Tracks in Time Levin, NZ
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.