hor­ren­dous pile-ups. As an ex­am­ple, in one Kawasaki H2-only race at a club meet­ing in 1974 and on the first lap, one rider (or maybe more?) lost it on Cas­trol Curve – the bend com­ing into the main straight. The rest of the

rid­ers (in­clud­ing me) ar­rived on the scene shortly af­ter at high speed with bikes and rid­ers scat­tered across the track. I was lucky enough to be able to avoid the car­nage but oth­ers were not so for­tu­nate. In a sub­se­quent NZ Mo­tor­cy­cle News (NZMCN) there were a cou­ple of pic­tures of rid­ers and bits of bikes fly­ing through the air. It was by far the big­gest mul­ti­ple bike pile-up that I’d ever seen and I have not seen one like it since! The race was of course stopped while rid­ers were at­tended to and the track cleared. The re­run was only slightly less fierce but with a sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced field! I think that one of the rid­ers in­volved was the late Dr Rodger Freeth – his bike had the front end com­pletely ripped off dur­ing the in­ci­dent, how­ever, as many of you would know Rodger went on to achieve many great things in rac­ing in­clud­ing some top level re­sults in NZ and Aus­tralia on the McIn­tosh Suzuki. I think that this in­ci­dent – which hap­pened in 1974 – may have been the last ma­jor club meet­ing at Levin un­til the track closed in 1976. This may have been due to the per­ceived high risk of such meet­ings or was merely the end of an era. The fi­nal meet­ing at Levin took place on 7th De­cem­ber 1975, when the 20-year lease was due to ex­pire. The horse rac­ing club had ma­jor ex­pan­sion plans which in­volved rip­ping up part of the cir­cuit, and the fa­cil­i­ties gen­er­ally needed ma­jor up­grad­ing, so the end came for Levin. The track it­self quickly dis­ap­peared as the land was re­sumed for horse pad­docks and sta­bling. In any case, the land which was orig­i­nally set aside for the Levin race track has long since been ab­sorbed into ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. This has been true in many in­stances where ded­i­cated race tracks such as this one and Bay Park (NZ), Ama­roo and Oran Park (Aus­tralia) have been lost with the ever-in­creas­ing need for land for hous­ing. In some cases the loss of one cir­cuit usu­ally led to the de­vel­op­ment of an­other; the Man­field cir­cuit in New Zea­land was de­vel­oped around the time of the clos­ing of the Levin track. How­ever, as this track lies within the bounds of the town­ship of Feild­ing there is a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity that it too will soon be over­run by ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. How­ever, as long as mo­tor­ing en­thu­si­asts con­tinue to en­joy their sport, it is likely that cir­cuits ded­i­cated to rac­ing will ex­ist. I for one cer­tainly hope so!

TOP H2 Kawasakis were all the rage in 1972. This is Gary New­lands. ABOVE Ac­tion from 1975 with John Wood­ley ahead on his TR500 Suzuki. BE­LOW LEFT The Levin pad­dock area made lit­tle progress in 20 years. BE­LOW RIGHT Pe­ter Stone with his ex-works 250cc Jawa.

Brian Sco­bie’s and Gin­ger Mol­loy’s bikes in the Levin pits. ABOVE BSA ad­ver­tise­ment ap­plaud­ing Harry Hin­ton’s suc­cess in 1937. LEFT Harry Hin­ton cor­ners his BSA in 1938. BE­LOW The in­fa­mous Robin Hood Inn op­po­site Black­town rail­way sta­tion. ABOVE ‘Six­ties spec­ta­tor craft. BE­LOW Gor­don Sk­il­ton’s out­fit at Levin – a long stroke Nor­ton engine in a 7R AJS chas­sis.

Dave Ke­nah lead­ing the late John Nel­son through the Hair­pin. Fu­ture star Graeme Crosby, on a K900 Kawasaki in 1973. Dave Ke­nah ex­it­ing the Hair­pin with the horse rac­ing grand­stand in the back­ground. ABOVE LEFT Joe Lett on his Manx Nor­ton. LEFT Amer­i­can John Daniels on his 7R AJS. RIGHT Clive Gott awaits the start on his Yamaha in 1966.

Dave Ke­nah (350 Nor­ton) lead­ing the late Garth Spooner and John Old­field through Cab­bage Tree Cor­ner. Terry Car­keek flat out on his AS1R Yamaha. The re­mains of Rodger Freeth’s H2 af­ter a typ­i­cally bruis­ing en­counter.

Levin from the air.

ABOVE The orig­i­nal lay­out for the Levin cir­cuit. BE­LOW Levin cir­cuit in post-1966 form.

ABOVE Side­car ac­tion from 1975. BE­LOW A help­ing hand. ABOVE Bill Biber (H2 Kawasaki) leads Pete Flem­ing in 1972. TOP RIGHT Bill Wet­zell, one of Levin’s most suc­cess­ful com­peti­tors, in 1972. RIGHT The au­thor Bill Eales (115) about to head out to a Kawasaki H2-only race in 1974.

TOP Du­cati 750 mounted Steve Dun­don in 1972. ABOVE Mur­ray McLauch­lan in 1972 on his H1 Kawasaki.

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